In this, the heyday for “retro-swing” performers like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and The Brian Setzer Orchestra, it’s rare to meet someone who has clear recollections from the original swing era of the thirties and forties, that tumultuous period when jazz became America’s major popular dance music. It’s rarer still to speak with a musician who played a pivotal role in the development of jazz at that time, and who has continued to perform, compose and impact American music, even to this day.
Lionel Hampton, who will perform in New Orleans on March 12 with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at the Orpheum Theater, has been the reigning king of the vibraphone for over sixty years. He was born on April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky, but was, for the most part, raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Originally a drummer, Hampton’s boyhood idols were Louis Armstrong and a drummer named Jimmy Bertrand, who tossed his sticks in the air as lights blinked away from inside his bass drum (a style Hamp still uses in some of his shows today.)
In fact, Hampton didn’t begin playing the vibes until 1930, when Louis Armstrong had him try out the new instrument in a recording session. This resulted in a famous version of Eubie Blake’s “Memories Of You.” Word spread quickly of Hamp’s prowess on the vibes, and in 1936, at the beckoning of the legendary jazz impresario John Hammond, Benny Goodman came out to hear young Lionel at the Paradise Club in Los Angeles. At the time, Benny had a trio within his big band featuring Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. “Next thing you know,” recalls Hamp, “I was out there on stage jamming with these great musicians. That’s one session I’ll never forget.” The Benny Goodman Trio became a quartet that night, and for the next four years the group made history, not only as one of the hottest jazz groups in the world, but as the first racially integrated jazz band on a national level.
In the early forties, Hampton left Goodman to form his own big band after the release of several wildly successful RCA singles under his own name, “Sunny Side Of The Street” (on which he sang while playing vibes) and “Central Avenue Breakdown” (on which he played piano with two fingers, using them like vibe mallets). His first big band included such sidemen as Dexter Gordon and Illinois Jacquet, and they busted the charts with a recording of “Flyin’ Home” in 1942 and “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie” in 1943.
The long list of stellar musicians who got their start with Lionel Hampton over the years includes Quincy Jones, Wes Montgomery, Clark Terry, Joe Newman, Fats Navarro, Charles Mingus, Al Grey, Art Farmer, and, of course, the singers Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Betty Carter and Aretha Franklin, among others.
Today, the 90-year old Hampton is a living legend. One of the few surviving internationally renowned jazz stars of the swing era, he still tours the world with his seventeen piece big band, an orchestra filled, as always, with up and coming young jazz talent. His 1991 release Lionel Hampton & His Golden Men Of Jazz Live At The Blue Note Vols. 1 & 2 (Telarc), featuring Hampton playing with former colleagues Hank Jones, Milt Hinton, Grady Tate, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Clark Terry, Al Grey, James Moody and Buddy Tate, was nominated for a Grammy.
Hampton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts by President Clinton on January 7, 1997, two days after miraculously escaping from a devastating fire that completely destroyed his Manhattan apartment. He has more than 15 honorary doctorates, and the music school at the University of Idaho is named in his honor. He has received the Gold Medal of Paris, that city’s highest cultural award, and is the only American to have a champagne named for him, a special blend labeled “Champagne Cuvee Lionel Hampton, International Ambassador of Good Will.”
On March 12th, at the Orpheum Theater, Hampton will perform one of his symphonic works, The King David Suite, with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. At 8 p.m., Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers will kick off the concert, the proceeds from which will jointly benefit Xavier University and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. (Call 504/523-6530 for information.)
From his current apartment in Manhattan, Hamp began our interview in an extraordinarily warm and cheerful manner, expressing his anticipation for the upcoming New Orleans concert. “Oh, boy, it’s going to be sweet,” he said.
When you were a kid, how were you exposed to music?
Well, I was exposed to it from the church. I used to go to church with my grandmother, practically every day of the week. I used to sit on the front row with my grandmother, because she was one of the elders of the church. They had a band used to play along with the service, and they had a sister playing the bass drum. When she would get happy and get up and start to dancing, and walking the floor, I would take over and start beating the bass drum. I got my inspiration from that, from the Gospel… I always confided in my grandmother and followed her. She wanted me to be a drummer. At Christmas time, my Grandmother would see to it that my family would buy me a drum. And I was not going to hold at that, just the bass drum, so my Grandmother had them give me a second drum.
What was it like to meet Louis Armstrong and then to work with him?
Oh, boy, that was just like going to paradise, you know, to be with the real master of jazz. He liked to play with me, because I could really keep good time, and swing on drums. I would ask him, “Mr. Armstrong, what is jazz?” He’d say, “Well, I’m going to tell you Hamp, if you don’t know what it is, don’t mess with it.”
Was it really Armstrong who got you to start playing vibes?
Yeah. I was in a teenage band that did an audition for a famous nightclub in California called Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club, because they had brought Louie out from New York, and he had had his band out there, a bunch of older cats, for about five years. Louie liked our band. We were a bunch of teenagers, but we really could play, boy. Louie liked us so well that he took us to a recording session with him. And in the recording studio, they had vibes, which were new to the music business. So Louie asked me, could I play some on them? And I said, “Yeah,” so I played a song called “Chinese Chopped Suey” for Louie on the vibes, and Louie said, “That sounds good, wait and play it on this record with us.” The record was a tune that Eubie Blake had written and sent Louie the music, a song called “Memories of You.” Louie said, “You go ahead and find yourself a place in there and play with us.” So I did, and that was the first time jazz was ever played on vibes.
You’ve been associated with the vibes now for over sixty years. What do you love most about that instrument?
I like them because it’s mellow and, I’m a regular drummer, but I found something I could play some music on, see, and that was the vibes. I can play some beautiful music on the vibes, play some melody.
Do you remember the first time you played with Benny Goodman?
Yes I do. The first time I played with Benny Goodman was after Louie Armstrong had left. I had played with Louie for a whole year at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club, and after he went back to New York, he was going to send for me, because he liked my drumming so well, but Benny Goodman asked me to come join his band. He was forming a quartet. Benny had heard about me, and came down and had a jam session with me one night. He liked it so well, he said, “Come on, let’s make a recording tomorrow morning.” So he took me out to the RCA Victor studio with him and we made four sides. He made a deal with me and put those records out across the country, and then he sent for me to come to New York and join him. I stayed with that band for four years. And it was four wonderful years, too.
Indeed, that quartet, with you, Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, is now seen as one of the most important groups in the history of jazz. It broke new ground musically, but also socially.
Socially, because it was the first time black and white had played together.
How did it feel to be in such a controversial position?
Well, at first I didn’t put too much importance on it, because I just wanted to play music, and Benny Goodman wanted to play music, and everybody that was in the quartet, all they wanted to do was play music. And the group really played together, let me tell you. They play those tapes here in New York two or three times a week, man, and people go crazy over it just like it was recorded three years ago.
So you really didn’t feel that much heat or pressure being in that position?
No. Boy, it was great! People started coming more and more to us and congratulating us and following us. It was just wonderful, you know? I realized later that we were breaking down the barrier.
What qualities do you think made Benny Goodman so special?
He was just born that way. He didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. If you could play music, and you played it good, well, you were all right with him.
Does it surprise or bother you that still to this day there are very few racially integrated jazz bands?
There ain’t none really. [half-chuckles] Well, we did our job, and we did it good, too.
What prompted you to expand beyond jazz and make symphonic works like The King David Suite?
Well, you know, I’m a student of the bible, see, and I got the inspiration when I went to Israel, and it just came to me. The Lord gave me the idea. It comes right from the bible, right from the Psalms. And the Chief Rabbi, that’s the spiritual leader of Israel, he helped me out a whole lot. I dedicated The King David Suite to him. I had a wonderful time writing it, you know, and you’re going to like it when you hear it.
Over the years, have you developed any special ties to New Orleans?
Yeah, well, Dr. Francis, President of Xavier University, it’s like I’m a member of his family. His wife and sons, and his daughter and I, we’re all just like one, you know? And his son has grown up to be my lawyer and all, and he’s a great lawyer. He’s one that’s helping quite a bit with this benefit, for his father’s school, you know? Furthermore, the symphony musicians are all donating their time and their good will to make this affair financially great and also musically great, too. So we’re looking forward to having a really big, social time in New Orleans, you know.
In the last few years there’s been a remarkable resurgence in the popularity of swing music with a young audience. What’s your reaction to this phenomenon?
Yeah, well, it just goes to show you that the black music that came from our forefathers has rose up again and said, “Here I am!” And the kids have never had a chance to hear it and it’s good for them. They can dance by it. They can socialize with it, and it’s just wonderful.
A long list of incredible musicians have started their careers in your band. What qualities do you look for in a young sideman or woman?
To be original, and can read his part, and come up with good ideas. Like Illinois Jacquet, he was a New Orleans boy, and he came up with some good ideas. And also, Wynton Marsalis, he played in my band once when I came to New Orleans. My first trumpet player took sick, and they had told me about this young kid. Wynton had never played my book before, but he came in and played and was a sensation.
He’s incredible isn’t he?
Oh, yeah, and they got a whole lot of great trumpet players down there now. You know, [Nicholas] Payton, Leroy Jones, Terence Blanchard, he played with me. Yeah, we’ve got some good boys coming in and out of my band.
Indeed, and you’ve also discovered some great singers over the years.
Yes, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington.
How did you discover her?
Well, I’ll tell you, she was working in the Regal Theater in Chicago, where musicians used to go, and someone told me about this girl working in the powder room. So I invited her to come and sing in my show, and she did, and she was a sensation. So I asked her if she wanted to join my band, and she said, “Yeah, I do.” And I said, “What’s your name?” She said, “My name is Ruth Jones.” I said, “I don’t like that name, can I change it?” She said, “I don’t care what you call me as long as you give me the job.” Out of the clear blue sky, I said, “Well, from now on, your name is Dinah Washington.”
Did you work with Aretha Franklin also?
Yeah, I got Aretha out of her father’s church in Detroit.
Why did you become interested and active in politics later in your career?
Well, I saw how you could get important movements going if you could connect with politics, and if you could pick out the winner. [chuckles] Eisenhower was one of my winners, Richard Nixon was another one, John F. Kennedy, George Bush, Ronald Reagan… So I was doing pretty good.
What political issues do you feel most strongly about?
Breaking down prejudice. That’s the most important one for black people.
These days, what makes you really want to get up in the morning?
‘Cause I feel bright for today. In my mind, I feel bright for today.