Hamp’s mallets now silent
Hamp is dead. It’s going to take a while to get used to realizing Lionel Hampton is no longer with us, though his passing on Aug. 31 in a New York hospital should have come as no surprise. After all, he was 94, and he had been in frail health since a stroke a few years ago had reduced his mobility and sapped his strength. But it always hurts when a person dies who has brought so much joy into your life.
If there’s any consolation, it’s the comfort of knowing the flamboyant jazz vibraphonist is reunited in heaven with Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson, who along with Hampton, made up arguably the best-ever jazz quartet.
Using the term “jazz vibraphonist” to identify Hampton is shorting him because he also was a fine drummer. That was his first instrument, and he occasionally kept time in Goodman’s full orchestra. He wrote several hundred songs, and his two-fingered piano solo on “Central Avenue Breakdown” is a classic. Moreover, he was a major influence on Terry Gibbs, Milt Jackson and other jazz artists who also wielded mallets. In short, Hamp could do just about what he wanted to, and he could do it well.
That includes blowing off people when he had something better to do. I learned that the hard way the first time I interviewed him. He had just returned from a European tour and was exhausted. However, deadlines are deadlines, and I forged ahead.
But after a 45-minute conversation, notable only for Hamp’s gibberish, I checked my notes and discovered they made little sense – incomplete sentences, unintelligible answers, no first names, no last names, just a sea of scrambled words that I think and hoped he might have said. I later learned I was not the only one whom Hamp had given THE TREATMENT, and that when it came to a record deal or a payment for a gig, the man spoke the king’s English.
I fared much better with Hampton the second time around. He was relaxed, easily understood, and seemingly didn’t have a care in the world. And he was anxious to discuss how he became what he was.
Born in Kentucky, Hampton was playing drums by the time he was 5, and was, in his words, “already a volcano of energy.”
“Sister Petra gave me my first drum lesson at Holy Rosary Academy in Corlis, Wis.,” he recalled. “She was a good teacher, but I was lucky, I always had good teachers. Let’s see, there was also N. Clark Smith. He taught me to play piano and vibes. But, you know what, I’m still learning, and one of these days I may get my diploma.”
Actually, Hamp graduated from a small club into the big time on the night of Aug. 12, 1936, eight days before his 32nd birthday. True, he had recorded with Louis Armstrong six years earlier and already had formed his own band that played clubs on Central Avenue in Los Angeles.
But fame was nowhere in sight, just sawdust strewn over the floor at his home base Paradise Cafe, where waitresses wore overalls and beer went for two bits a glass. And where Hamp was “chargin’ the vibes ” when, on that August night, “from out of nowhere, in came Benny, Gene and Teddy and right up on to the bandstand. And then they took over. It didn’t take long for my guys to clear the stage, and the four of us jammed until 2 in the morning.”
As the musical orgy drew to an end, Goodman invited Hampton to show up six hours later for a recording session at the RCA Victor Studio in Hollywood, and from that unrehearsed studio date came a record that’s in most jazz fans’ libraries: “Moonglow.” The eccentric clarinet genius also asked Hampton to join his band immediately, but another four months passed before the union took place.
The association lasted until 1941, when Hampton formed his own big band, but not before he performed with Goodman at the historic 1938 Carnegie Hall Band and earned a place in jazz history by becoming one of the first black musicians to play in public with a white band.
And he also unwittingly planted the seeds for rock ‘n’ roll when one of the first recordings with his own post-Goodman band was “Flying Home,” which featured raucous, squealing, honking sounds pouring out of Illinois Jacquet’s tenor sax.
Hamp had an eye for super-talent. Jacquet was one, and so were Dexter Gordon and Arnett Cobb, two other tenormen. Bass player Charles Mingus was an alum of the Hampton band and so were singers Dinah Washington and Joe Williams.
But Hampton’s on and off relationship with songstress Betty “Be-Bop” Carter is one for the books. He hired and fired her six times, although he dismissed the stormy association as “a minor disagreement.”
I asked Carter about the series of hirings and firings when I spoke to her during a later interview.
“Pops didn’t like what I was doing, but his wife, Gladys, thought I was great,” she said. “And since Gladys ran the business, she had a lot to say about the band. So after Hamp would fire me, Gladys would get on the phone and tell me to ignore him and to show up for work the next night. I would, and Pops would treat me as though he’d never sacked me.”
That explanation figures, because Hamp was a good-natured guy who always felt his mission in life was to entertain. And once on stage, it was tough to get him off.
I recall trumpet player Joe Wilder telling me about a concert at which the Hampton band was to play first, with Wilder’s group due up next.
“Hamp was really wound up that night, bouncing all over the stage, playing to the audience, and enjoying the audience response immensely,” Wilder said. “When his hour was up, Hamp ignored it. He kept playing for another full hour before he finally quit. Not because he finally realized he’d run over, but just because he was too damned tired to play anymore.”
The gregarious, showboating Hampton just loved to play, and until his stroke he continued to record regularly for Telarc Jazz. And not more than 18 months ago, the ailing vibraphonist dragged himself into a studio to record a few numbers with Rocklin pianist Jim Martinez.
“He was ready to go the minute they wheeled him into the studio,” said Martinez. “It was the thrill of a lifetime just to be able to play with him.”
The recording showed how much Hamp had lost off his fast ball, but his performance of “Flying Home” may well be the final time he recorded his signature song. And for that reason, the disc may someday be a collector’s item.
Hamp, unlike many musicians who hit it big but squandered their earnings, died a wealthy person. Mainly, I should add, because Gladys had invested wisely. As a result, Hamp gave generously to charitable groups, and a jazz festival at the University of Idaho in Moscow that bears his name exists mainly because he has underwritten its cost.
You may wonder why Hampton never retired, though he could have quite easily.
Hamp, himself, had the answer for that one.
“I’m in there, and I’m still pitching,” he told me. “This is what I do, and this is what I like to do. I profess not to know too much about jazz prolonging your life, but I do know I want to do my job, do it well, and keep on doing it the best I can for as long as I can.”
A great entertainer, a good man was Lionel Hampton, who has now flown home for the final time.
Cam Miller is a freelance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. You may write to him care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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