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The joy of a jazz great who left a legacy beyond music

By Ward Morehouse III / September 12, 2002



NEW YORK

Lionel Hampton, an extraordinary musician who was "King of the Vibraphone" for 60 years and a star of the Swing era, earned all the praise given him at a service last Saturday at New York's Riverside Church.

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And not just for his groundbreaking music, many awards, and role in black-white relations in the musical industry.

His longtime friend, former President George Bush, said that Mr. Hampton not only "helped shape and even define an era in jazz [but] to know Lionel was to know joy – pure, simple joy."

Indeed, in three interviews with him over the past several years, I was struck by his radiance and love of music, and especially his humor.

In one interview, he talked about playing at Harlem's renovated Apollo Theatre, where Hampton holds the record for playing 10 shows a day. "If you got a standing ovation from people sitting in the second balcony, you knew you had made it!" he said.

Another jazz great, Illinois Jaquet, who was an early member of the Lionel Hampton band, told the story at the funeral of how "Hamp" one time rehearsed all day and all night, and finally went to change his clothes before a performance. "All of a sudden he comes running up on the bandstand and he had forgotten to put on his pants!" That brought smiles to others at the service, which included jazz legends Hank Jones, Clark Terry, and Wynton Marsalis, as well as the full Lionel Hampton Orchestra.

One story not told at the Riverside Church was about a New York firefighter who was at the Apollo in the 1940s when Hampton often ended a show with his rousing "Flyin' Home." The firefighter was worried that, because he found what he thought was a crack in the second balcony, Hampton shouldn't play that foot-stomping song. But the musician walked on stage and said, "Our last number will be Tales of the Vienna Woods," and proceeded to play "Flyin' Home!" anyway. The balcony held, and the fans who waited hours in the heat got to hear their favorite.

On a much more serious note, bandleader Benny Goodman heard Hampton play in the 1930s and, suddenly, the Benny Goodman Trio became the Benny Goodman Quartet. That made history by being the first racially integrated group of jazz musicians in America. In the early 1940s, Hampton formed his own band after the release of his hit single "Sunny Side of the Street" on which he sang as well as played the "vibes."

"Benny and I were close friends," Hampton told me before his passing. "The first time blacks and whites played together was with Benny.... I had such respect for his musicianship. I liked him, too, as a person. Some people thought he was hard, but he had a good heart."

Hampton wrote some 200 original compositions, and his original ballad, "Midnight Sun," written with Johnny Mercer and Sonny Burke, has become an American jazz and popular music classic. His two major symphonic works, "The King David Suite" and "Blues Suite" are performed by leading symphonic orchestras around the world.

Music wasn't his only love.

In the early 1970s, he developed the Lionel Hampton Houses as well as the Gladys Hampton Houses, named for his late wife, and to this day they are considered among the best examples of public housing in the nation.

Despite that success, Hampton said the highlight of his career was having the music school at the University of Idaho named for him.

Bob Hoover, president of the University of Idaho, told those at the funeral that Hampton's work to establish the school and his yearly appearances at its Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival were but a small fraction of his long and productive and giving life. I, and thousands of others, are privileged to have shared a much smaller fraction of Hampton's time and joy and enthusiasm.

• Ward Morehouse III, a former Monitor writer, has long covered the arts and entertainment scene in New York.

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