These are not the best of times, in terms of survival, for the jazz community. This year has seen the loss of more valuable contributors than we are accustomed to expect. Most notably the passing of Benny Goodman and, only weeks later, Teddy Wilson, left Lionel Hampton as the sole survivor of the historic Benny Goodman Quartet. Gene Krupa died in 1973.
During a recent West Coast visit to play Disneyland with his orchestra, Hampton reminisced with sorrow and affection about Goodman. Not every musician who worked with the catalytic clarinetist found him easy to work with or even to talk about, but Hampton could find nothing negative to say about their relationship.
"I got along with Benny," he said. "I never gave him any trouble and he never gave me any trouble. I was always in there trying to do my best, and that was what Benny needed; he just wanted everyone to put in the same effort he did, all the time. If you let down for even a moment, he could sense it.
"I'm going to speak to (New York) Mayor (Ed) Koch about putting a statue of Benny right in Times Square. There should be memorials held for him wherever they can be staged, not only for his musicianship, but because he changed the whole system around. His social approach to the racial problem in the United States was a total first. When he hired Teddy Wilson and then me, America was very segregated. Blacks and whites had very little contact, social or civic. Everyone stayed in their own part of town. There was no integration in baseball, football--or in movies, where if you got a part it was usually a maid or a butler.
"The Benny Goodman Quartet made it possible for Jackie Robinson to get into major league baseball. This was such an important development that we just can't fluff it off or forget about it."
Though Hampton's sincerity is beyond question, there are those who have other views. Because of the pervasive racism among certain white musicians in the 1930s, Goodman at first was concerned about using blacks even on records, feeling it might antagonize his studio colleagues. Moreover, it was at John Hammond's urging that he heard and hired Wilson and Hampton. Nevertheless, whether for crusading reasons or simply because he admired their music, he did take those steps at a time when it seemed hazardous.
The route that led to an initial Hampton-Goodman meeting was circuitous. Moreover, it was more chance than design that led to his acquiring a reputation as a vibraphonist when that instrument was virtually unknown in jazz.
Born in Louisville, Ky., but reared in Chicago from the age of 7, Hampton studied drums and xylophone, playing drums in the Chicago Defender Newsboys' Band.
"I went to California with my aunt," he recalled, "and after a while I landed a job as drummer with the house band at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. After Les Hite had taken over as leader, the club brought out Louis Armstrong as their star attraction, and Louis confronted the Hite orchestra."
It was at an Armstrong record session with the Hite musicians that Satchmo noticed a vibraphone in a corner of the studio. "What's that instrument over there?" he asked Hampton. "Can you play anything on it?"
"I told him, 'Sure,' and I played one of Louis' own solos, note for note. Well, that really knocked him out, so he asked me to play an introduction on a new Eubie Blake tune he was planning to use that day."
The song was "Memories of You" and the vibes intro became a wellspring observed by fans and musicians from California to Copenhagen.
Hampton's reputation grew. He took part in a few movies with Hite, worked in a white studio band led by Nat Shilkret, and studied music at USC. He was seen as the masked drummer, in a scene with Louis Armstrong in the Bing Crosby feature "Pennies From Heaven."
By 1936 he was leading his own eight-piece band at the Paradise Club, Sixth and Main, in Los Angeles. By now he owned his own vibraphone, a gift from a wealthy uncle who had been the leading bootlegger in Chicago's South Side and also Bessie Smith's manager.
One night John Hammond dropped by to check out the band. Impressed, he returned soon after with Benny Goodman in tow.
"Benny sat in and we had a fantastic jam session," says Hampton. "As a result of this, the place began to be very popular. The manager gave me a raise--I think I'd been getting around $50 a week--and the club began charging a dollar admission.
"Then Benny started calling. One night somebody told me he was on the phone in the back of the club, and I said, 'You must be kidding!' But my wife took the call."
Gladys Hampton, a shrewd and determined woman who guided her husband's career, heard what Goodman wanted. "It was a hard decision to make," Hampton remembers. "People were clamoring to get into the Paradise. But Gladys worked out a good deal for me, and on Nov. 11, 1936, I opened at the Madhattan Room of the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York as a member of the Benny Goodman Quartet."