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LIONEL HAMPTON 1908-2002

Virtuoso on the Vibraphone, One of the Last Giants of Jazz

September 01, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lionel Hampton, the irrepressible bandleader who played with an infectious joy that captivated fans around the world and, in the process, gave the vibraphone a lasting place on the jazz bandstand, died Saturday morning at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City. He was 94.

In failing health for several years after a series of strokes, Hampton was admitted to the hospital Wednesday. The cause of death was heart failure, said his manager, Phil Leshin.

A dynamic showman with an electric personality, Hampton was one of the last giants of jazz. He spent many of his formative musical years in Los Angeles, playing with top local bands and some great national figures as they came through town. Among them were Louis Armstrong--who first encouraged him to play the vibraphone--and, later, Benny Goodman.

Hampton went to New York City with Goodman and became part of the first openly integrated performing band, which also included drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Teddy Wilson.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 04, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 8 inches; 309 words Type of Material: Correction
Hampton obituary--The obituary Sunday in Section A of jazz great Lionel Hampton misstated the year he wrote his theme "Flyin' Home." It was 1939.

As a bandleader in his own right, Hampton was a major influence on a generation of players who would become leading names in jazz. Among them were Clifford Brown, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery and a young singer from Chicago who called herself Ruth Jones, until Hampton told her to change her name to Dinah Washington.

Quincy Jones, now a multi-Grammy Award-winning producer, first worked for Hampton in 1948 when he was just 15. He credits Hampton as one of the people who gave him his start in music. He issued a statement Saturday in Los Angeles on Hampton's passing:

"It is difficult to find the words to describe the deep sadness that I have today. In our more than 50-year relationship ... Lionel Hampton was a mentor, collaborator and friend to me. Hamp was the consummate jazz artist.... I cut my teeth writing arrangements for Lionel Hampton, and there was no better school in the world than the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. He taught me how to groove and how to laugh and how to hang and how to live like a man."

Jones' efforts to play for Hampton in 1948 were ultimately foiled by the bandleader's wife, who sent the teenager back to school in Seattle. In 1950, Jones rejoined Hampton's orchestra as an arranger and trumpeter. He wrote his first composition, "Kingfish," and toured with the band throughout the South and in Europe.

Hampton was among the first blacks to play at a presidential inauguration--Harry Truman's in 1949--and played at several other inaugurals after that. In 1981, he was honored at the White House by President Reagan; years later, he returned to be celebrated by President Clinton.

Through all of it, Hampton once said, he had just one goal: "I want to be remembered for spreading happiness and goodwill." Over the years, observers said he did just that.

"So far as there is joy in jazz, he personified it," one critic, Nat Hentoff, said Saturday. "He meant it and he felt it."

Hampton's age, date of birth and place of birth were open to question throughout his career. But in his autobiography, "Hamp," written with James Haskins, Hampton said he had been born on April 20, 1908, in Louisville, Ky.

Hampton was raised in Chicago by his grandparents and an uncle. For school, he was sent to Holy Rosary Academy in Collins, Wis., where he learned the rudiments of band drumming from nuns.

When he returned to Chicago, he was greatly influenced by his uncle, Richard Morgan, a well-known bootlegger who threw some of the best parties and attracted some of the top jazz and blues stars of the day.

It was not uncommon for young Hampton to encounter such notables as Alberta Hunter, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Bessie Smith--and occasionally white musicians such as Bix Biederbecke--at his uncle's parties, which often turned into all-night jam sessions.

His uncle encouraged Hampton's musical interest and young Lionel played drums in a boys band organized by the Defender, one of the city's leading black newspapers.

Hampton developed quickly as a musician and learned to play by ear. By his second year in high school, he was playing professionally in a band led by saxophonist Les Hite, who later encouraged Hampton to join him in Los Angeles, in 1927.

In the late 1920s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of jazz, with a lively club scene and fine regional bands. Hampton, still a drummer in those days, studied musical theory at USC, and played with a few local bands, including one fronted by Hite at the Cotton Club, a Culver City nightspot across from MGM. The club's owner hired Armstrong to come in for an engagement in 1930, with a plan to use Hite's band to accompany him. Hampton, Armstrong and the rest of the Hite band went into the studio to cut a record.

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