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Lionel Hampton 'Goes Home' in Style

Memorial* A procession of jazz musicians gives the legendary vibraphonist, who died Aug. 31, a New Orleans-style send-off on the streets of New York.

September 09, 2002|HOWARD REICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — As the sun rose over Manhattan on Saturday morning, several musicians wearing crisp white shirts and impeccably pressed black suits and ties warmed up on their horns, their random notes piercing the early morning quiet and quickly drawing a crowd outside the Cotton Club in Harlem.

After a few minutes, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis--sporting the ebony hat that marked him as the leader of the band--called a tune, put his horn to his lips and let out a glorious cry, while a horse-drawn carriage just ahead started rolling. It carried the body of jazz icon Lionel Hampton, who had died a week earlier at age 94.

For as long as anyone has played this music, jazzmen have taken their final journey this way, though more often in slow-and-easy New Orleans than in frantic Manhattan, which typically does not have time or space for such extravagances.

But Hampton--who grew up in Chicago, lived mostly on the road and died in New York--deserved special attention. As the first jazz musician to champion the vibraphone and as a charismatic member of the first integrated band to perform publicly (Benny Goodman's quartet, in 1936), Hampton ranked as a certifiable jazz legend. Even in a city crowded with celebrities, his death called for a grand gesture.

Not surprisingly, the spectacle of these splendidly attired musicians wailing their blues-tinged dirges while slowly marching in the middle of the street--oblivious to traffic lights and even to traffic--caused a stir. New Yorkers who had been watching from curbside fell in behind the band. Television crews and newspaper photographers, who had been tipped off that a New Orleans-style parade would unfold on this morning, crowded in front of the parade and walked backward, so as to capture the action head-on.

As the funeral procession wended its way through the Morningside Heights neighborhood, "St. James Infirmary" and "Flee as a Bird to the Mountain" rang out, performed just as black and Creole musicians have played this music for more than a century, the notes and chords and phrasings handed down through the generations by oral tradition.

This emotionally wrenching music awoke many of the locals, and as the band approached each block--bass drum pounding, clarinet squealing, trombone pumping almost without pause--folks got out of bed, opened the windows of their walk-up apartments and leaned outside, half-dressed, staring at the proceedings in disbelief.

By the time Hampton's casket and Marsalis' musicians approached historic Riverside Church, the crowd had swelled to more than 2,000, church officials estimated. Meanwhile, the musicians played a searing version of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," and though they didn't sing the words, you practically could hear the sublime lyrics coming out of their horns: "Just a closer walk with thee/Grant it, Jesus, is my plea," the song declared, urging Hampton's entry into the hereafter.

In case anyone missed the significance of the hymn, the preacher at Riverside Church spelled it out for the standing-room-only crowd (the kind that Hampton long had become accustomed to).

"Officially, this is called a funeral service," said Rev. James A. Forbes, Jr., senior minister at Riverside, "but really it's a service of 'home-going.' "

That belief--that life on earth eventually yields to a spiritual eternity--dates much further back than even the jazz funerals. Still, in New Orleans perhaps it was inevitable that death, immortality and music would intermingle in the form of the jazz funeral. Any jazz musician worthy of the name wanted one.

On this morning, the band stopped playing once the casket had been placed at the altar and covered in a white-and-gold cloth. A variety of speakers took to the podium to praise Hampton, among them former President George Bush, tenor saxophone master Illinois Jacquet (who achieved his first great hit recording Hampton's "Flying Home" in 1942) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

None, however, articulated the link between jazz and its spiritual undercurrent as eloquently as Rep. John Conyers (D.-Mich.).

"We have to ask the question, as we celebrate this great 'home-going': Where did this music come from?" asked Conyers, who knew the answer all too well.

"It didn't come out of Africa," he continued, warming to the subject. "It came out of the African experience in America--and out of that pain, out of that suffering, out of the church, came the music that became jazz."

Though he didn't say it, Conyers knew that Hampton, too, felt that pain, if only because he was a prodigiously gifted musician who early in life was not allowed to enter through the front door of clubs where he was performing, was not allowed to drink from the same water fountains or stay in the same hotels as his white colleagues. Perhaps worst of all, he was not allowed to perform before the public on stage with the white musicians he admired.

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