Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lionel Hampton: A Founding Father of the Jazz Vibraphone

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“When he joined Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1936, Lionel Hampton’s principal instrument, the vibraphone, was relatively unknown in the jazz world as a whole.
Hampton, more than anyone, is largely responsible for taking what was a quasi-novelty sound—essentially a "souped up" xylophone with added vibrato effect— and transforming it into a mainstream jazz instrument. …

Hampton's work in the context of the Goodman combo gave the "vibes" (as it eventually came to be known) a new level of legiti­macy. Of course, Hampton's energy, inventiveness, enthusiasm, and sheer sense of swing also had much to do with this. His was a style built on abundance: long loping lines, blistering runs of sixteenth notes, baroque ornamentations, all accompanied by an undercurrent of grunting and humming from above.

Few figures of the be-bop era, with the obvious exception of Tatum (with whom the vibraphonist later jousted in a session of note-filled excesses), could squeeze more into a sixteen-bar solo than Hampton. In the battle of form versus content, the latter always won when this seminal figure was on stage.”

- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, [p.151, paraphrased]

“Hampton’s exuberant improvising, always full of high spirits, heady emotion and finger-poppin’ excitement, marvelously complemented [pianist] Teddy Wilson’s cooler, more controlled virtuosity. Between the two of them, they suggested the full range of expressive possibilities in Benny Goodman’s own playing.”

- Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman

“The exuberance and excitement and feeling of exultation that Lionel Hampton contributes to any musical occasion with which he is associated are absolutely amazing. No other single performer in American jazz—and in American big bands, too—has so consistently and joyously incited and inspired his fellow musicians and his listening audiences. For Hamp invariably projects a wonderful, uninhibited aura of spontaneity that brightens every place in which he performs and that assures everyone within earshot that music, fast or slow, screaming or sentimental, can be a joy forever—or at least as long as Lionel happens to be playing it.…

The band that Hamp eventually led, and continued to lead for many years thereafter, was primarily a swinging one, a high-flying swinging one, com­plete with brilliant showmanship and musicianship from Hampton and a whole series of talented musicians whom he discovered and inserted into his lineups.

Hamp always surrounded himself with outstanding musicians, …. [He]had a good ear and a good eye for new talent, and the list of musi­cians he has discovered is truly an amazing one. "We've been the breeding place of some fine jazz musicians," he told me one day, as he reeled off, with obvious pride, such names as Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson, Joe Newman, Ernie Royal, Cat Anderson, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer and many more, as well as singers Dinah Washington and Joe Williams.”

- George T. Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed.


In looking back, Lionel Hampton was there at the beginning of my Jazz “Life.”

He holds a special place in my coming-of-age in the music as he was the vibraphonist in the very first small Jazz group I ever heard.

Lionel was a member of clarinetist Benny Goodman’s quartet which also featured Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums.

The irrepressible swing of this combo made an indelible mark on me and I’ve always held the music played Benny’s quartet as the standard by which to evaluate other combos.

Cohesiveness, listening closely to one another, sharing the solo spotlight but, above all, swinging with a sense of a firm rhythmic propulsion.

These are the qualities that impressed me in Benny’s quartet and its what I want to experience when I listen to other small groups.

Benny’s quartet had so much energy and enthusiasm and to my ear, the spark that ignited these qualities was Lionel Hampton.

Following his time with Benny Goodman, Lionel moved on to lead his own small groups and big bands for over 60 years.

The Jazz world also moved on and away from the style of Jazz that Hampton represented until his death in 2002.

For many of the reasons described in the following excerpts from Günter Schuller’s monumental The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, Lionel became less of an artistic Jazz performer and more of a commercially successful one, especially for those fans who prefer their Jazz expressed in a more discriminating manner.

When Universal Pictures made The Benny Goodman Story in 1955, it reassembled the Goodman quartet to appear as themselves in the movie.

While they were in town for the filming of the movie,  the Jazz impresario Norman Granz had his usual excellent presence-of-mind to bring Lionel, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa together to record a album for his then recently formed Verve Records label.

I coupled some schimolies together from my newspaper delivery route savings and bought a copy which I virtually wore-out while practicing to it.

Airmail Special from this Verve album is the audio track on the video tribute to Lionel Hampton at the conclusion of this profile about one of Jazz’s Founding Fathers. Teddy, Lionel and Gene all play exceptional solos. Have a look and a listen and see what you think.


© -  Günter Schuller/Oxford University Press , copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Hampton has been one of the most successful and enduring multi-instrumentalists in jazz, obviously one of the few outstanding vibraphone solo­ists, but a drummer and (mostly two-fingered) pianist and talented singer as well. …

In any period of its history, one is tempted to apply the word unique to Lionel Hampton. Certainly no one has outrivaled Hampton in sheer exuberance, phys­ical as well as emotional. Motored by a seemingly limitless supply of energy and stamina, Hampton's playing is known the world over for its relentless physicality, unhampered technical facility (especially on vibraphone), and a seemingly im­perturbable inventiveness. Limitless outpourings of rhythmic energy being al­ways more admired in the popular arena than subtlety or refinement of thought, Hampton's image as the unremitting hard swingster has far outstripped an aware­ness of his considerable lyric and melodic talents.

To be sure, Hampton's approach to music is often unsubtle, uncritical, at times even tasteless. In truth, when he assaults his drums, brutalizes the piano keyboard in his hammered two-finger style, pounds the vibraphone into submis­sion, the perspiration quotient is high indeed, its inspiration equivalent often considerably lower. Both in his ability to generate audience frenzy and in his own susceptibility to it, Hampton foreshadowed the empty-minded hysteria of today's more outrageous rock singers. Nor is the distance between rock and Hampton's 1940s' early form of rhythm-and-blues all that great, certainly not in respect to its rhythmic, dynamic, and energy levels.

What all this unfortunately obscures is Hampton's talents as a balladeer, both as a vibraharpist and a singer, and his equally innate ability to express himself in gentler, more subtle ways.


Hampton's is a natural, uncomplicated musical talent—almost casually inven­tive—in which the sheer joy of performing, the direct unfurrowed communica­tion to an audience, is more important than any critical or intellectual assess­ment of it. He is in this sense also not a leader, the way Ellington and Lunceford, for example, were.

Stylistic identity and the creation of a recognizable individual orchestral style have never been uppermost in Hampton's thoughts, succumbing instead to a randomness of approach that accounts for much of the inconsistency of quality in both of his own playing and that of his accompanying groups, large or small. Indeed, his ambivalence in these matters caused him, when he contemplated forming a large band, to consider seriously any number of orchestral options, ranging from hot to sweet, from frantic jump to sedate dance, including the use of a large string section.

Fortunately Hampton did in the end opt for a more orthodox jazz instrumentation, one which in due course became pre-eminent as a dynamic hard-driving swinging ensemble.” [excerpted, pp. 393-394] …

“Great originality and well-conceived solos are, however, not Hampton's forte. He is not so much a creator as he is a compiler. His solos tend to consist of a series of remembered or "common practice" motives, which he infuses with his own brand of energy and strings together into a musical discourse. While this method ensures that Hampton is never at a loss for ideas, the solos tend to be based too much on patterns and repetitions, rather than development of ideas. Hampton improvisations are more apt to be a collection of riffs. This is espe­cially true in faster temps, whereas in more relaxed contexts his melodic and ornamental gifts are given freer rein. More disturbing even than the reliance on patterns, however, is Hampton's fatal compulsion for musical quotations. Un­critical audiences, of course, love these diversions, delighted to recognize some snippet from the musical public domain and enjoying the improviser's challenge of fitting it into, say, a 2-bar break, a challenge Hampton never fails to meet. The liability of these tactics, however, on a serious level is that they inevitably interrupt the musical argument, rather than extend or develop it. For all of Hampton's inordinate facility, his music-making is often indiscriminate and un­critical.

Hampton is also rarely adventurous harmonically. He may appreciate the "modern" orchestral settings provided by many of his arrangers, but he himself rarely contributes significantly in the way of harmonic/melodic explorations, being generally content to maintain a more conservative stance, well-rooted in the swing language of the thirties.” [excerpted p. 397]

Hampton is what he is, and no amount of latter-day analyzing can—or should— make him into anything else. He is, like Armstrong, one of the old school, where the entertainer role is always prominent, perhaps even primary. And like Armstrong—though certainly not on his creative level—Hampton is a dedicated artist-musician and craftsman, his flamboyance and exhibitionism not withstand­ing. And perhaps most significantly, Hampton has been the keeper of a venera­ble tradition which, though it stands apart from all recent developments in jazz, is nevertheless a respectable one and one which Hampton, given his age and stature, is well entitled to preserve.” [excerpted, p. 402]