Saturday, March 5, 2016

Slide Hampton: An Interview with Barbara Gardner

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

“LOCKSLEY WELLINGTON HAMPTON WAS 27 YEARS OLD when, in the autumn of 1959, he left Maynard Ferguson's orchestra where he had made his name as an extraordinary trombonist and composer/arranger to launch his own octet. A wonderfully rhythmic and unique arranger, Slide came up with an unusual instrumentation for the octet: two trumpets, two trombones, tenor sax, baritone sax, bass and drums.

The struggles of keeping this octet afloat proved too much; in a news item in the December 21, 1961 Down Beat, Jay Cameron bemoaned its financial woes. By 1963, it disbanded. Slide has continued to freelance as a trombonist and arranger. In 1968, he moved to Europe where he found more opportunities to write for large ensembles, but an assignment to do the charts for Dexter Gordon's Sophisticated Giant in 1977 enticed him back to the states. Since then, he has freelanced with the best of them and led his own World of Trombones (with nine trombonists!) and The Jazzmasters, a 12-piece outgrowth of the octet.”

I seem to be spending a lot of time with trombones lately what with the recent postings about the late Bob Brookmeyer and Matt Niess and the Capitol Bones.

But the editorial staff at JazzProfiles couldn’t pass up an opportunity to welcome Barbara Gardner’s writing back to these pages, this time with a focus on Slide Hampton whose composing and arranging skills are a perfect complement to his abilities as a valve trombonist.

Whether writing for Maynard Ferguson’s big band, leading and composing for his own octet, or heading up his 12-piece group - The Jazz Masters - Slide’s swinging, straight-ahead approach to Jazz is always a pleasure to listen to and always full of surprises, too.

This Is Slide Hampton
By Barbara Gardner

“Locksley Wellington Hampton, with more than nine years of professional entertainment behind him, became a father in 1946. He conscientiously set about the business of supporting a wife and baby daughter through the only means available to him, playing the instrument his father's band needed most at the time, a trombone.

He didn't particularly like the instrument, but his father was in all ways The Leader so Locksley took up the horn. Someone in the family band— he doesn't remember who—began calling him Slide. So the Locksley Wellington was buried beneath two new titles, Slide and Daddy, by the time he was 15 years old.

The Hampton family was a large one, closely knit by blood, music, and a powerful father-mother theatrical team who incorporated each of their four daughters and five sons into the act almost as soon as the child could toddle.

"They started out with about eight pieces," Slide recalled, "but as the kids grew up, the band expanded. I was too young to play an instrument so I started as a song-and-dance attraction when I was about 5 or so."

Slide was the last child, and when he was 3, the family unit hit the circuit in earnest. He can't remember all the places he went in the next 11 years. He dismisses it by saying, "We moved around quite a bit."

The family paused momentarily around 1946 and set up stakes in Indianapolis, Ind., which is still considered the home base by the young trombonist, although he was born April 21, 1932, in Jeannett, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa.

In 1950, the father began to tire, and the oldest son, Duke, assumed leadership of the band and kept it together until 1954. The elder Hampton had devoted his life to presenting his talent and that of his family in theaters; carnivals, and state, county, and national fairs throughout the country. In New York City, the group had performed at the Savoy, the Apollo, and Carnegie hall. His life line seemed to vibrate to the antics and entertainment of his children, Slide said. Less than one year after the family unit broke up, his father was dead.

New York jazz circles turned cold, clinical eyes on the Duke Hampton organization. The group returned to Indianapolis within four months. Slide joined Willis Jackson, returned to New York, and in his own words, "Starved there a couple of weeks."

Then as unexpectedly as problems had come, good fortune arrived. Hampton was hired successively by Buddy Johnson, Lionel Hampton, and Maynard Ferguson. With Ferguson, Slide suddenly was spotlighted and apparently earmarked for recognition as a jazz artist. Twenty-three years after he had entered show business, he began making his first important showing in two Down Beat polls. Somewhat ironically, in the International Jazz Critics poll, the veteran received his heaviest votes in the new star category.

In 1960, he formed his own band and began making a serious bid for recognition as a top jazz artist. The current octet has been together for almost a year, playing most of its dates in and around New York.

"Over the years, I have listened to a number of bands of different sizes that I liked," Hampton said. "I suppose the Miles Davis Octet was a great influence on the type of sound I would like to hear in my own group. With this group, I tried to get an instrumentation which would be between all the other sizes and yet get a little of each of these sounds. I can get a smaller sound by simply cutting the instrumentation; also I can get a big-band sound because of the instrumentation. Actually, I just extracted instruments which are less percussive or loud, and put in more hard brass and less reeds."

Hampton is reluctant to allow his band to become typed as simply brassy.
"Brassy is only one of the sounds I want," he maintained. "I want the band to be able to play at double forte, very loud. But I also want it to play just as soft so that the contrast will be really a contrast."

Running ahead of the group every place it appears is the remark that the octet is a   cut-down version of Ferguson's big band. Hampton takes no offense at such observations.

"There is merit in that statement," he admitted. "What people are thinking about really are my arrangements for both groups. Naturally, the flavor is going to be similar."

Hampton said he feels that he does his best writing and arranging for this size of unit. Yet, he is beginning to seek new horizons.

"After writing for this band for a year now," he said, "I begin to imagine other combinations. I think I would like first a piano player who can double on another instrument. Then I would like to add an alto saxophonist who can also handle woodwinds, particularly the flute. Also I'd like to put in a tuba for depth and body to the section. And, of course, I could use another trumpet and another trombone — but my, my, all that is so far away."

Meanwhile, he continues to write and draw writing inspiration from Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. He acknowledges no trombone influences, crediting saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as his primary instrumental images.

"As much as I love the way J. J. and a few others play," he said, "the trombone is such a slow instrument, I would rather not try to pattern myself too much from guys who play the instrument, because it holds them back, and it would hold me back, also.

"The technique and the literature for the instrument are very slow compared with other instruments; consequently,I would rather listen to a horn which has more to offer."

In spite of his great musical dedication or perhaps because of it, Hampton looked realistically at the going style of today. In fact, he leaped right in, and a hit Gospel-flavored, jazz frame was the commercial springboard for getting his group heard and booked.

"While I am a musician, I am also a businessman," he said candidly. "I realize that in order for the orchestra to eventually play what I want it to play, I have to please the public as much as I can. I must admit that our hit tune, Sister Salvation, was written primarily for that purpose. It's a pretty good tune though and the fellows are still free to play whatever they like in their solos, but the main theme was written to catch the public's ear."

He said he sees no danger of his becoming entrenched in a commercial vise.

"In the first place, this music isn't so far removed from jazz that it can become a permanent handicap," he said. "Another thing is, just as the public went for that, they'll go for some other kind of music if it's presented right. As a writer-composer, if I spend enough time and energy trying to find something new to write, I might come up with something worthwhile that the public will like just as well."

The slightly built dynamo, at work on the stand, is convincing as a man who wants to "make people happy," and a listener is impressed with his complete immersion in his work to that end. He seems to surrender to the mood and play and direct the group with a physical abandonment that reflects his showmanship days. The soft-spoken trombonist reveals in conversation an intelligence that belies his lack of high school education, and he radiates a fire of determination that defies quenching.

Locksley Hampton, husband and father of one daughter, 13, and three sons, 10, 8, and 3, must necessarily be subservient to Slide Hampton, traveling jazz artist, for Hampton acknowledges, as do many traveling musicians, that the road bug is almost impossible to beat.

"If your wife loves you, being away from home is not going to change that," he said. "I don't say that it makes her grow any fonder of you, but if she's sincere and understands what you're trying to do, being away won't make any difference." His eyes twinkled, and he added, "Of course, you have to be just as sincere in being away from home. You can't just be 'being away from home' because you want to be away . . ." He laughed. Then he summarized his philosophy on music:

"I guess it's pretty true that a traveling man can never really become rooted. I know I have no great desire to stay in one place. The traveling part alone doesn't really interest or excite me. I just don't want to stand still in whatever I'm doing. So if it happens that whatever I'm doing has to be done or can be done better somewhere else, then, I'm sorry, but that's where I go.”

January 19, 1961
Down Beat

The following video features Slide’s octet version of Monk’s Well You Needn’t.

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