Vibes Master Lionel Hampton Dies

Music fans are mourning the passing of swing era giant Lionel Hampton. The vibraphonist, band leader, and multi-instrumentalist died August 31 at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan of complications from age and a recent heart attack, according to his manager Phil Leshin. Hampton was 94.

A percussionist who was adept at both drums and piano, Hampton was the first major jazz musician to master the vibraphone, an electronic instrument based on the marimba and the xylophone, an instrument he had played as a student. His "flamboyant mastery" of the vibes, in the words of the New York Times' Peter Watrous, won him a vast following among jazz fans of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, and inspired the generation of vibraphonists that followed in his footsteps, including Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Bobby Hutcherson, and Terry Gibbs. "He inspired me to play the instrument," Jackson said in an interview three years ago. "First, he was the first one of note to play it, but more important, I liked how dynamic he was. And the way he blended with groups and the way he played in front of a band was inspirational."

Hampton got his start as a child playing impromptu bass drum in his grandmother's church. "When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she'd take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time," he said in a 1987 interview. "They'd have a whole band in the church, guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums, and they'd be rocking. I'd be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she'd get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I'd grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me."

Some music critics trace the roots of rock'n'roll to Hampton's onstage dynamics and rhythmic inventiveness; he claimed to have learned them "in the sanctified church." His 1942 recording "Flying Home" featured "a honking and shouting solo by the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet that set the emotional atmosphere for rock," Watrous writes. Louis Jordan exploited the sound—and the approach—even further in the late 1940s, followed by numerous white imitators in the early 1950s.

Hampton was both self-taught and traditionally trained. He played drums in a school band as a student at Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a later attended a music school for boys sponsored by The Chicago Defender, a newspaper for that city's black community. "I worked hard learning harmony and theory when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1920s," Hampton recalled. "All those altered scales and harmonic extensions people were calling modern in the '40s and later, I knew all about those before 1930. I was playing the timpani, xylophone, and orchestra bells in the school's concert orchestra, taking the flute parts on things like Poet and Peasant Overture, and also playing the snare drum in the marching band. Then I would go home, play records by Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, and learn the trumpet and saxophone solos note for note on the xylophone and orchestra bells."

His first professional gig was as a 14-year-old drummer with Detroit Shannon's band. In his teens and early twenties, Hampton recorded with Armstrong, Benny Carter, and Benny Goodman. Armstrong, in fact, was the one who encouraged him to get serious about the vibraphone.

Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson were featured soloists in Goodman's racially integrated big band in the late 1930s. The group shattered a widespread taboo at a time when segregation was almost ubiquitous in the US, sometimes refusing to play in hotels that refused to accommodate its black members. Like Armstrong, Hampton went on to become an American cultural ambassador, until fairly recently leading his band in sold-out tours of Japan and Europe. Jazz legends who logged stints with Hampton's band include Betty Carter, Arnett Cobb, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Brown, Cat Anderson, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Dexter Gordon, Quincy Jones, Milt Buckner, Thomas Chapin, and Terence Blanchard.

Hampton also led a productive life outside of music, and was involved in the development of housing projects, including the Gladys Hampton Houses in Harlem, named after his wife, the former Gladys Riddle, who died in 1971.