Jazz Great Lionel Hampton Dies

94-year-old vibraphone virtuoso, showman, and bandleader Lionel Hampton died yesterday (Aug. 31) of heart failure at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, said his manager, Phil Leshin. Hampton suffe

94-year-old vibraphone virtuoso, showman, and bandleader Lionel Hampton died yesterday (Aug. 31) of heart failure at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, said his manager, Phil Leshin. Hampton suffered two strokes in 1995 and had been in failing health in recent years.

"He was really a towering jazz figure," said saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who played with Hampton in the 1950s. "He really personified the spirit of jazz because he had so much joy about his playing."

Through a six-decade career, Hampton played with a who's who of jazz, from Benny Goodman to Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Quincy Jones. His own band helped foster or showcase other jazz greats including Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington.

"With Hampton's death, we've drawn closer to losing part of the origins of the early jazz era," said Phil Schaap, a jazz historian.

Jones, the Grammy-winning producer and composer, said in a statement that Hampton was a mentor for more than 50 years. Jones was 15 when he first played trumpet with Hampton. "He taught me how to groove and how to laugh and how to hang and how to live like a man," Jones said. "Heaven will definitely be feeling some backbeat now."

During his career, Hampton performed at the White House for presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Bush. When he played for Truman, his was the first black band to ever entertain in the White House, Hampton once said.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) remembered Hampton's 90th birthday party at the White House, when the man known as the "vibe president" invited President Clinton to grab his saxophone and jam. "Lionel was a spectacular guy," said Rangel, who recalled seeing Hampton play at the Apollo Theater, the legendary concert venue in Harlem.

In 1997, Hampton received the National Medal of Arts -- while wearing a borrowed suit, socks and shoes, because all his clothes and much of his bands' arrangements and other memorabilia had been destroyed in a fire two days earlier.

"He was an American music legend and will be sorely missed," President Bush said in a statement yesterday.

Hampton's music was melodic and swinging, but audiences also responded to his electric personality -- the big smile, energy and bounce that contributed to his style. When not playing the vibes, he drummed, sang and played his own peculiar style of piano, using two fingers as if they were vibraphone mallets.

He was a songwriter, too. His most famous composition, "Flying Home," was written in 1937, and he played it about 300 times a year for the next half-century. It was a hit in 1942, propelled by an Illinois Jacquet tenor sax solo.

Hampton did not have a copy of his birth certificate but marked his birth date as April 20, 1908. It was generally accepted that he was born in Louisville, Ky., and raised by his grandmother in Birmingham, Ala., and Chicago.

He learned to play the drums from a nun while in grade school, and launched his career with Les Hite's band after finishing high school. It wasn't until a 1930 recording session with Armstrong that Hampton played the vibraphones. "There was a set of vibes in the corner," Hampton once recalled. "Louis said, `Do you know how to play it?'" He didn't. But after 45 minutes of noodling on the instrument, Hampton felt comfortable enough to swing in behind Armstrong on "Memories of You."

The future "King of Vibes" toured with his own band on the West Coast, then settled in at the Paradise Nightclub in Los Angeles. In August 1936, Benny Goodman heard Hampton play and three months later Hampton was onstage with the renowned bandleader at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York making music, as well as a breakthrough in American race relations.

It was also the start of what Hampton called "four gorgeous years with Benny" in the new, trailblazing Benny Goodman Quartet. That group -- with Goodman, Hampton, pianist Teddy Wilson, and drummer Gene Krupa -- broke racial barriers that had largely kept black musicians from performing with whites in public. Wilson and Hampton made up the black half of the foursome.

Wilson had recorded with Goodman and Krupa previously, and white soloists "jammed" informally with black groups, but a color line was drawn whenever a white band was on stage.

Hampton took to the road with his own orchestra in 1940 and built bookings into the million-dollar-a-year range. After the big-band era died, Hampton pared down to a smaller group -- around eight players dubbed the Inner Circle -- and he occasionally put bigger groups together to travel the globe as a musical ambassador of the United States.

Hampton regularly turned up at colleges and major jazz festivals, made guest appearances on numerous television variety shows and recorded scores of jazz albums and singles. Hampton also established a community development corporation which, with government support, built low- and middle-income housing in New York and Newark, N.J.

One of his projects in Harlem is named for his wife, Gladys, who died in 1971 after a 35-year marriage. The couple had no children.

In 1987, the University of Idaho named its School of Music after Hampton. The Lionel Hampton School of Music is the only such school named after a jazz musician. Hampton made his final public performance on Feb. 23, 2002, at the school's annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, an event that features four days of concerts, clinics, and student competitions.

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