The remains of jazz great Lionel Hampton were carried in a white horse-drawn hearse through the streets of New York’s Harlem neighborhood on Saturday, with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis blowing a dirge to lead the funeral procession. The 94-year-old showman and bandleader died Aug. 31 of heart failure. Hampton suffered two strokes in 1995 and had been in failing health in recent years.
Starting from the Cotton Club, once an icon of great music, hundreds of mourners walked in a procession to a service at the nearby Riverside Church.
President George W. Bush sent a letter of condolence, which was read by his father. “His legacy of music, education and civic dedication will continue to inspire generations to come,” the former president said, quoting his son. A condolence letter from former president Bill Clinton was also read at the service.
Bush remembered meeting Hampton when the former president was director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1970s. At the time, Bush said, morale at the spy agency was low. “He loaded his band on a bus they came to CIA headquarters and performed to an overflow crowd,” Bush recalled.
“Yes, I love this man,” Bush told the congregation, his voice cracking with emotion as he spoke, with Hampton’s coffin nearby. “This incredibly gifted musician had an incredible knack for friendship.”
The service was presided over by the Rev. James Forbes, pastor of the church, who called Hampton “this 20th Century marvel of a man” The Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, also spoke at the service, calling Hampton “an inspiration. He lived a long time. God gave him energy to continue his music for as along as he lived.”
After the service, Hampton was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, near other greats of American music — Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, and Irving Berlin.
Over 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.
He performed at the White House for presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. When he played for Truman, his was the first black band to ever entertain in the White House, Hampton once said. In 1997 he received the Presidential Medal of Honor.
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 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. At the time he didn’t know the instrument, but after 45 minutes of noodling on the instrument, Hampton felt comfortable enough to swing in behind Armstrong on “Memories of You.”
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