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Jazz Profiles from NPR
Lionel Hampton, Part 1
Produced by David Tarnow

Lionel Hampton  

Lionel Hampton's exuberance and innovative spirit made a lasting impact on jazz through the better part of seven decades. Hamp, a magnetic and brilliant entertainer, literally invented jazz vibraphone and led some of the greatest ensembles in jazz.

Lionel Hampton was born in Louisville, Kentucky on April 12, 1909. His father, a railroad worker, was listed as missing in action in France during World War I and Lionel was raised by his grandmother, a minister who traveled with a musical ensemble to churches throughout the South. Young Lionel played drums and piano with her group.

Listen to vibraphonist Jay Hoggard describe Hampton's introduction to music in the church

In 1916 Lionel and his grandmother moved to Chicago, where his Uncle Richard was making good money booking musicians for the bootleg liquor establishments of a well-known gangster. Richard introduced Lionel to the music of Earl "Fatha" Hines and King Oliver and bought him a xylophone.

Listen to Hampton reveal the name of his Uncle Richard's boss

Hamp was sent for a year to Catholic boarding school in Wisconsin, where he joined the bugle corps as a drummer. Upon returning to Chicago, he took a job delivering papers and joined the newspaperboys' band as a percussionist. As Lionel recalls, the band "would take lessons for two hours everyday."

Milt Hinton  

Bassist Milt Hinton (left) was also in the band, and the two budding musicians attended many musical shows together. Lionel's idol was a young Louis Armstrong, and Hampton began closely studying and learning by heart Satchmo's recorded solos.

When Hampton's neighbor, saxophonist Les Hite, formed a band, he invited Lionel to play drums and xylophone. Hampton later followed Hite out to Hollywood, where he eventually joined Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders in 1929. Hamp's drumming style drew from the driving back-beat he learned from the Sanctified Church and foreshadowed early rock 'n roll.

In the early 1930s, Lionel rejoined Hite's band for a long stint at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Los Angeles. It wasn't long before Hamp's idol, Louis Armstrong, came out from Chicago to headline at the club for an extended engagement.

Working with Armstrong did more than enhance Hamp's great admiration for his incredible musicianship. Satchmo lived his philosophy that a musician should be first and foremost an entertainer who showed respect for his audience, a lesson that helped Hamp to become one of jazz's greatest bandleaders.

We went out to the recording session with him and there was a set of vibes sitting in the corner...I played one of Louie's solos note for note, and Louie fell out! He said, come on, you'll be on the record.
-- Chick Corea  

Armstrong's 1930 recording of Eubie Blake's "Memories of You" featured Hampton's first significant recorded vibraphone solo. The moment catapulted both the musician and the instrument into the limelight of jazz.

Listen to Hoggard talk about Hampton's choice of the vibraphone

While in Hollywood, Hamp met his future wife, Gladys, a successful dressmaker whose strong support would help him realize his musical potential. She bought him his first vibraharp and, in 1931, quit her business to manage Hamp's career.

One night at a Los Angeles jam session, Hamp was surprised to find clarinetist Benny Goodman, drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Teddy Wilson playing alongside him. The chemistry was undeniable, and Goodman invited Hamp to a recording session the next day. The musicians performed as the Benny Goodman Quartet, releasing sides of "Moonglow" and "Dinah" in 1936.

Listen to band leader and jazz historian Loren Schoenberg discuss Hamp's contribution to the quartet

Hamp expanded the harmonic range of the ensemble and his playing blended perfectly with Goodman's ingenious improvisation. The group was also pioneering on a social level, as one of the first highly visible collaborations between black and white musicians.

Hampton secured a prominent place in jazz while playing with Goodman. We hear his wide-ranging contributions to both Goodman's small ensembles and his big band. Hamp and guitarist Charlie Christian would foreshadow bebop and rock 'n roll with a single-line style on numbers like "Airmail Special."

Soon, Hamp would lead a number of small ensembles in recording sessions, bringing together such luminaries as saxophonists Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, and 22 year-old trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. With Goodman's blessing, Hamp was now ready to form his own big band. The band and its inimitable leader were destined for legendary status.


View the Lionel Hampton, Part 1 show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR appreciation of Lionel Hampton following his death August 31, 2002

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Essential Masters of Jazz: Lionel Hampton (Proper)

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site --


  • Browse the Hampton School of Music/Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival Web site