Jazz Profiles from NPR
Lionel Hampton, Part 2
Produced by David Tarnow

Lionel Hampton  

Ever since the 1930s, vibraphonist and band leader Lionel Hampton has been a constant presence in jazz. He gained early notice in the bands of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, but it was inevitable that such an inspirational and charismatic performer would eventually lead his own group.

Listen to trumpeter Clark Terry, bassist Ray Brown, and conductor David Baker discuss Hampton's importance

Forming a band had long been one of Hamp's dreams, though he aborted his first attempt in the early 1930s. In 1940, when illness forced Benny Goodman to stop performing, the great clarinetist gave Hamp his blessing and support to try again. By this time, Hamp had already been leading some small ensemble recording sessions with the RCA/Victor label.

Things got off to a hot start when Hamp discovered a brilliant young tenor saxophonist named Illinois Jacquet through Nat "King" Cole. Hamp offered to make Jacquet a featured soloist later adding saxophonists Marshall Royal and Dexter Gordon, trombonist Fred Beckett, trumpeter Joe Wilder and numerous other rising stars.

Listen to saxophonist Illinois Jacquet recall how he joined Hampton's band

Milt Hinton  

Just as the band was getting off the ground, a musician's union strike stopped all recordings from 1940 to 1942. But Hamp forged ahead, fine-tuning his stellar line-up in live performances and building a name for the band.

Listen to Jacquet (left) reflect on the 40s recording ban

Hampton's big band, like many others that sprang to life in the 1940s, operated as an army. Each instrumental section had their designated leaders, like Marshall Royall, who would drill the players through exercises to increase their technical proficiently.

Listen to Marshall Royal describe how he would drill the saxophone section

When the recording ban was lifted in 1942, Hamp made good on his promise to feature Jacquet as a soloist with the band's first hit, "Flying Home." Royal gave the young horn player invaluable encouragement when the time came for him to do his first solo.

Listen to Jacquet reminisce about performing his first solo for Hamp's orchestra

In the early years of the Hampton Orchestra, Lionel allowed his musicians to project their unique individual sounds, generating a repertoire that was driven by diverse personalities. Some critics complained that, as a result, the band never fully developed a signature sound in the way that Count Basie and Duke Ellington achieved.

The music moves me and if I feel like I want to dance, I feel like I want to jump up and shout, well I do it.
-- Lionel Hampton  

But to many, the Hampton band was the most energetic, rhythmic and driving big band of the war years and for many decades to follow. Hampton's onstage antics also reaped harsh criticism from the jazz police. One critic dismissed the band as "a loud but well-disciplined vaudeville outfit."

Listen to music educators Gunther Schuller and David Baker, and Hampton talk about his flamboyant stage show

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The constant turnover of top-flight jazz musicians within Hampton Orchestra made it somewhat of a finishing school for future stars. Among its "graduates" were composer, arranger, and producer Quincy Jones (left) and jazz singer Betty Carter.

Listen to Schuller and Baker talk about some of the legendary figures to come out of Hamp's band

Perhaps Hamp's success as a bandleader owes its greatest debt to his wife Gladys' brilliant handling of all business and organizational matters. Hamp was widely known as being loose with money, but Gladys kept a firm grip on the financial well-being of the orchestra, making sure everyone got paid on time.

Listen to singer Betty Carter and former manager Phil Leshin talk about Gladys' influence on Hamp's success

When Gladys died in 1977, Hampton was dealt a severe blow, but his passion for the music helped him perservere. Hamp's recovery from his wife's passing hinged on his single-minded focus on the next gig.

Listen to managers Bill Titone and Leshin recall the effects of Gladys' death on Hampton

Though he's received honors too numerous to mention, Hamp's love for playing music was clearly his greatest reward. In January 2001, a vibraphone he had played for 15 years was put into the National Museum of American History. At age 94, Hampton died on August 31, 2002. His exuberant stage presence will be greatly missed, but his legacy lives on.

Listen to Hamp's share his desire to keep on playing until the end


View the Lionel Hampton, Part 2 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 -- NPRJazz.org


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