Lionel Hampton puts down his mallets

It's far too long ago for me to remember clearly, but I believe that Lionel Hampton's name was among the first four I ever heard associated with jazz musicians. The other three, of course, were Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa.

I know for certain, however, that Hamp was the first vibraphonist I ever heard and, by that time, in the mid-1950s, he'd already been at it for more than 20 years, including a stint with the Les Hite band, once upon a time the accompanying ensemble for Louis Armstrong. Hamp was there at the time and it could be argued that, until his death on August 31, 2002, he'd lived the whole of jazz history.

He was, inarguably, one of the giants of jazz and, perhaps, among the very few whose career in the spotlight can be measured in generations rather than mere years.

There has been ample time to reflect on this since the news came of his death. I recently moved to southwest Florida from the American Midwest in order to meet the obligations of a new job at a fine newspaper. I pulled all of my belongings behind me in a rented trailer, among them, a good portion of my music library that had been in storage for more than a year. I was looking forward to dragging out some old favorites that had been locked away during that period and having my own private listening party as I struggled to bring some order to the chaotic circumstances that governed my new apartment.

The fact is, I didn't get around to it, because I had a liner notes project in the works and the deadline was looming, so I put off my explorations of the old music until I could give it my full attention. I moved in on Aug. 26 and, four days later reported for work. On the second day, one of my new colleagues, a wire editor, told me Hamp had died. I was sad, of course, but resolved then and there to spend my first day off finding all my Hampton recordings.

It turns out I have a great many more recordings of Hamp's joyous performances than I remembered. In fact, I think I'll do count sometime of the duplicate renditions of various tunes that inhabit my collection. There are many standards -- like "'Round Midnight," "So What," "Lush Life," "C-Jam Blues," "All The Things You Are," "I Get A Kick Out Of You," and the list goes on and on -- that show up under the names of various artists, or, in many cases, represent various live performances or alternate takes by the musicians with whom the tune is identified. My gut feeling is that I have more separate recordings of "Flying Home" by Hamp himself than of any other tune associated with a particular artist.

The great jazzman drew some criticism for this in later years, having been accused of resting on his laurels since the 1950s, the time when I first heard him. While he made a pillow of "Flying Home" and "Hamp's Boogie Woogie," his popularity was such that his fans wouldn't let him escape without his signature tunes. Who would allow Thelonious Monk to leave the bandstand without "'Round Midnight"? The Modern Jazz Quartet without "Bags' Groove"? Duke Ellington without "Take The 'A' Train"? Not I, my friends, not I.

And "Flying Home," a huge hit in 1942, is also a part of jazz history. Don't forget that it featured a classic tenor solo by Illinois Jacquet, one of the first rhythm and blues solos ever put to wax.
No, Lionel Hampton didn't kick back and rake in the money. He worked. And he worked hard. Take a look at his discography sometime, and you will find a list of recordings that stretches for almost 70 years. That is a lot of music. And it is a lot of pleasure.

Hamp did something else. He not only gave us joy, he embodied it. His performances were textbook examples of a man doing the work he loved. That delight came over, not only in the music, but in his demeanor on the bandstand. I can't remember seeing a single photo of him that didn't display the broadest of grins, even when the photo was taken during the throes of performance.

And lest anyone think he was frozen in the Swing Era, it should be noted that Hamp was hip enough to change. Even my beloved bop crept in. Just pull out his recordings and listen.

Hampton is credited with helping to discover the sublime and tragic Dinah Washington, and his compatriots over the years have included Cat Anderson, Dexter Gordon, Earl Bostic, Snooky Young, Charles Mingus, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Annie Ross, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson and Buddy Rich. There are many, many more, and the reason is that Hamp, up to the day of his death at age 94, was hip.