An exhibition of photographs from the illustrious life of Lionel Hampton, on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art through the end of this month, is a centennial celebration inviting thoughts on a storied career in jazz.
Hampton, was by various reports, a force of nature, a bandleader of such relentless energy and hunger to keep apace of movements within jazz that he would visit New York clubs in late hours well into his 80s. He spent long stretches leading his band on concert tours. In the course of his travels Hampton befriended the family of Xavier University President Norman Francis.
He was a rarity in the jazz world for his high-profile support of Republicans (not often the party of choice among most of the musicians). He campaigned for Richard Nixon and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, efforts that paid off in the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation that funded low-income inner city housing in the 1970s.
Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1908, raised by a devoted grandmother in Chicago who sent him to Catholic schools, he started out as a drummer in the 1920s, but moved to the vibraphone, which he popularized in Los Angeles as a percussive instrument capable of driving the melody. His 1930 recording as accompanist on “Memories of You” with Louis Armstrong put him on the map. He soon met Gladys, who became his wife and business manager for 60-plus years. In Los Angeles, he also met the powerful swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, who was so impressed with Hampton’s stylistic attack that he offered him a place in his band. Goodman’s quartet, which included pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa, was “the first band to put both black and white musicians on the same stage as part of a regular act,” writes Stanley Crouch in an essay for Flying Home: Lionel Hampton, a book of photographs circulating with the exhibition.
Hampton moved to New York in the 1940s, and launched his own big band. “His audiences thrived on his enthusiasm and antics,” writes Crouch in an epic understatement. “Juggling sticks, jumping on drums, parading through the aisles and playing the piano with two fingers as though they were mallets, Hampton communicated with the audience like no other had or would.
As Art Blakey would later do with the Jazz Messengers, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra became a staging ground for a parade of artists who went on to establish their own distinguished careers – Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Dinah Washington, Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones among them. On several foreign tours he used the ethereal Ella Fitzgerald as a featured vocalist.
A photographic record of any entertainer’s life spotlights the high points and the images of Hampton don’t disappoint. In a shot with the lush-time vocalists Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole, presumably taken in the early 1960s, Hampton and Nat King have their eyes trained on the camera, while Mathis, easily the most handsome of the three, has a warm gaze on the older singer, suggesting high respect. In an earlier shot of Hampton with Billie Holiday, he’s a lithe young man intent in his hold on the vibraphone sticks while Lady Day is gazing upward, seemingly in mid-phrase.
A later image has Hampton in white tuxedo, shoulders slightly hunched as he works the vibe, and one level above him on a stage designed in the shape of a mid-century jukebox stands a singer with a mike – Bette Midler!
Perhaps the most priceless staged photograph features Hampton on a chair by the piano, his left hand resting on the shoulder of Louis Armstrong, seated below him on the lip of the stage, both of them sporting immense grins as behind them stand three gorgeous women with radiant smiles of their own. If you never thought show business was fun, this photo is persuasive.
Hampton’s politics were a form of pragmatism, at least by Crouch’s accounting. Eisenhower named him a Goodwill Ambassador in 1956, a job he took seriously across 13 countries. He later performed in support of Bush the elder and Ronald Reagan. He shifted sides in ’64 for LBJ and in ’96 for Bill Clinton. It’s worth adding that jazz musicians, unlike rock stars, tend not to endorse or become campaign figures.
Hampton saw politics as all of a piece with his fundraising and activism, particularly for music programs to help young people. He donated his papers to enhance the University of Idaho International Jazz Archives.
He died at 96 in 2002. A horse-drawn hearse carried his coffin from Harlem’s fabled Cotton Club to the church. One photograph shows Norman Francis, his son Tim, and “superlawyer” Johnnie Cochran in the march. In life as in death, Lionel Hampton was a story in style.