Lionel Hampton started out in Chicago as a drummer, but
his October 1930 recording with Louis Armstrong on the vibraphone, "Memories of
You," forever stamped his signature on that instrument. According to Hampton,
Armstrong encouraged him to try the vibes, used by NBC radio as a chime to announce
intermissions. Though others (including Red Norvo) had played vibes before, Hampton's
vigorous, melodic, swinging style established the instrument as a permanent member of the
Hampton also helped pioneer the racial integration of
jazz, following Teddy Wilson in Benny Goodman's quartet, in 1936. Hampton's band also was
the first black band to tour the racially segregated South with a white singer, in 1950.
Born in Louisville, Ky., on April 12, 1908, Hampton was
raised in Chicago. In 1928, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with Paul Howard's
Serenaders, Les Hite and Louis Armstrong, who joined Hite for a stint at Sebastian's
Cotton Club, in Culver City, Calif., where Hampton subsequently led his own group. In
1936, Goodman hired the vibist, with whom he worked for four years. Their exciting,
intimate quartet was one of the musical pinnacles of the swing era. In 1940, Hampton
formed his own band, and has continued to work as a leader ever since.
In 1942, the recording of the flag-waver, "Flyin'
Home," became a swing anthem, establishing Hampton as a star and becoming a platform
for the proto-rhythm and blues tenor saxophone stylings of Illinois Jacquet, which, along
with Hampton's jump boogie records later in the decade, helped define R&B. In 1947,
Hampton participated in another legendary swing session, Gene Norman's "Just
Jazz" jam. Over the years, hundreds of name players have begun their careers in the
Hampton ranks, including Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Dinah Washington, Arnett Cobb,
Quincy Jones and Clifford Brown.
Hampton's extroverted showmanship, including dancing on
his drums and attacking the piano with two fingers, mallet-style, has dismayed purists and
critics, but his skill as a swinging improviser has never been in doubt. Though ill health
recently has limited his playing abilities, he continues to tour vigorously. In 1985, he
lent his name to a jazz festival at the University of Idaho, which is preceded by a
competition involving some 1200 high school and college musicians. In 1987, the university
named its music school after Hampton.