Lionel Leo Hampton was born on April 20, 1902 in Louisville, Kentucky. Lionel’s father was a singer and piano player that passed away during World War I and his mother moved with Lionel first to Alabama, and then Wisconsin before settling in Chicago in 1916. While in Wisconsin Lionel attended a Catholic school and a sister there gave him his first drum lesson. When Lionel was a teenager in Chicago he took xylophone lessons from Jimmy Bertrand and got himself a job selling newspapers so he could join the Chicago Defenders Newsboy’s Band playing drums. Hampton left Chicago for Los Angeles in his late teens and joined Reb Spike’s Sharps and Flats before playing with Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders. Lionel then got a job with Les Hite’s and performed at the Cotton Club which led to his first break. When Louis Armstrong came to California in 1930 Armstrong hired Hite’s band to back them up and at a recording session Louis asked Hampton if he could play vibraphone on a few tunes. Lionel did and became the first person to record a Jazz solo on the vibraphone.
Hampton continued in the 1930s studying music at the University of Southern California and even appearing the movie Pennies from Heaven with Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby in 1936. Also in 1936 Benny Goodman first heard Hampton play and Benny asked him to join his trio with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson. This quartet became one of the first integrated bands as well as one of the first popular small Jazz groups. Lionel went to New York with Goodman and while there began making records as a leader with all star bands in 1937. This led to the creation of the Lionel Hampton Big Band which became very popular very quickly featuring himself on drums, vibraphone, piano and vocals. Hampton’s band had several big hits including ‘Flying Home’, ‘Sunny Side of the Street’, and ‘Hamp’s Boogie-Woogie’. Among Lionel’s sidemen from this period were Illinois Jacquet, Arnette Cobb, Dinah Washington, Dexter Gordon, Milt Buckner, Johnny Griffin, Charles Mingus, Fats Navarro, Benny Bailey, Al Grey, Wes Montgomery, Betty Carter and many others. In 1953 Hampton’s band toured Europe featuring Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Jimmy Cleveland and Annie Ross among others. Also in the 1950s Lionel was featured in many all star recording sessions with musicians including Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Buddy DeFranco, Art Tatum and Buddy Rich.
In the 1960s and beyond Hampton’s style of playing was no longer as popular with people as it once was though Lionel continued making music till the end. This gave Hampton an opportunity to pursue other interests and Hampton started two record companies, a publishing company and formed the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation to build low-income housing in inner cities. Lionel also always stressed Jazz education and taught at the University of Idaho in 1980s and the University changed the name of their music school to the Lionel Hampton School of Music and holds a festival in his honor every year. Hampton composed and arranged more than 200 pieces of music in his lifetime. In the 1990s Lionel’s health began to decline though he still did perform up until his passing in 2002 at the age of ninety-four.
Lionel Hampton leaves a legacy as one of the greatest musicians and entertainers history for his virtuosity on vibraphone, percussion, piano, voice and as a band leader. Hampton has received the National Medal of the Arts, a NEA Jazz Masters award, was an American Goodwill Ambassador for President Eisenhower, has received over ten Honorary Doctorates, a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star and even a Papal Medal from Pope Paul IV in addition to many other honors. Lionel Hampton set a standard in music and business that still remains a goal of musicians coming up today and along with his contributions as a musician and an entertainer makes him a legend in Jazz and American History.
“Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.”
“[Jazz] went from the classics to ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop to cool jazz, . . . But it's always jazz. You can put a new dress on her, a new hat, but no matter what kind of clothes you put on her, she's the same old broad.”
“I'm motivated. The spirit hits me and I just keep going and don't stop. The more I play, the more I can invent, the more ideas come to me.” – Lionel Hampton