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[Deathwatch] Lionel Hampton, jazz musician, 94

Jazz great Lionel Hampton dies in Manhattan hospital at age 94 
Sat Aug 31, 9:46 AM ET
By RAYNER PIKE, Associated Press Writer 

NEW YORK - Lionel Hampton, the vibraphone virtuoso and standout showman
whose six-decade career ranked him among the greatest names in jazz
history, died Saturday. He was 94. 

Hampton, whose health was failing in recent years, died of heart
failure at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan at about 6:15 a.m.,
said his manager, Phil Leshin. 

"He was really a towering jazz figure," said saxophonist Sonny Rollins,
who played with Hampton in the 1950s. "He really personifed the spirit
of jazz because he had so much joy about his playing." 

Hampton worked with a who's who of jazz greats, from Benny Goodman to
Charlie Parker to Quincy Jones. 

Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson were the black half of the fabled
quartet with Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa that in 1936 broke the
racial barriers that had largely kept black musicians from performing
with whites in public. 

Wilson had recorded with Goodman and Krupa previously, and white
soloists "jammed" informally with black groups, but a color line was
drawn when a white band was on stage. 

Later, Hampton's bands traveled the globe as musical ambassadors from
America. They also were hothouses or showcases for such greats as
Jones, Parker, Charlie Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Earl
Bostic, Fats Novarro, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington. 

"He was a great man, a sweet, nice, gentleman, and one of the greatest
musicians this country has ever produced," Leshin said. "He's
influenced thousands of musicians around the world." 

Hampton's music was melodic and swinging, but audiences also responded
to his electric personality  the big smile, energy and bounce that
contributed to his skillful showmanship. When not swinging on the
vibes, he drummed, sang and played his own peculiar style of piano,
using two fingers as if they were vibraphone mallets. 

"When I was a kid, I always wanted to put on a show," he once said. "I
always liked to be taking bows." 

Originally a drummer, Hampton caught on with Les Hite's band after high
school and followed Hite to Los Angeles. 

The event that put Hampton together with the vibraphone, or vibraharp
as it is sometimes known, was a 1930 recording session in Culver City
in which Hite's band was backing up Louis Armstrong. 

"There was a set of vibes in the corner," Hampton recalled. "Louis
said, `Do you know how to play it?'" 

Hampton said he had fooled around with a somewhat similar instrument,
the xylophone, when he was growing up. After about 45 minutes of
noodling on the vibraphone, he felt sure enough of himself to swing in
behind Armstrong on "Memories of You." He played vibes while Armstrong
sang and drummed when Armstrong played trumpet. 

The vibraphone and Hampton had arrived as forces to be reckoned with in

After touring with his own band along the Pacific Coast, Hampton
settled in at the Paradise Nightclub in Los Angeles, where in August
1936 Goodman came around to hear him play. 

Three months later, Hampton was in the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York,
starting out "four gorgeous years with Benny" in the new, trailblazing
Benny Goodman Quartet. 

Hampton's most famous composition, "Flying Home," dates from this time.
He estimated that he played it 300 times a year in the half century
after writing it in 1937. 

He took to the road with his own orchestra in 1940 and built bookings
into the million-dollar-a-year range. After the big-band era died,
Hampton pared down to a smaller group, around eight players, that he
called the Inner Circle, although he put bigger groups together on
occasion for international tours. 

Hampton regularly turned up at colleges and major jazz festivals in
addition to touring abroad. He also made guest appearances on numerous
television variety shows and recorded scores of jazz albums and

A Republican Party stalwart, Hampton appeared at fund-raising and
celebratory party events, but played the White House during Democratic
administrations too, performing over the years for Presidents Truman,
Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush. 

He was back in Washington in January 1997 as a recipient of the
National Medal of the Arts. President Clinton ( news - web sites)
hailed him as "more than just a performer. He is a lion of American
music. And he still makes the vibraphone sing." 

Two days before that ceremony, Hampton's apartment in New York was hit
by a fire that destroyed nearly all his belongings. 

Both the year and place of Hampton's birth were a matter of dispute
over the years. Hampton did not have a copy of his birth certificate, a
circumstance not unusual for those born at that time. 

He said the birth date listed on Hampton's passport was April 20, 1908,
although various references have listed him as much as six years

There also was disagreement about his birthplace, with many saying he
was born in Louisville, Ky. But Hampton's manager, Bill Titone, said he
was born in Birmingham, Ala. He was raised by his maternal grandmother
after his father was declared missing in action in World War I. 

For a time he attended a Roman Catholic grade school in Kenosha, Wis.,
where a nun taught him to play snare drum and twirl the sticks. 

In Chicago, the teen-age Hampton got a job hawking the Chicago Defender
and soon was playing drums in the black newspaper's newsboy jazz band. 

Over the years, Hampton established various personal philanthropies,
including an ear research foundation and a college scholarship
endowment fund. The University of Idaho's music school is named for

He also established a community development corporation which, with
government support, built low- and middle-income housing in New York
and Newark, N.J. One of his projects in Harlem was named for his wife,
Gladys, who died in 1971 after a 35-year marriage. 

His wife also was his manager. The couple had no children. 

Hampton served on the New York City Human Right Commission and in 1985
was appointed "ambassador of music" to the United Nations ( news - web

Raised a Roman Catholic, he later embraced Christian Science and was a
Mason for more than half a century. He also was powerfully influenced
by the State of Israel, where he performed and which inspired his "King
David Suite," the 1953 four-part jazz composition for symphony