NEW YORK– Lionel Hampton, an American jazz icon who pioneered the vibraphone as a jazz instrument and whose musical career spanned six decades beginning in the late 1920s, died Saturday morning of heart failure at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. He was 94.
Hampton played with many of the leading lights of jazz, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker.
Over his long career, he wrote more than 200 pieces of music, including the jazz standards “Flying Home,” “Evil Gal Blues” and “Midnight Sun.”
Hampton was one of the first musicians to bridge the racial gap between blacks and whites in jazz. He joined drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Teddy Wilson to form the multiracial Benny Goodman quartet in the 1930s.
Hampton played a prominent part in Goodman’s big band, working on several recordings and tours until 1940, when Hampton organized his own orchestra. From that time through the 1950s, Hampton enjoyed immense success.
Hampton was also an inspiration to countless jazz musicians, said Phil Leshin, 74, Hampton’s manager, who worked with the great vibraphonist since 1960. “People like Quincy Jones will tell you, that’s who got him started,” Leshin said. “Dinah Washington, that’s who got her started. Joe Williams, that’s who got him started. Charles Mingus, that’s who got him started. They’ll all tell you that.
“Except that most of them are dead. Except for Quincy.”
Clark Terry, 81, said, “We learned a lot from him.” The trumpeter first played with Hampton, along with Dinah Washington, when Terry got out of the Navy in 1945.
“He never felt like he was doing enough,” Terry said. “Some guys become complacent, and they feel like they got it made, but he never did. He was always in there with a vision to win.”
Played for U.S. presidents
Active in politics and a strong supporter of the Republican Party, Hampton played for several American presidents, from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush, and traveled around the globe. In 1985, Hampton was given the title “ambassador of music” to the United Nations, and in 1997, he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton.
“He shattered the walls of racism with Benny Goodman,” said New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, a friend of Hampton’s since the mid-1960s who fondly recalled from his childhood seeing “the superstar” play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
“Boy, is he going to be missed,” said Rangel, who added that Hampton’s political stripes never hurt their friendship.
“He was a great Republican. He always played with them. But he didn’t care what I was and he would support me.”
Started young in music
Hampton, who friends said was a very religious man, was born in Louisville, Ky. As a child, he began playing drums in a fife-and-drum band; he later played in a band made up of newsboys. At 14, after receiving a drum set from his grandparents, Hampton went on the road with the band leader Detroit Shannon.
Hampton was at a recording session with trumpeter Louis Armstrong in Los Angeles in the early 1930s when he first saw a vibraphone, also known as the vibraharp or vibes, sitting in a corner.
“I’d heard about it, seen it, but just hadn’t gotten around to trying it out,” Hampton recalled in his autobiography.
“Louis said, ‘Can you play it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ ”
Since then, the vibraphone — an instrument with metal keys, played with soft mallets and producing a gently vibrating tone from motor-driven rotating discs under each key –has become a jazz staple. In addition to playing vibes and drums, Hampton was an accomplished pianist.
Raised the bar
“He left a pretty high bar for all musicians, not just vibists, as an instrumentalist and as a band leader,” said trumpeter John Faddis, who first played with Hampton in the early 1970s and recalled his signature marathon sessions.
Terry also fondly recalled those musical workouts.
“He was very demanding,” Terry said. “He was, ‘Come on,’ and you’d be blowing as hard and as loud as you can and he was demanding more. But he did that to himself, you know. He would always make himself try harder.”
In 1971, after his wife, Gladys, died, Hampton became something of a philanthropist.
He was instrumental in building the Lionel Hampton Houses — a $13 million complex of 355 apartments for low- and moderate-income families and the elderly in Harlem. Built down the block were the Gladys Hampton Houses, 205 units for low-income people.
Hampton also set up various university scholarships and endowed an annual jazz festival at the U. of Idaho. The music school there has since taken his name.