Lionel Hampton made jazz richer by one instrument when, on the spur of the moment, he added the unknown vibraphone to a recording. Ever since, he's been the leading player of that percussion instrument, changing the sound of jazz forever.
The year was 1930. The place was a recording studio in California. The 17-year-old Hampton already had quite a reputation as a drummer with the Les Hite band when Louis Armstrong arrived in Hollywood, minus a drummer, to record some of his arrangements. At the NBC studio, the vibraphone sat abandoned in a corner, used only to play the network's famous bing-bang-bong station indentification. Armstrong recognized love at first sight between the vibe and Hamp and asked him to add the instrument to the score they were about to record. "Memories of You" is now a classic.
He had never played the vibraphone before, but he had been preparing for this career-making moment all his life, taking his first drumming lessons from a Catholic nun in Wisconsin. Later he played in the Chicago Defender Newspaper Boys' Band, where he was taught traditional harmony and tried his hands at the bass and snare drums, timpani, and xylophone, listened to the great New Orleans musicians who traveled north, and finally graduated to Hite's band where he got his first exposure as a professional. After the Armstrong recording, Hampton played with all the popular local bands and earned the nickname "the world's fastest drummer."
It was another jazz legend touring California in 1936 that gave Hampton his next major break. Benny Goodman went to hear the young musician at the Paradise nightclub in San Pedro. After the performance, Goodman, Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Kruppa jammed for about two hours, and the next day they cut their first record, "Moonglow," as the Benny Goodman quartet. Hampton stayed with Goodman for four years. "The recordings of this group," says Frank Tirro, dean of the School of Music at Yale, "are classic combo performances of the swing era, and Lionel's work on vibes earned acclaim and drew followers to the instrument." They established Hampton as one of the best musicians of the era, "a master of swing, a performer of technical virtuosity," and they put the vibraphone on the musical map.
Hampton and his own band have been leading musical and social players ever since--enjoying unprecedented popular and critical success in the '40s and touring a fully integrated band through a very segregated South in the '50s. More recently when many black jazz groups refused to hire whites, Hampton has said, "It's always been my philosophy that you need both black keys and white keys to make a musical entity. He has played for the inaugural celebration of six presidents. (His first--for Harry Truman in 1949--marked the first time black musicians played for an inaugural). He toured overseas as an Ambassador of Good Will for presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. The Lionel Hampton Community Development Corporation had built more than 500 low- and moderate-income apartments in Harlem. His disciples and students are a who's who of jazz artists.
"Lionel Hampton has always been an original," said Ken Ringle in The Washington Post. "A showman in the age of the artiste, an innovator among traditionalists, a traditionalist among innovators. . . . And while most other big bands have gone to that big bandstand in the sky, Hampton and his crew survive."