Lionel Hampton, the irrepressible bandleader, played with an infectious joy that captivated fans around the world and, in the process, gave the vibraphone a lasting place on the jazz bandstand.
A dynamic showman with an electric personality, Hampton was one of the last giants of jazz. He spent many of his formative musical years in Los Angeles, playing with top local bands and some great national figures as they came through town. Among them were Louis Armstrong—who first encouraged him to play the vibraphone—and, later, Benny Goodman.
Hampton went to New York City with Goodman and became part of the first openly integrated performing band, which also included drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Teddy Wilson.
As a bandleader in his own right, Hampton was a major influence on a generation of players who would become leading names in jazz. Among them were Clifford Brown, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery and a young singer from Chicago who called herself Ruth Jones, until Hampton told her to change her name to Dinah Washington.
In the late 1920s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of jazz, with a lively club scene and fine regional bands. Hampton, still a drummer in those days, studied musical theory at USC, and played with a few local bands, including one fronted by Les Hite at the Cotton Club, a Culver City nightspot across from MGM. The club's owner hired Armstrong to come in for an engagement in 1930, with a plan to use Hite's band to accompany him. Hampton, Armstrong and the rest of the Hite band went into the studio to cut a record.
In 1936, the group was working at the Paradise Cafe, a jazz spot on 6th and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles, when the influential jazz producer John Hammond came in to hear Hampton play the vibes. Benny Goodman and his orchestra were in town for a two-week engagement, and the next night Hammond persuaded Goodman to visit the club to hear Hampton.
Goodman liked what he heard, and returned with drummer Krupa and pianist Wilson. A jam session ensued, and Goodman hired Hampton, forming the distinctive Benny Goodman Quartet that was the orchestra's slick display piece.
When Goodman broke up the quartet in 1940, Hampton went out on his own and formed a big band. Hampton's band was an immediate crowd-pleaser that featured raw, energetic solos, a powerful brass section and dominating saxophones.
The driving excitement of the Hampton band was never greater than when it played his theme, "Flyin' Home." During one frenzied rendition of the tune at Harlem's Apollo Theater, the audience's stomping created a crack in the balcony, ending the performance.
Although the band was highly successful and, by the end of the 1940s, was grossing a million dollars annually, changing national tastes in music meant that Hampton eventually had to settle for a smaller group. In the mid-1960s, he began to travel with an eight-piece combo that he called the Inner Circle.
Hampton received numerous awards over his long career, including a jazz masters fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988 and the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.