Born in 1908 in Louisville, Ky., Lionel Hampton was one of the most influential figures in the annals of jazz. He discovered his love of percussion at age 6, after his family moved to Alabama. It was during church services there, amid a congregation that sang and clapped along with a guitarist and other musicians, that Hampton said he discovered "the beat in me."
His father, a promising pianist and singer, went missing during WWI and was later declared dead. His mother moved to Chicago and enrolled Hampton in a boarding school in Kenosha, Wis. It was there that a Dominican sister gave him his first percussion lessons. Later, while attending school in Chicago, Hampton got a job selling papers so he could play in the Chicago Defenders Newsboy Band.
Bandleader Les Hite had organized a teenage band by the time Hampton was in high school, and he asked the young percussionist to join. When Hampton graduated and moved to Los Angeles at age 15, it was Hite who eventually hired him for a band that would back Louis Armstrong at The Cotton Club. During a 1930 recording session with Armstrong, Hampton began playing around with a new instrument housed in the studio: the vibraphone. He wound up playing the vibes during one of the session's recordings, which became a hit. Armstrong suggested that Hampton stick with the vibraphone, which he did, ultimately making the vibes a vital voice in the arsenal of jazz instruments.
In the years that followed, Hampton gained international fame playing in Benny Goodman's small groups — the first integrated jazz bands — and in front of his own orchestra, which he started in 1940. The list of alumni from The Lionel Hampton Orchestra includes Illinois Jacquet, Cat Anderson, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Clark Terry, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, and singers Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, and Aretha Franklin.
With the help of his wife Gladys, an astute businesswoman, Hampton founded two record labels, a music publishing company, and the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation, which built low-income housing in inner cities.
Hampton also became a statesman, of sorts, for the U.S. He became the nation's "goodwill ambassador" under President Eisenhower, taking his band on many tours to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the Board of the Kennedy Center, and President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts. In the 1980s, Hampton began work with the University of Idaho on what was to become the Lionel Hampton School of Music, the Lionel Hampton Center with its jazz festival, and the university's International Jazz Collections.
Lionel Hampton died on Aug. 31, 2002, at the age of 94.
Originally recorded Jan. 11, 1989. Originally broadcast April 4, 1989.
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