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Lionel Hampton

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(1909- ) Vibraphonist, drummer and bandleader

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Lionel Hampton
Jazz critic Stanley Crouch profiles vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who met up with Satchmo during a 1930s recording session in Los Angeles.

Lionel Hampton
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
There is some confusion about the year of Lionel Hampton's birth, which has sometimes been given as 1908. Around 1916 he moved with his family to Chicago, where he began his career playing drums in various lesser bands. In the late 1920s he was based in Culver City, California, where he worked in clubs and took part in several recording sessions (1930) with Louis Armstrong, who encouraged him to take up vibraphone. Hampton soon became the leading jazz performer on this instrument, and achieved wide recognition through his many film appearances with Les Hite's band. After playing informally with Benny Goodman in 1936 he began to work in Goodman's small ensembles, with which he performed and recorded regularly until 1940; as a result he became one of the most celebrated figures of the swing period, and his resounding success allowed his to form his own big band in 1940.

This group, which at times has included musicians of the stature of Cat Anderson, Illinois Jacquet, Clifford Brown, and Quincy Jones, has been one of the most long-lived and consistently popular large ensembles in jazz. From the 1950s Hampton undertook numerous "goodwill" tours to Europe, Japan, Australia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, and made a large number of television appearances, attracting a huge and enthusiastic international following.

Hampton performed in the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 1957, and played at the White House for President Carter in 1978; during the same year he formed his own record label, Who's Who in Jazz, to issue mainstream recordings. In the mid 1980s his band continued to draw capacity crowds throughout the world. Hampton was honored as alumnus of the year by the University of Southern California in 1983.

Hampton was not the first jazz musician to take up vibraphone (Red Norvo had preceded him in the late 1920s), but it was he who gave the instrument an identity in jazz, applying a wide range of attacks and generating remarkable swing on an instrument otherwise known for its bland, disembodied sound. Undoubtedly his best work was done with the Goodman Quartet from 1936-1940, when he revealed a fine ear for small-ensemble improvisation and an unrestrained, ebullient manner as a soloist. The big band format was probably better suited to the display of his flamboyant personality and flair for showmanship, but after a few early successes, especially the riff tunes Flying Home, Down Home Jump, and Hey Bab-Ba-Rebop, the group was too often content to repeat former triumphs for its many admirers. Hampton has at times also appeared as a singer, played drums with enormous vitality, and performed with curious success asa pianist, using only two fingers in the manner of vibraphone mallets.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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