A decade before Jackie Robinson broke down baseball’s “color barrier,” the black jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton was making musical, social and cultural history by playing with Benny Goodman, the popular white band leader and clarinetist known as the “King of Swing.” Hampton was a perfect accompanist to drummer Gene Krupa and the two would play together over the years in multiple configurations.
Hampton started out as a seasoned drummer and played the drums for The Chicago Defender Newsboys’ Band, The Dixieland Blues-Blowers, The Quality Serenaders and The Les Hite Band, One of his trademarks was his ability to do stunts with multiple pairs of sticks such as twirling and juggling without missing a beat. During this period, he began teaching himself the vibraphone.
In 1930, trumpet legend Louis Armstrong hired The Les Hite Band for performances and recordings. Armstrong was so impressed with Hampton’s playing after he reproduced Armstrong’s solo on the vibraphone he asked him to play behind him during choruses. That opportunity began Hampton’s career as a vibraphonist, popularizing the use of the instrument in the process.
In 1936, The Benny Goodman Orchestra played the Palomar Ballroom. When John Hammond brought Goodman to see Hampton perform, Goodman invited him to join his trio, which soon became The Benny Goodman Quartet with Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. During his nearly four years with Goodman, Hampton became a household name in the swing world.
While Hampton worked for Goodman he recorded with several different small groups known as The Lionel Hampton Orchestra, as well as assorted small groups within the Goodman band. In 1940 Hampton left the Goodman organization under amicable circumstances to form his own big band. Hampton’s orchestra developed a reputation during the 1940s and early 1950s.
Hampton once again performed with Louis Armstrong and Italian singer Lara Saint Paul at the 1968 Sanremo Music Festival in Italy. The performance created a sensation with Italian audiences, as it broke into a real jazz session. That same year, Hampton received a Papal Medal from Pope Paul VI.
During the 1970s, Hampton’s groups were in decline. He was still performing what had succeeded for him earlier in his career and he recorded actively. Beginning in February 1984, Hampton and his band played at the University of Idaho’s annual jazz festival, which was renamed the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival the following year. In 1987 the UI’s school of music was renamed after Hampton, the first university music school named for a jazz musician.
Hampton remained active until a stroke in Paris in 1991 led to a collapse on stage. That incident, combined with years of chronic arthritis, forced him to cut back drastically on performances. However, he did play at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2001 shortly before his death. Hampton died from congestive heart failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on August 31, 2002.