Lionel Hampton: The Complete Victor Sessions 1937-41
by Loren Schoenberg
Lionel Leo Hampton lived to the ripe, Nestorian age of 94, and kept his big band together longer than any of his contemporaries. After fits and starts as a bandleader, Hampton formed a big band upon leaving Benny Goodman in 1940, and it worked consistently in varying configurations for over sixty years. He created a musical universe that was all his own, and it ranged from (to use H.L. Mencken’s notable phrase) a carnival of bumcombe to simply exquisite. The common denominator was Hampton’s unquenchable desire to engage his audience and he was willing to take any step necessary to that end. This included having a band member jump off a bridge into the water, and on one notable occasion, continuing to play after the promoter of a seaside venue told the band to cease and used the rotating stage to turn the band towards the water, with no electricity. Hampton frankly behaved like a man possessed (though big band chronicler George T. Simon once wondered by precisely what) and there can be no doubt that he demanded at least as much of himself as he demanded from his musicians. It may have been the extremity of his desire to please his public that led to what could benevolently be called his moral myopia when it came to relations with his employees. This is not unrelated to the music herein.
Unburdened by the aesthetic and in many cases, the moral considerations that concerned his peers (encouraged greatly by his wife Gladys, who was not for a moment bound by any of the gender- or race-based limitations placed on her by the music business) Hampton paid the lowest wages imaginable, and churned out a product that was immediately identifiable and attractive to the lowest common denominator of popular taste. That as much good music came out of his bands is it did was due to his indefatigable energy, musical abilities and a desire to please his audience. It certainly did not arise from a desire on his part to encourage the individuality of his sidemen; rather, he used them in the most utilitarian mode imaginable. As one of his ex-sidemen trombonist/composer/arranger Slide Hampton (no relation) told interviewer Bob Bernotas:
After Buddy Johnson I had the misfortune of going with Lionel Hampton. I was much better off with Buddy, because Buddy was the exact opposite to Lionel Hampton… (who) is also a great musician, but really not a very caring person. He never really tried to give the musicians the kind of conditions that they could work in and would inspire them. And he never really inspired people to go to other heights. If you were with his band and he really liked you, he would almost threaten you if you wanted to leave and go with somebody else.
And that was very unfortunate because he was a guy that had possibilities, especially for a lot of the Afro-American musicians, to open up doors for them. But he was such an egomaniac he couldn't consider what was happening for anybody else.
He had a lot of good musicians in the band. Clifford Brown was there, Wes Montgomery was there, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Benny Golson. And had some good bands. Sometimes the band was fantastic, but he still had to be the one that was noticed the most. He had to be out front, which was good. The guys were for that, too, but he never was able to say, "This band is really something that's important in my musical life." He could never do that.
It is the intimate musical contact with his peers and his willingness, on occasion, to let them take the musical reins on these sessions that makes this series so remarkable and so revealing of the best Hampton had to offer.