January 31, 2014
Way back in the mists of time – well, September 1989 to be precise – Jazz Journal published an article that, in a fit of hyperbole, I entitled: Blood and guts: the big band sound of Lionel Hampton. Following a recent house move, I came across a copy of this article (which was reprinted in the program for one of Hamp’s UK concert tours) and glancing through it thought that some of the remarks were as valid today as they were when they were written almost a quarter-century ago. Much of what follows is from that article; quite heavily cut, otherwise lightly edited, and a little bit updated to include some post-1989 thoughts.
Going back a long, long way, Lionel’s early career saw him playing drums with a number of territory bands including those of Reb Spikes around 1927, Paul Howard until 1930, then Charlie Echols and Les Hite through to the mid-1930s. All these bands worked mainly in southern California and the south-western states from bases in Los Angeles and it was in LA during the early part of the decade that Lionel formed his first band. A little before that, the first recordings Lionel made were with Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders in April 1929 and February and June 1930, followed by several dates beginning in July 1930 with Les Hite whose band was accompanying Louis Armstrong, then on a visit to the West Coast. These recordings show Lionel to be a competent and subtle big band drummer (with occasional turns at the piano and the odd song or two thrown in for good measure).
By 1938, Lionel had made the vibraphone his principal instrument although he still played drums and piano, and he had become a member of the swing era’s most successful entourage, the Benny Goodman band. The day-to-day reality was that Lionel usually played in Benny’s Quartet and later the Sextet, but following the departure of Gene Krupa there were problems for Benny with the drum chair and Lionel occasionally sat in on dance and concert dates and on a handful of studio recordings. On these, he plays in a fairly restrained manner although his interpretation of Sing, Sing, Sing at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1939 shows him happily sending up the old warhorse (although I think not yet on CD).
Lionel’s popularity soared through his time with Goodman and in the early 1940s he was beginning to have notions of becoming his own boss again. At first he thought of a small group, perhaps inspired by the highly successful series of recordings he made for Victor between 1937 and 1940. In particular, he contemplated teaming up with Nat Cole’s trio (with whom he had recorded in May 1940), but then, in 1941, he followed in the footsteps of other Goodmanites, like Krupa, Harry James and Teddy Wilson, and formed a big band.
The new band, which toured out of Los Angeles into Texas and other parts of the southwest, was short on experience but long on enthusiasm. It had to be; the tours were arduous and grew even more so as the distances lengthened. Gigs were no pushover either, not with Lionel’s insistence on giving the customers excitement that included fully-clothed saxophonists leaping into swimming pools in mid-solo. The band’s studio recordings were rather more subdued and despite the presence of musicians such as trumpeter Ernie Royal, alto saxophonist Marshal Royal and tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, there is little about many of its records that distinguish Lionel’s band from a dozen others. An extended engagement at the Grand Terrace in Chicago in 1942 gave them a much-needed opportunity to settle down and one notable tune, recorded in May that year, gives a hint of what the band was like live. This was Flying Home, forever afterward associated with rabble-rousing displays of extravagant showmanship. Lionel had already recorded this tune at least twice before – with Goodman’s Sextet in October 1939 and on one of his own Victor sessions in February the following year. On both of these recordings, the tempo is relaxed, and Lionel’s vibes solos are models of restraint. However, with the big band recording of 1942 things begin to take on a different air. The tempo moves up a notch or two from the earlier versions and the band riffs urgently behind Lionel’s brief introduction of the theme but it is mostly Illinois Jacquet’s show. His solo, so often copied (not least by himself), is a fine example of his early trend-setting work. Towards the end of the number, with Ernie Royal’s high notes piercing the still-riffing band, the excitement typical of a Lionel Hampton live show makes itself felt. During the remaining years of the 1940s the band’s brand of music established itself: solidly riffing ensemble passages backing fierce, extrovert solos. Among many fine examples are In The Bag, also from 1942, which features Jacquet and trumpeter Karl George; and Chop Chop, from 1944, featuring alto saxophonist Earl Bostic. From time to time Lionel would feature himself on piano, playing his favored two-fingered percussive style, and the band had hits with Hamp’s Boogie-Woogie, 1944, and Beaulah’s Boogie, 1945.
Lionel had hired Illinois Jacquet away from Milt Larkin’s band (where Jacquet was playing alto) but only because he had failed to persuade the man he really wanted to leave a secure job with an established band. That man was Arnett Cobb, who later changed his mind and joined Lionel. This was in 1944, and the fat, rasping sound of Cobb’s tenor, his effortlessly swinging solos, and sheer enthusiasm were important factors in the band’s growing popularity. So, too, was the inclusion of Cat Anderson, who added an inimitable sparkle to the trumpet section. Now, some of the band’s wilder performances began to appear on record although the sober studio setting was undoubtedly inhibiting. Nevertheless, such excursions as Slide, Hamp, Slide, with its jokey vocal ensemble from the band in a call-and-response sequence with the trombones, and Hey Ba Ba Re Bop, with Lionel engaging in a vocal exchange with the band give everyone a chance to blow hard and wild.
In 1946, with personnel changes that brought in Jimmy Nottingham on trumpet and Bobby Plater as lead alto, another big hit was recorded. This was Air Mail Special, issued on two sides of a 78, which features exciting vibraphone playing by Lionel with Arnett Cobb in fine form, both backed by a band that at times comes dangerously close to losing control. Playing close to the edge has been a permanent element in Lionel’s musical life. An example of this comes in a 1949 airshot of Flying Home on which the high note man in the trumpet section is Leo Sheppard. Unlike Cat Anderson, who could play in a higher register than most trumpeters and still sound musical and in control, Sheppard just blew until he was out of sight. Also in the trumpet section at this time was Benny Bailey, who confided in a downbeat interview, ‘He played . . . so high it defied the human ear . . . There wasn’t even a note anymore. It just disappeared into outer space. He wasn’t always accurate, but sometimes you could see smoke coming out of his horn.’
In the early 1950s, Lionel’s ever-changing band (only pianist Milt Buckner and guitarist Billy Mackell stayed around to earn long-service medals) welcomed some interesting new arrivals. Although Lionel was never inclined towards bebop he recognized the musical talents of many of the new generation. He had already had trumpeter Fats Navarro in the band (in 1948) and now hired (and frequently fired) many fledgling giants. Among then was trumpeter Quincy Jones, who observed that Lionel was ‘interested in everything new’. Other future stars were alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, drummer Alan Dawson, bass-player Charles Mingus, trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, and trumpeters Joe Newman, Art Farmer and Clifford Brown. Lionel also had an ear for fine singers. He gave an early break to Joe Williams and was instrumental in establishing Dinah Washington as a major star. And there was Betty Carter, whom he would refer to with apparently friendly disapproval as ‘Bebop Betty’; he would also frequently fire the singer only to have his wife, Gladys, promptly rehire her.
Several of the young musicians who traveled to Europe with Lionel in 1953 were ecstatically acclaimed by French audiences. Much in demand for record dates, the musicians were strictly ordered by Lionel not to record. However, several of the musicians sneaked off to recording studios, mostly playing with small groups. Fortunately, some big band sides were made, under the nominal leadership of Clifford Brown, which give some idea of what a talented crew this was, although without Lionel’s extrovert direction the style of performance is very different indeed as can be heard on The Complete Clifford Brown Paris Sessions.
Back in the USA, Lionel, learning of the recordings, sacked the entire band, but he was soon back in business and if the 1954 band was somewhat less star-studded, its recordings on that year’s return visit to Europe are among the most exciting of Lionel’s big band career. Included in the line-up were trumpeter Nat Adderley, trombonist Buster Cooper, and Bobby Plater was back leading the reed section. Roaring performances from this band, recorded in Austria in December 1954, have appeared on record and give an excellent impression of how the band sounded. On a string of blues-based, gallery-pleasing numbers the band thunders through a concert that has the audience at the Industriehalle in Graz, Austria, screaming for more.
Much of Lionel’s ability to keep a big band together during the late 1950s and through the 1960s, a fallow period for permanent touring bands, stems from his affinity with R&B. If hardcore jazz enthusiasts did not always warm to the big band’s occasional recordings of this period (unlike Lionel’s small group recordings, which continued to delight), the music could usually light a few fires among more flexible listeners. That said, 1967 Newport Jazz Festival audiences heard a very good example of Lionel Hampton’s big band of this middle period (fortunately captured on record). A well-balanced program includes Turn Me Loose, composed by and featuring trombonist Al Grey, a thoughtfulThai Silk, a composition of Lionel’s recalling a visit to Thailand, a Thad Jones rearrangement ofTempo’s Birthday, long a stand-by of the band, and a powerful and gutsy Greasy Greens, featuring alto saxophonist Dave Pazant, which digs deeply into the R&B groove. Among other important sidemen, many of whom are featured, are trumpeters Joe Newman, Jimmy Nottingham, and Snooky Young, trombonists Britt Woodman, Benny Powell and Garnett Brown, saxophonists Jerome Richardson and Frank Foster, and bassist George Duvivier.
By the 1970s, by which time Lionel was in his sixties, a gradual change in his working habits made an impact on his big band work. From this time onward, a regular big band was rare but he did front all-star big bands for jazz festivals in various parts of the world. All too often ‘all-star’ is a tag that conceals an aggregation distinctly lacking in star quality, but Lionel’s all-star bands were the real thing. The bands might often have been rehearsed by a straw boss but took the stage as if they had been together for years. An outstanding example of this form of band was recorded at Carnegie Hall in the summer of 1978 and appeared at the Cannes festival and at the Cleveland festival, in Middlesbrough in the north of England, during the same months. The personnel (for the Carnegie Hall set) is worth listing in full: Doc Cheatham, Jimmy Maxwell, Joe Newman, Cat Anderson (t); Eddie Bert, Benny Powell, John Gordon (tb); Earle Warren, Charles McPherson (as); Arnett Cobb, Paul Moen (ts); Pepper Adams (bar); Ray Bryant (p); Billy Mackell (g); Chubby Jackson (b); Panama Francis (d).
Despite advancing years, Lionel and his old sparring partner Arnett Cobb are in fine form on Flying Home and On The Sunny Side of The Street, while on a scorching version of Hamp’s The Champ the entire trombone section is featured, as are Cheatham and Maxwell, with Anderson and Newman closing out with a fiery duet. At the Cleveland festival, the personnel had changed only little and the band was the undisputed hit of what might well still rank as the best three-day jazz festival ever to be seen and heard in the UK. Among the entertainment provided by Lionel and the band was an amiably swinging duet by the leader and trombonist Kai Winding and a medley of standards from the old days including a superb version of Hamp’s Boogie-Woogie, featuring Ray Bryant, and Hey Ba Ba Re Bop, that had a section of the audience dancing wildly on the turf of the festival’s rather inappropriate setting: Middlesbrough Town Football Clubs’ ground at Ayresome Park. (Incidentally, this occasion was filmed but the resulting material had to be shelved because of contractual complications; if ever there was a filmic goldmine waiting to be tapped this is surely it.)
I met Lionel at Middlesbrough, and he was delighted at a piece I had written, also for Jazz Journal, that had appeared in the magazine just a few days earlier. Arising from our conversation that day, our agents began talks about a biography; a deal that would have me spending time with Lionel on his next European tour. It didn’t happen. Like many other jazz musicians, Lionel had signed away rights for an authorized biography to Jim Haskins, the resulting book appearing in 1989. What I do have though (and please don’t tell anyone) is a reel-to-reel tape, first generation copy, of parts of the Middlesbrough festival including a little of the Hampton band’s performance. When I recently had this transferred to CD I was able to confirm that that my comments in the previous paragraph are not the result of faulty memory or too much wine. Lionel’s 1978 all-star band truly was magnificent.
Although the small group has always shown Lionel to best advantage as a sensitive musician, and is probably (and rightly) regarded as his greatest contribution to jazz, his big band work can never be overlooked. If for no other reason, Lionel’s big bands must be held in high esteem for the scores of excellent musicians he helped on their way. But there are other reasons to cherish Lionel’s big bands. During a period when the pall of nostalgia hung over many latterday big bands, resulting in pale comparisons, Lionel Hampton offered a tough, gutsy, muscular sound that displayed raw, red-blooded excitement and infectious enthusiasm, and proved conclusively that there was still plenty of life left in big band music. Just listen to some of the records (most available through Amazon – although in some cases you might have to dig deep) and you’ll know I’m right.