The last time Lionel Hampton was at the White House, he tried to throw singer Pearl Bailey off the stage. It was the 1978 White House Jazz Festival tribute to Newport, and the vibraphonist and bandleader was just kicking into his signature song, "Flying Home," when the indomitable Bailey charged up onto the stage, uninvited and unexpected, singing "In the Good Old Summertime."
The nearsighted Hampton, who performs without glasses, said at the time that he "didn't really know who she was. She got up there singing all that old-time stuff just about the time we were really getting into some good playing, singing something different from what we were playing. We couldn't even follow her." Hampton, thinking she was an amateur, also confessed to a crowd that included President Jimmy Carter that "she looked white to me." Bailey immediately snapped backed with "I look white to a lot of people!" To make matters worse, when Hampton decided to switch over to drums, Bailey insisted that her husband, Louis Bellson, was the only one she could play with. The final number was noticeably short . . . and hot.
Hampton, often called the Vibes President of the United States, returns to the White House this afternoon for a special reception in his honor hosted by President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Tonight, as part of its 10th anniversary festivities, the Kennedy Center will present a Tribute to Lionel Hampton, featuring not only the guest of honor and his 16-piece band but a gallery of jazz greats who have been connected with Hampton during his 50-year career, including Pearl Bailey. "I called up Louis Bellson to be on the show and the next thing I knew, Pearl said she'd be there," says a cheerfully resigned Hampton.
Lionel Hampton, given to expensive three-piece pin-stripe suits, looks more like a successful banker than a successful musician. Sitting in the Kennedy Center's board room, the 68-year-old jazz legend seems as anxious to hear a business report from his Lionel Hampton Community Development Corp. as to reminisce about his five decades in the jazz vanguard. Speaking slowly and weighing his words as if they were nuggets of gold, Hampton is in fact one of the wealthier figures in the jazz world, the kind of man who can seriously think about buying a radio station to ensure that it programs more jazz. There's also a certain justice to his being honored by a Republican administration: Hampton is a lifelong and ardent Republican who counted Nelson Rockefeller as a close friend and goes back farther with George Bush than the current vice president might care to remember.
"I knew George Bush when he was a teen-ager," Hampton recalls. "I used to go up to Connecticut and play for his father, Sen. Prescott Bush, who was the leading Republican in his state. I used to go up and play and he used to sing for me." Many years later, when Bush headed up the embattled Central Intelligence Agency, he contacted Hampton, who recalls the director saying, "We're kind of down, we need a little pepping up. Bring your vibes out!" The usually sedate CIA crowd clapped and sang along fervently when Hampton launched into classics like "Hey Babarebop" and "How High the Moon"; they stood up en masse for "God Bless America." "We put on a hell of a show," the bandleader grins.
Hampton was the first jazz vibraphonist, but his initial training was on the drums, which he still plays. Born in 1913, Hampton hardly knew his father, a pianist who was killed in action during World War I. He was raised by his grandparents, who gave him a drum set for his 14th birthday. His first teacher had been a Dominican nun, Sister Petra, who ran the drum and fife corps at Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisc. "She was real sharp, taught me all the rudiments on drums," says Hampton warmly. "There were two things you had to do there -- say your prayers and practice."
Returning to Chicago, Hampton connected with the conservatory funded by the Chicago Defender, one of the nation's leading black newspapers. Since publisher Robert Abbott provided free instruments, music, uniforms and lessons to any boys who sold the Defender, Hampton soon had a regular stand. "Anybody that sold papers had the privilege of getting a musical education and an instrument to play."
Also instructive to the young drummer were the hours spent in the Vendome Theater, watching the big bands that would pass through and play accompaniment to the silent movies of the era. Hampton could usually be found in the front row, eyes glued to the drum kit. "I used to practice all the time," Hampton says. "I had good mallet training and good ear training from studying harmony, so I used to listen to solos by Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. I could play those solos note for note on a little set of orchestra bells I used to take around with me. Hey, I was a good drummer, I kept good time."
At the ripe age of 15, Hampton moved to California and a full-time life in jazz. He played drums with an old Chicago pal, saxophonist Les Hite, cornering the Los Angeles market on formals and dances. "We were the talk of the town," he laughs. No more so than the summer of 1930 when they landed a job at Sebastian's Cotton Club by conning owner Frank Sebastian at the auditions. "We used to listen to Ellington and Armstrong and then copy all their arrangements note for note. Frank who apparently wasn't familiar with Ellington went crazy over us and hired us, because were were good to listen to and good to see."
A few months later, Ellington came to Hollywood to make an Amos and Andy film, "Check and Double Check," and did a special show at Sebastian's. "Duke's up there playing all his tunes -- 'Mood Indigo,' 'East St. Louis Toodle-oo,' 'Ring Them Bells' -- and I was standing behind Ellington's manager when Sebastian leaned over and said to him, 'Don't your band know any other numbers? They're playin' all my boys' numbers!' " Hampton, then known as "the world's fastest drummer," laughs as if the incident had occurred last week, not 50 years ago.
California wrought two major changes in Hampton's career. The first also occurred in 1930 when Louis Armstrong headed West without a band -- the Hite band was temporarily enlisted and Armstrong liked them so much, he took them into the recording studio. Armstrong noticed a vibraphone sitting in the corner and asked Hampton if he knew anything about it. "I said 'Oh, sure.' I was young. They used them on a tune Eubie Blake had just sent in, 'Memories of You.' That's how vibraphone started, the first time in jazz. Everybody just liked the sound so well that I stayed with it."
Six years later, Hampton was in residence at the Paradise Nightclub in San Pedro when, shades of Pearl Bailey, he found a few uninvited guests on stage. "I was playing there one night and I looked up and thought, 'Who's that playing clarinet?' It was Benny Goodman. Gene Krupa was on drums, Teddy Wilson was playing piano. Well, we jammed like that for two or three hours and liked it so well, we recorded the next morning."
"Moonglow" and "Dinah," recorded that next morning, were instant hits and Hampton spent the next four years as part of the Benny Goodman Quartet, a landmark group in that it was the first integrated artistic venture. "I didn't realize that it was a social advancement, but it was the first time blacks and whites ever played together out in public."
In 1949, Hampton became the first black musician to play for a president (Truman) at an inauguration. He has since played for Eisenhower (twice), Johnson, Nixon (twice) and most recently for Ronald Reagan. Hampton, who was a Reagan Republican chairman in New York State, and who says he "loves to play political rallies," remains close to former president Nixon (who once jokingly confided that he'd rather be on the road playing piano with Hampton than in the White House).
Over the years, the Hampton bands have been considered among the finest boot camps and finishing schools for young jazz players. The six honorary doctorates he has received don't begin to reflect Hampton's influence and inspiration. His list of graduates is long and distinguished -- Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, Betty Carter, Fats Navarro, King Curtis, Quincy Jones and Illinois Jacquet are just a few. "When Dexter came to audition, he didn't have no saxophone, just a clarinet in a paper bag," Hampton recalls. "But I could hear something in the style and I told him I needed a tenor sax in my band. So Dexter Gordon started playing tenor and now he's one of the outstanding soloists in the world."
Some years later, Hampton adds, "I needed a girl singer and I went to audition one in Chicago. She worked in the ladies' powder room, right next to the bandstand. When the band started she would stick her head out the door and start singing. I said 'What's your name?' She said 'Ruth Jones.' I said 'I don't like that name' and she said 'I don't care what you call me as long as you give me the job.' Out of the clear blue sky, I gave her a new name . . . Dinah Washington.
"Then another guy heard of that and said, 'I didn't know you needed a singer. Let me sing at the next show because I want a job, too.' So he sang, he went over terrific . . . and his name was Joe Williams."
Tonight's concert, besides being a tribute to Hampton that will be shown on television later this year, will raise funds for one of his pet projects, a cultural center and music conservatory in Harlem that will offer courses in music, radio, television and business administration. Hampton, a well-known philanthropist and community organizer, is already responsible for the $30-million Hampton Houses and Gladys Hampton Houses in New York, which provide housing to almost 600 low-income families.
It's obvious that, financially at least, Hampton hasn't needed to continue performing; his late wife, Gladys, was an extremely shrewd businesswoman who promoted his extra-musical interests and protected the money that he earned over his half-century career. Still, the man with the hot mallets (and a unique and curious two-finger piano style called triggerfinger) refuses to be idle. At 67, Hampton tends to accent his showmanship more than his improvising, but he's remained a tremendously sentient player who spurs on his young players, many of whom weren't even born during his heyday in the '40s and '50s.
Lionel Hampton not only gave the vibes their voice in jazz, he created a dynamically accessible image -- hunched over the vibes or the drums, grunting out supportive phrases while ringing out lightning-fast runs that never lost their inherent lyricism. Tonight, a lot of people will gather for a collective "Thank you."