You don't get called "Mister" in many newspapers until you're dead; surely exceptions should be made in such cases as Mr. Lionel Hampton, who ranks up there among the Counts and the Dukes in American jazz royalty.
Hampton and some of his friends stormed the Kennedy Center for a concert last year and made that big fat marble tomb bounce with joy. A radically distilled television version airs tonight at 8 on Channel 26 and other public TV stations as "Great Vibes," another installment of "Kennedy Center Tonight," and though the hour is unnecessarily fragmented and hoked-up, Hampton and fellow artists are luminescent and grand.
Also performing are Pearl Bailey (doing a mercifully straightforward "Memories of You"); Dave Brubeck; Stephanie Mills (of "The Wiz"); and Betty Carter. Celebrated soloists include Clark Terry, Louis Bellson, Illinois Jacquet, Freddie Hubbard and Zoot Sims. There are also scenes from a White House lawn party at which Hampton, now 70, was honored by the Reagans. "Aren't you glad we grew up in the era of the big bands?" the president asks the crowd. Yes, they are.
The cutting back and forth from the Kennedy Center to the White House, then from the stage performances to spoken remembrances of Hampton by colleagues, is too disruptive, and too many musical numbers are joined in progress. Producer and director Kip Walton is not exactly brimming with visual inspiration; the hand-held camera shots can be awfully good (like an extreme close-up of Hubbard's fingers on the valves of his trumpet), but the long shots from the big clunky stationary cameras just make the stage looked cramped and cluttered.
It is extremely unlikely even a fraction of the excitement of the original event was captured, but Hampton's venerability shines emphatically through. "The arts are the most important thing that a country leaves for the next generation," Brubeck says; American jazz is a resource that public broadcasting has an undeniable mandate to preserve and protect.