In our house, Lionel Hampton was a giant. Growing up, my father used to talk about the times he used to go see Lionel Hampton and his band in New York in the early 1950's. To be smack-dab in the middle of a jazz revolution that also included Gene Krupa, Miles Davis, and Illinois Jacquet must have been something. Four years before I came along, dad witnessed the birth of cool. Dad introduced me to George Shearing, Elvis Presley, and Lionel Hampton long before I appreciated their impact on popular music and culture.
Some of my earliest memories of my parents include the times they kept me up late at night with loud Elvis Presley records. They'd move aside the furniture, put on "Elvis the Pelvis," and jitterbug late into the night to a stereo set that dominated the living room. To this day, I wish I could dance like him.
A few years before he died, I took dad to see Lionel Hampton at Seattle's Jazz Alley. Dad had a massive stroke that left him aphasic and unable to speak, save for a few expletives and the words "OK" and "bingo." While the stroke robbed him of speech, dad retained his strong love of jazz. That night, I imagined that dad was thinking that he was back in New York watching Hamp boogie on the vibraphone 'til the wee hours.
Hamp's two-hour Jazz Alley show featured many songs that my dad knew when he was young. Sure, there was the classic "Flyin' Home," as well as "Hamp's Boogie Woogie."
Hamp got understandably wistful when he dedicated "What A Wonderful World" to his late wife Gladys. Like my parents, they were married for more than 35 years.
After the show, I asked Hamp's manager if my dad could meet him backstage. At first, I couldn't understand his thick New Yawk accent, but dad picked right up on it.
"No problem. Wait until the room clears a bit and I'll get right back with you," the manager said. He looked down at dad sitting in his wheelchair.
"Can he get out of the wheelchair?"
Before I could answer for him, dad gave him the thumbs-up sign and yelled "OK!"
I couldn't believe it. Just a few minutes later, I led mom and dad backstage to meet Lionel Hampton.
Dad's eyes were glistening as he bent down to shake Lionel Hampton's hand. If I were a history buff, I'd like to think that these two men could have shared stories that shaped America in the 20th century. Dad saw Hamp play at about the time Hampton's orchestra was a true jazz incubator for some the world's best-known talents, including Quincy Jones, Clark Terry, Joe Williams, and Dinah Washington, among many others. After the Korean War, dad hit the job market in a booming post-war economy, gravitating to the steel industry. Being from Johnstown, Pennsylvania in the 1940's, work in the steel mills was a direct route to a paycheck that could support a family.
Over the years, I've kept dad's vinyl collection. Looking back through the LPs, there's a lot of jazz, records from Rat Pack members and Vegas hangers-on, and comedy (Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett). Perhaps the most dog-eared are the discs by Lionel Hampton.
Lionel signed my copy of Lionel Hampton and the Golden Men of Jazz: Live at the Blue Note (Telarc Jazz). These sessions featured Hamp on vibes, Grady Tate on drums, and Milt Hinton on bass. Hank Jones played the piano and the horn section was out of this world: Clark Terry and Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpet, Buddy Tate and James Moody on tenor sax, and Al Grey on the trombone. The disc closes with "Flyin' Home" and "Hamp's Boogie Woogie." After Hamp signed the CD cover, mom talked about their recent trip to Reno and how they loved to play the slots. Lionel lit up and smiled. He lifted his arm up as if he were playing a "one-armed bandit" slot machine and then waved his finger at my dad: "You go on and play those slots, now."
Dad roared with laughter as we left Jazz Alley.
Lionel Hampton's career is certainly a milestone in American music, and I'll never forget his ever present smile on stage and off. Dad tried to introduce Hamp to me when I was in my early teens, just about the time I discovered Steppenwolf. Being a punk kid, I didn't know any better, so I tuned Lionel out. Thinking back, I wish I would have wanted to learn more about the man with the mallets behind the vibraphone.
Lionel's reunited with his wife.
More importantly, I'm sure dad's there, too, welcoming him home.