John Edward Hasse
Curator of American Music
National Museum of American History
Lionel Hampton Donation Ceremony
Tuesday, January 30, 2001
In recognition of the importance of jazz in American history and culture, the Smithsonian Institution operates the world's most comprehensive set of jazz programs. We do eighteen different kinds of things in jazz-more than any other institution in the world.
This set of programs is unprecedented and unique in the world.
And so is our guest of honor, Lionel Hampton.
Lionel Hampton is one of the giants of jazz and a great American.
He was born April 20, 1908, in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in Kenosha) Wisconsin, and Chicago. An early influence was the records of Louis Armstrong.
In Chicago, Dr. Hampton began on drums and marimba. In 1928 he moved to Los Angeles and joined Les Hite's band, which backed Louis Armstrong at Los Angeles's Cotton Club. Dr. Hampton took up the vibraphone and, much as Coleman Hawkins did with the tenor saxophone, almost single-handedly transformed it from a novelty instrument ... into a first-class jazz instrument. He made the vibes completely his own, developing his own style and setting the benchmark for everyone who would come later.
Dr. Hampton formed his own group, and after Benny Goodman happened upon the combo, he began recording and performing with Goodman's small ensembles and helping to break down the color barrier in jazz. They made dozens of recordings between 1936 and 1940--some of the greatest of all swing recordings, such as Moonglow, Opus 1/2, and Gone with What Wind?. He also organized 23 recording sessions and made 90 recordings with virtually every top soloist of the swing era. Together these recordings rank among the best of the entire Swing Era.
Buoyed by his tremendous success with Goodman, in 1940 Dr. Hampton established his own big band--Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra. In the 1940s, they had huge success with Flying Home, Hamp's Boogie Woogie, Stardust, and others. His band became known for its tremendous energy, exciting rhythms, and dazzling showmanship that created fervent audience excitement.
His band became a sort of university, and it graduated such talents as Illinois Jacquet, Cat Anderson, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Clark Terry, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, and singers Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, and Aretha Franklin.
He is also a composer of more than 200 works, including the jazz standards Flying Home, Evil Gal Blues, and Midnight Sun.
He appeared in a number of motion pictures, including A Song Is Born in 1948 and The Benny Goodman Story in 1955 and No Maps on My Taps in 1979.
In the the1950s, President Eisenhower asked him to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the United States, and Dr. Hampton's band made many tours to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East, generating a huge international following.
He established two record labels, Glad-Hamp Records, with his wife Gladys, and Who's Who in Jazz, as well as his own publishing company. He founded the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation to build low income housing in the inner city.
In 1985, the University of Idaho named its jazz festival for him; and in 1987 the university's music school was named the Lionel Hampton School of Music. The University has also established a Lionel Hampton Institute to help preserve the jazz heritage.
In 1991 President Bush appointed him to the Board of the Kennedy Center. Dr. Hampton received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1992, and in 1996 President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts.
In 1998, he and Lloyd Rucker founded the Lionel and Gladys Hampton Jazz History Education Foundation to go into middle schools and high schools to teach young people about jazz.
He has been awarded seventeen honorary doctorates here and abroad, as well as the Gold Medal of Paris and the Papal Medal.
A few years ago, he was hit with a stroke. But nothing can diminish the spirit of Lionel Hampton. He continues to tour with his big band, and was on hand last year, when a huge portrait of him was unveiled at our sister Smithsonian museum, the National Portrait Gallery.
His career ranks as one of the outstanding achievements in jazz. He had the vision to foresee the possibilities no one else had seen in the vibraphone. He had the taste, musicianship, and inventiveness to fulfill those possibilities. (No wonder he's been called "the Vibes President of the United States.") He had the charm and showmanship to win over tens of millions of people around the world. And the leadership and discipline to mentor practically half of a who's-who of jazz. And nobody, nobody can swing better or harder than Lionel Hampton. He's the personification of swing.