Lionel Hampton (b. 20 April 1908 - 31 Aug 2002) is the founding father of the jazz vibraphone. As a kid and young man "Hamp" played drums and piano. In 1930 he was playing a recording gig with Louis Armstrong's big band when Louis showed Hamp a set of vibes and asked if he knew how to play them. The next take was "Memories of You" with Hampton playing vibraphone, kicking off 71 years of history (and counting).

Lionel Hampton was born in Louisville, Kentucky and listened to his role model Jimmy Bertrand, a drummer who also played xylophone occasionally. After the aforementioned date with Armstrong, Hampton joined Benny Goodman and his orchestra. In 1940, Hampton formed his own big band and had a hit with what was to be his signature song, "Flying Home." (The original recording features a classic solo by tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet.) Some members of his big band who later went on to fame and fortune (or at least fame) include Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Griffin, Dinah Washington, Charles Mingus, Fats Navarro, Wes Montgomery, and Betty Carter. Especially note-worthy is the 1953 band which Hampton took to Paris; it was star-studded with the presence of Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Jimmy Cleveland, and Gigi Gryce.

While there have been periods of hiatus for Hampton's orchestra, his has been one of the longest lived leaderships: he has led orchestras from the 1950's to the 1990's. I saw them in the late 1980's at an outdoor festival.

Although Hampton has kept mostly to the swing style of playing, he has adeptly performed in more modern settings, even recording John Coltrane's "Giant Steps". As the grand-daddy of the vibraphone he is the proud patriarch of a small but talented branch of jazz whose younger members include Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, and Gary Burton. Let's only hope there are more, because the vibraphone is a very pleasant alternative to piano or guitar in the small jazz combo.

Lionel Hampton passed away on 31 August 2002 in Manhattan's Mount Sinai Medical Center due to old age and effects of a recent heart attack. Rest in peace, Lionel.

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