Lionel Hampton was the first jazz vibraphonist and was one of the jazz giants beginning in the mid-'30s. He has achieved the difficult feat of being musically open-minded (even recording "Giant Steps") without changing his basic swing style. Hamp started out as a drummer, playing with the Chicago Defender Newsboys' Band as a youth. His original idol was Jimmy Bertrand, a '20s drummer who occasionally played xylophone. Hampton played on the West Coast with such groups as Curtis Mosby's Blue Blowers, Reb Spikes, and Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders (with whom he made his recording debut in 1929) before joining Les Hite's band, which for a period accompanied Louis Armstrong. At a recording session in 1930, a vibraphone happened to be in the studio, and Armstrong asked Hampton (who had practiced on one previously) if he could play a little bit behind him and on "Memories of You" and "Shine"; Hamp became the first jazz improviser to record on vibes.
As a bandleader, he established the Lionel Hampton Orchestra that became known around the world for its tremendous energy, dazzling showmanship and first-class jazz musicianship. “Sunny Side of the Street,” “Central Avenue Breakdown,” his signature tune, “Flying Home,” and “Hamp's Boogie-Woogie” all became top-of-the-chart best-sellers upon release and the name Lionel Hampton became world famous overnight, and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra had a phenomenal array of sidemen.
The band also initiated the first phase of Hampton's career as an educator by graduating 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. The Lionel Hampton Orchestra became known around the world for its tremendous energy, dazzling showmanship and first-class jazz musicianship.
As a composer and arranger, Hampton wrote more than 200 works, including the jazz standards Flying Home, Evil Gal Blues, and Midnight Sun. He also composed the major symphonic work, “King David Suite.”
During the 1960s, Hampton's groups were in decline; he was still performing what had succeeded for him earlier in his career. He did not fare much better in the 1970s, though he recorded actively for his Who's Who in Jazz record label, which he founded in 1977/1978.
Beginning in February 1984, Hampton and his band played at the University of Idaho's annual jazz festival, which was renamed the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival the following year. In 1987 the UI's school of music was renamed for Hampton, the first university music school named for a jazz musician.
Hampton remained active until a stroke in Paris in 1991 led to a collapse on stage. That incident, combined with years of chronic arthritis, forced him to cut back drastically on performances. However, he did play at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2001 shortly before his death.
Hampton performs with the Paul Shaffer Band and then tells a St. Patrick's Day joke. March 17, 1987.