'Vibes' master Lionel Hampton dead
'It was the first time black and white ever played together'
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Jazz legend Lionel Hampton, who took the vibraphone from the world of radio broadcasts to an improvisational jazz instrument, died Saturday leaving behind a legacy that will echo in music for years to come. He was 94.
Hampton's seven-decade career put an indelible mark on the sound of jazz and helped launch the careers of such greats as Quincy Jones, Nat King Cole, Dexter Gordon and Aretha Franklin.
Heart failure claimed the "vibes president of the United States" at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said Phil Leshin, who played bass with Hampton for a time.
"He was a very sweet man, a very talented man and a very generous man," Leshin said. "He introduced the vibraphone as a jazz instrument. Before that it used to be the NBC chimes."
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Hampton and his family moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he first picked up drum sticks under the tutelage of the Dominican nuns at Holy Rosary Academy.
As a teen in Chicago hawking the Chicago Defender newspaper, he joined the Defender Newsboys' Band on drums, and experimented with the xylophone -- an experience that would eventually lead to Hampton's trademark, the vibraphone.
Louis Armstrong and the vibraphone
But first, "Hamp" hit the West Coast in the 1920s as a drummer, playing with the Les Hite Band and then backing Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.
"He idolized Louis Armstrong. When he had a chance to play drums with him in 1929, he jumped on it," Leshin said. "He was billed as the fastest drummer in the world playing with the greatest trumpet player in the world."
During a 1930 recording session, Armstrong pointed to a "vibraharp' -- as the vibes were known at the time -- in a corner. Hampton described it as "an electric xylophone."
"Louis asked me do I know anything the instrument, and what was it, and I explained it to him," Hampton said in an interview. "So he said, 'Could you play something on it?' I said, 'Sure,' you know."
The first song they recorded was Eubie Blake's "Memories of You," which became a hit -- "the first recorded vibraphone solo," Leshin said -- and marked the beginning of Lionel Hampton's seven-decade career as a vibes master.
Hampton left Hite's band and formed his own group, and made history again in 1936 when Benny Goodman asked him to turn his Trio into a quartet, the first racially integrated jazz group in the nation.
"It was the first time black and white ever played together and at that time there were no blacks and whites associating together," Hampton said of the experience.
The Benny Goodman Quartet rode the top of the jazz world for four years, and then Hampton recorded a few tunes under his own name. His "Sunny Side of the Street" and "Central Avenue Breakdown" struck a chord with jazz fans, leading Hampton to form his own big band.
Artists including Quincy Jones, Charlie Mingus, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter and Aretha Franklin got boosts performing with Hampton's swing orchestra.
Philanthropy and friendship
Hampton married in 1936. His wife, Gladys, helped him create his own music publishing company and record label, enabling the musician to become a philanthropist. Among his charitable works: the establishment of low-income housing in Harlem and Newark, New Jersey, and music scholarships at a number of universities.
Hampton, a friend of many U.S. presidents, became an international spokesman for jazz, teaching it in classrooms and on stage. Although his own political leanings ran toward the Republicans, Bill Clinton threw Hampton's 90th birthday party in 1998 at the White House.
A year earlier -- two days after a devastating fire destroyed his Manhattan apartment and a lifetime full of personal possessions -- Clinton presented Hampton with the Presidential Medal of Arts.
Showbuzz: Clintons help Lionel Hampton celebrate 90th birthdayRELATED SITES:
July 24, 1998
New York fire guts Lionel Hampton's home
January 7, 1997
'Q' and A: A talk with Quincy Jones
December 11, 2001
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