Age, infirmity and hard times are reducing Lionel Hampton to his core, and it seems that core is music.
As he has since 1984, Hampton presided over the University of Idaho jazz festival that bears his name. A likeness of him formed the backdrop of the stage, a mammoth portrait whose dominant features are a wide, vibrant grin and a right arm extended in welcome.
The real man bears scant resemblance to that youthful, vigorous image.
Hampton is 88 now, his gait slowed and his movements weakened by a stroke. He lost a lifetime of possessions and mementos when fire destroyed his New York City apartment in January.
It took him several minutes last week to totter across the Moscow stage to his vibraphone, front and center, but when he reached the instrument he no longer was a fragile icon surrounded by attendants and propped up by a cane. He was a consummate jazz musician.
“We were just figuring out what we’re going to do tonight. We weren’t doing any real playing,” he said after the festival’s first sound check.
Not really playing?
Hunched over the vibes, right shoulder drooping, he was intent on the music as the unusual duo of Samuel Pilafian on tuba and Frank Vignola on guitar joined brothers Elvin Jones, drums, and Hank Jones, piano, and bass player Christian Bausch in a jazz standard, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
With two pink-tipped mallets in his right hand and one in his left he tried a few tentative notes as the other musicians played. These were soft and fuzzy at first and nearly lost in the sounds of the other instruments. Then they became stronger and sharper as Hampton found the melody, then set out on a slow stroll away from it. He played subtly, intricately in the spaces between the other musicians, creating little surprises of sound in that emptiness.
Then, just as deliberately, he returned to the melody and ended the song with an abrupt flourish of his right hand.
The performance was marked by wit that belies what seems to be the precarious hold Hampton has on the rest of life.
Afterward, he said something in a low voice to Vignola and the young musician smiled.
“We exchange ideas, and sometimes I can pick up a hint from these young guys,” Hampton explained.
Hampton is the point of connection between jazz generations. Discovered by Louis Armstrong and achieving stardom in the 1930s in a quartet with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Gene Crupa, Hampton went on to develop his own proteges, a long list that includes singers like Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin and musicians like Wes Montgomery and Quincy Jones, to whom this year’s festival was dedicated.
“I discovered Quincy Jones. He really appreciated the schooling I gave him and knowledge I gave him,” Hampton said.
Young jazz performers have long been what the Moscow festival is about. A highlight for Hampton is participating in clinics for the high school and college-aged musicians and singers who attend.
“They should sit up and be attentive and get all the knowledge they can from us older people,” he said. “They want to learn their instrument. If you’re a saxophone player, they ask you about the saxophone. If you’re a trumpet player, they ask you about the trumpet. If you’re a trombone player, they ask you about the trombone.
“And they believe in us older people, and they figure they’re getting the right answers. And I enjoy them asking questions, and I give them right answers.”
Rachel Hosick, of Pullman High School, competed at the festival four years ago as an eighth grader. She’s come back every year since, just to hear the music. Last year, she met Hampton.
“I’m going to remember I met somebody who made a huge influence on music and on this town when he came here every year,” Hosick said. “I remember I was kind of nervous … he’s a great musician.”
Robert Arnold, also of Pullman High, attended the festival for the first time last week as a vocal competitor. He’s still learning about Lionel Hampton.
“I didn’t know he was a person. I just thought he was a name for the festival,” Arnold said. “My mom this morning asked me, ‘Is he still alive?’ I’m like, ‘Wow, I think so.’ I want to meet him.”
At one time, Hampton’s mere presence dominated the festival.
He was playful, energetic and took over every situation he found himself in. Now, though, he suffers through the helpful attention of others who offer an arm, arrange a napkin in his lap, direct him to an armchair on stage. He seems vague, diffident, a shadow of himself.
But he still plays.
Hampton plans to tour in Europe again this year and also in China. Thinking of the trip reminds Hampton of a story about the king of Thailand.
“The king and I are good friends. He plays saxophone. He’s very good, too,” Hampton said. “Every time I’m in the Far East, he gets my booking schedule, finds a couple of days open, and invites me to the palace and we have a jam session there. I like to go there, because his food is good. When you’re there, you eat like a king.”
Guitarist Herb Ellis, a Grammy Award winner in 1990, first heard Hampton with Goodman. He met him in the early 1950s and Ellis echoes the sentiments of many performers who appear in Moscow because of the regard in which they hold Hampton.
“They just call me and I come,” We’ve been friends. He’s known of my playing for years.
“He’s kept his musical integrity as a high point. I’d say he has fun with his music … his music is very joyful, very positive.”
He is almost entirely legend now. The living man has all but faded away. Almost, but not quite. He stands shakily before his vibes, but when the music starts he still is part of it, maybe given more to subtle, introspective interpretation these days than to flashy virtuosity, but still part of it.
And if the young musicians in the audience sit up and are attentive they will hear in his playing the most compelling right answer Lionel Hampton can deliver.
“I give all I can every time I make an appearance,” he said. “I give all I can.”