Two days after a fire destroyed nearly everything he owned, jazz great Lionel Hampton still kept his date with the president - in style.
The 88-year-old Hampton arrived in a limousine and donated suit to receive the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton.
He cruised through a snowstorm to the awards ceremony at an auditorium near the White House, then headed off with 11 other honorees to a black-tie dinner with the president Thursday evening.
“We’re glad to see Lionel Hampton here safe and sound,” Clinton said as he presented the award. “Anyone who has ever heard his music knows he is more than just a performer. He is a lion of American music. And he still makes the vibraphone sing.”
Hampton has said his band was the first jazz band and the first black band ever to perform at the White House. A Republican for 40 years, he endorsed Clinton for re-election last year.
With a slow, stooped gait and the aid of a cane and a military escort, Hampton walked on stage to his seat of honor, beaming in his dark gray suit, crisp white shirt and scarlet tie. Another honoree, the Boys Choir of Harlem, gave Hampton a standing ovation.
After Clinton placed the gold medal around his neck, Hampton blew a kiss to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and grinned from ear to ear.
Thursday’s festivities capped a tough week for the jazz musician, who escaped a fire in his high-rise apartment Tuesday with only the clothes he was wearing.
Besides his vibraphone, Hampton lost a wealth of mementos from his long career, including a vintage record collection, written music and photographs and letters from presidents dating back to Harry Truman.
After hearing of Hampton’s plight, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., drummed up donations for his long-time friend from clothing stores in Harlem. Harlem Hospital provided a wheelchair for Hampton, who suffered two strokes in 1995.
Hampton was one of 12 artists to receive the National Medal of the Arts.