When legendary Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey decided to integrate Major League Baseball in the mid-1940s, he looked for a black athlete with not just the ability to play the game at an exceedingly high level, but the strength of character to endure the pressure and abuse that were certain to come his way.
Ten years earlier, when Benny Goodman hired black musicians to work with a white band (at a time when the entertainment industry was no less rigorously segregated), he apparently made no such considerations. The two musicians he selected — the pianist Teddy Wilson in 1935, and then, a year later, the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton — were chosen strictly for their musical ability. Goodman doesn't seem to have particularly cared how the pressures of being pushed to the front lines of the war on racism might have affected them personally.
In Hampton's case, Goodman could not have chosen better: He was already famously tough-skinned, a quality that would serve him well for six decades, through which he led his own band with a near complete indifference to anything other than his own needs and ambitions. Nothing got in Hampton's way, whether it was in 1936, when a white racist reportedly threatened violence in reaction to whites and blacks playing together on the same stage, or in 1946, when a bass player for Hampton demanded a living wage.
Ironically, it was while Hampton was still working full-time for Goodman that he made his greatest contribution to jazz, with a series of small group sessions performed under his own direction for RCA Victor Records. In the 78 RPM era, no one could call himself a fan of hot jazz unless he owned a set of the recordings that emerged from that session. The last time they were available, complete and with decent sound quality, was in 1976, when RCA released the works in a six-LP box that was probably the highlight of its long-running Bluebird series. Since then, there have been several legitimate CD editions, though an American BMG series was woefully incomplete and a French version employed artificial stereo.
During the last 30 years, Hampton's Bluebird LP package has been one of the best reasons for keeping a turntable. Now I'm delighted that Mosaic Records has issued "The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937–1941" (Mosaicrecords.com) on CD.
The late-'30s are known as the Golden Years not just of the jazz big band, but also of the hotswing combo — bands that played primarily in ballrooms, theaters, and radio broadcasts. (The most famous small groups were most often special all-star units that only worked together on record dates.) Hampton's all-star combo series complemented the dates led at the same time by fellow Goodmanite Teddy Wilson and the star pianist-entertainer Fats Waller, though unlike their dates, Hampton's leaned less on pop tunes and more on jazz originals (and flat-out jam sessions with very few themes).
Hampton had already proven himself (with Louis Armstrong on "Memories of You" and in his first few years with Goodman) as jazz's first great master of the vibraphone. In establishing his presence as a bandleader, Hampton not only played the vibes and occasionally the drums, but commanded solo space, as on "Twelfth Street Rag," as a pianist playing in a vibraphone-esque two-note style that is like the musical equivalent of touch-typing.
Although it's entertaining to hear him do this shtick once or twice, Hampton's piano solos are perhaps the only parts of the 107 Victor tracks that become tiresome. He also sings on quite a few tracks, and I have to confess that his spooneristic mangling of lyrics and pronunciations never fails to amuse.
Even more than the leader's brilliant vibraphonics and amateurish singing, the reason we treasure these 21 sessions (on five discs) today is the amazingly high quality of the co-stars whom Hampton was able to attract. He gathered his colleagues in the Goodman band (these are, flat out, trumpeter Ziggy Elman's strongest claims to being a great jazz brassman), as well as great players then working with Duke Ellington (Johnny Hodges plays one of his signature solos on "On the Sunny Side of the Street") and Cab Calloway. Hampton also, from time to time, swallowed almost whole the entire personnel of several working small groups, notably Stuff Smith's Onyx Club band, the Spirits of Rhythm, and, most brilliantly, the King Cole Trio.
The most famous of these sessions is a 1939 date that featured four of the five greatest saxophonists playing at the time: alto Benny Carter and tenors Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Chu Berry (only Lester Young was absent), with young proto-boppers Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) and Charlie Christian (guitar) thrown in for good measure. The results are spectacular: Hawkins, Berry, and Carter have many marvelous moments in the series, with the latter also soloing wonderfully on trumpet.
Though it seems like all the major horn players in the jazz world appear at one point or another, my personal favorites are two dates from 1940, when Hampton recruited the already amazing pianist Nat King Cole and his equally prodigious guitarist Oscar Moore. Cole's famous trio, with Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, was already perfect, yet Hampton, both as participant and director, made it even more so; the swing they generate is as remarkable as it is relentless. Regrettably, Cole doesn't sing a solo vocal, but he makes his presence felt in the trio refrains of "Jivin' With Jarvis" and "Dough-Ra-Me," which is also heard in a newly discovered alternate take. Where many of these titles are themeless riffs on tunes that were already jazz standards (there's a lot of "I Got Rhythm," plus both "Bugle Call Rag" and "Tiger Rag"), a few tracks are carefully arranged, exquisite little big-band creations that a contemporary swing ensemble should transcribe. I can't stop playing "Stand By for Further Announcements (And More Good News)," one of the lower-key pop tunes in the series. It's a grade-B song in which the melody seems largely borrowed from Fletcher Henderson's "Down South Camp Meeting," and the lyrics, inspired by a radio catchphrase, are trivial to the point of banality. Yet the 10-piece ensemble (four rhythm, four reeds, Hampton, and Elman) plays Fred Norman's arrangement with so much optimism and positive energy that you could almost forget the world was about to be threatened by racists overseas who made the domestic variety seem like mere pischers by comparison.