About this Recording
8.120651 - HAMPTON, Lionel: Air Mail Special (1937-1946)

‘Air Mail Special’ Original Recordings 1937-1946

The exuberance and excitement and feeling of exultation that Lionel Hampton contributes to any musical occasion with which he is associated are absolutely amazing. No other single performer in American jazz – and in American big bands, too – has so consistently and joyously incited and inspired his fellow musicians and listening audiences. – George T. Simon

No less a virtuoso of piano and drums, Lionel Hampton has long been a synonym for jazz vibraphone; and while he may not have been quite the first to experiment with that instrument in a jazz context, he certainly invested it with the life’s breath of Swing and Blues and spawned a new tradition of vibraphonists. Celebrated during the Swing Era as a bigband sideman, and latterly the spontaneous showman par excellence of jazz bandleaders, multi-instrumentalist Lionel Hampton was born into a middle-class family in Louisville, Kentucky, on 20 April 1909. His childhood was spent in both Louisville and Birmingham, Alabama, and from 1916 he lived in Chicago with his grandparents who sent him to the Holy Rosary Academy in Collins, Wisconsin, where he was taught the rudiments of drumming from Sister Petra, a Dominican nun. Later, he attended St. Monica’s Catholic school in Chicago and gained his first afterhours drumming experience at local gigs.

After his grandmother’s death, Lionel was taken under the wing of his jet-setting uncle Richard Morgan. A successful bootlegger in the pay of Al Capone (who was, as Hamp himself relates, via the work generated by his speakeasies, ‘the saviour of the black musicians in those days’), Morgan bought him drums and generally encouraged his musically precocious nephew. Lionel soon became a member of the Chicago Defender youth band, a classical orchestra which modelled itself on the Chicago Symphony and there ‘got ear training’ from its organiser Major N. Clark Smith, a noted educator under whose tutelage he also studied timpani and xylophone. In 1924 he ventured to Hollywood and there, to supplement his at first meagre income from music, he took a menial job in a drugstore in Culver City, adjacent to the MGM film studios. By providing after-hours entertainment for movie stars, however, he was soon mixing in the right musical circles and according to his own account made his first recordings that same year, in Los Angeles, at a Reb Spikes’ Legion Club Forty-Fives session.

Over the next five years Hamp established himself in professional circles in and around L.A., gigging regularly in various “territory” bands, notably those led by Spikes, Curtis Moseby and Paul Howard (with whose ninepiece Quality Serenaders he recorded, on drums, for Victor, in April 1929). By that year he was also drumming with Louis Armstrong and at a mid-1930 Armstrong recording session first featured the vibes which, legend has it, he had found lying around in the studio. By 1930, Hamp had decided that the Quality Serenaders ‘weren’t playing [his] kind of music’. He wanted to swing and, in collaboration with the Serenaders’ leader (his old friend from Chicago, Santa Monica-born alto-saxophonist Les Hite, 1903-1962) set up a resident band at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City. Until 1932 Louis Armstrong also worked regularly with this band, which interspersed dance music a la Gus Arnheim’s Coconut Grove Orchestra with hot jazz numbers. There, drummer Hamp first began to feature vibes seriously and won recognition for the new jazz instrument via a series of promotional shorts.

From 1935 Hamp led his own band in California and early the following year, through recording guru John Hammond, was introduced to Benny Goodman. Hamp played, at first informally, in various small groups led by Goodman (he would continue to play and record with Goodman ensembles until 1940) and in mid-1936, while still leading a nine-piece at the Los Angeles Paradise Club, rocketed to fame when, at Goodman’s invitation, his “vibraharp” became the latest addition to the by now famous Trio. Hamp made his first records with Goodman, Krupa and pianist Teddy Wilson in Hollywood, on 13 August 1936 and their outstanding success led to Hamp’s permanent membership of Goodman’s entourage. A key figure in the evolution of Swing, after making his official debut with Goodman in New York (at the Pennsylvania Hotel, on 21 November) he became a regular of the Goodman Sextet and, after Gene Krupa’s sudden departure in 1938, often sat in with the Goodman big-band.

Hamp’s association with Goodman led to an RCA-Victor commission to make his own small-group recordings. Featuring available musicians ad hoc from Ellington and other ‘visiting’ big-bands, Hamp’s own first efforts in the genre are jazz classics. Bright gems in the discography of Swing they comprise an exciting if predictable mixture of pyrotechnic hot jazz numbers and mid-tempo commercial standards and indeed several titles, from 1937 onwards, earned the equivalent status of US popular Top 30 ‘hits’ (included is The Jumpin’ Jive, an estimated No.15, in 1939). Hamp’s musical standing assured by his small band records (rivalled in these only by Teddy Wilson and Ellington), in 1940 Hamp quit Goodman to form his own big band. From its inception this toured extensively and was by 1986 the longestsurviving outfit of its kind. By 1942, via disc alone, its fame was already established by the sheer energy of Hamp’s own formulaic creation ‘Flying Home’ (featuring Hampton and Illinois Jacquet) and this was soon followed – notwithstanding the engineers’ strike – by other notable early landmarks, including Hamp’s Boogie Woogie (1944) and Air Mail Special (1946).

Peter Dempsey, 2005

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