A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Lionel Hampton
Steve Lacy, 1977                                                        Gérard Rouy©2008

A while back (okay, it was the ‘80s) when I used to regularly attend the JVC (nee Kool) Jazz Festival in New York, a bunch of writers used to get together for an annual afternoon of beer and banter, friendly, but a shade competitive too. Inevitably we’d play a game on the order of “What famous jazz musicians don’t you really like?”—not personally, that is, but musically. It was guaranteed to expose one’s secret preferences and prejudices, feelings buried in those places where honesty is separated from professional courtesy and consensus; surprising names would be confessed and provoke critical dispute and much mirth. We’d trash established reputations, backed by the best on-the-spot analysis we could muster. I, for example, had no qualms revealing my distaste — deemed heretical by most, if not all — for Oscar Peterson and his many multi-noted stylistic disciples. The knowledgeable and discerning British critic Barry McRae (a great mate) and I once considered a duel after he dissed one of my idols, Pee Wee Russell.

I’m put in that argumentative state of mind once again thanks to Mosaic’s release of The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-41. There’s no doubt that from among these 107 performances, divided among 23 sessions of varying personnel, emerged at least a half-dozen of jazz’s indelible masterpieces, while the consistent quality and esprit audible throughout make this collection one of the indispensable, defining touchstones of small group swing. This occurred, however, primarily in spite, and not because, of the presence of Lionel Hampton. Given Hamp’s Hall of Fame status and enormous popularity for six decades as a bandleader, this is probably a minority opinion. True, he could be an energizing, and thus magnetic, factor among otherwise disparate talents — his value in the classic Benny Goodman Quartet, beyond the jolt of color his vibes provided, was to serve as the emotional vector between the contrasting poles of Teddy Wilson’s Apollonian suavity and Gene Krupa’s Dionysian sizzle, and here, on occasion, you can count on him to act as the ringleader when pandemonium is needed to make mediocre material palatable. And as an inspirational agent, it’s probably impossible to judge the effect such a powerful personality has on an ad hoc group’s psychological dynamic. But musically, on these discs, most often, he’s just there, doing what he always does.

Unlike the Goodman quartet, and except for the sextet which, with a few minor alterations, produced the final three sessions, none of these groups was a working band under Hampton’s leadership; rather, they were assembled mix-and-match fashion from different big bands, usually that of Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Goodman, depending on who was in town at the time. Despite their informality, the sessions were packed with first-class talent, though who was ultimately responsible for the actual selection is not specified in Loren Schoenberg’s extensive Mosaic booklet notes, nor even in Hampton’s (factually error-prone) autobiography or Stanley Dance’s The World of Swing. The likely scenario was that Hampton, who always had a good ear for talented musicians, had a great deal of input, but the RCA producers — variously Eli Oberstein, Leonard Joy, Steve Sholes, and Harry Meyerson — had final say. Sometimes this resulted in an embarrassment of riches—witness the incomparable saxophone section of Benny Carter, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins which graced the September 11, 1939 session, albeit with shamefully limited solo space, or the striking confluence of veterans “Red” Allen on trumpet and trombonist J.C. Higginbotham with young upstarts Earl Bostic on alto sax and guitarist Charlie Christian a mere month later.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that dedicated arrangements were few. Carter’s work with the nonpareil sax section was an example of his brilliance at blending reed tonalities, and big band veteran Fred Norman supplied a few charts, but otherwise, outside of Nuncio “Toots” Mondello’s remarkable, lush and exotic composition “Shades of Jade” from February 26, 1940, the emphasis here is on jam session spontaneity and solo intensity. The level of individual achievement, from the famous and not-so-famous, accounts for the music’s incandescence. Trumpeter Ziggy Elman, for one, basically remembered today for his hit with Benny Goodman, “Fralich in Swing” (aka “And the Angels Sing”),” is a wailing standout in every appearance, and Chu Berry’s reputation (his recordings with Cab Calloway and less than a CD-full of small band items on his own notwithstanding) was solidified on the strength of stunning, serpentine solos such as those on “Sweethearts on Parade” and “Wizzin’ the Wiz.” Marvelous moments from Johnny Hodges, wielding his Bechet-inspired soprano saxophone alongside Cootie Williams’ patented growl trumpet on the January 1938 “You’re My Ideal,” or Coleman Hawkins with Benny Carter and Edmond Hall in the December 1939 session may not be unexpected, but normally lesser lights like Vido Musso, Eddie Barefield, Budd Johnson, “Mouse” Randolph, and Russell Procope prove equally illuminating. Special credit should go to the rhythm sections, more often than not fueled by pianist Jess Stacy, guitarist Allan Reuss, and Cozy Cole on drums, for sustained excellence.

And what about Hamp? One of the points that he keeps hammering at in his autobiography is that he is, first and above all, a showman, someone who gives the people what they want. This proved to be a rewarding but also severely limiting attitude, one that approached music as sheer entertainment, and not necessarily an opportunity for higher levels of expressiveness and creativity. To that end, a vibes solo was no more or less important than a buck-and-wing atop a piano bench, a drum solo all the more dramatic if he juggled his sticks in the process (and remember, his first self-anointed claim to fame, before he joined Goodman, was to bill himself as The World’s Fastest Drummer). So these 107 sides, intended by Victor as commercial counterattack to Brunswick’s Teddy Wilson sessions, give him free rein to show off all of his abilities, the flashier the better. This meant drum features that bulldozed the band into blazing tempos or stopped dead while he flammed and paradiddled like a Krupa wannabee, and painful interjections of his “famous” two-finger piano style—both of which worked best in riff or stomp tunes where he could push and push without pulverizing the beat, but tossed all thought of nuance or lyricism to the winds. Schoenberg makes an interesting observation about Hampton’s pianism and Conlon Nancarrow’s complex, inhuman player piano compositions, which says something about the mechanical quality of his playing, ebulliently percussive, yet tiresome after so many similar outings. On piano he was capable of an isolated amusing episode, like the Pagliacci quote tossed into “Rhythm, Rhythm,” but usually settled for routines which wouldn’t be out of place in the Lawrence Welk Band — “Twelfth Street Rag” is one, almost redeemed by Lawrence Brown’s audacious trombone, Harry Carney’s strong baritone sax, and some tongue-in-cheek Rex Stewart cornet.

Then there’s his singing. Vocals were considered crucial to jukebox success — just look at the parade of second-rate crooners on even the Ellington (and sidemen) small band sides. But it’s noteworthy that, outside of a few latter-day (1940-41) guest spots, Hampton handles all of the vocals himself — even Nat “King” Cole, whom Hamp, according to his autobiography, repeatedly urged to sing, sing, sing early in his career, isn’t allowed to do so on their nine sides together. But this had to be either an ego trip, or a money-saving decision (always a consideration in the world of Lionel and Gladys Hampton), or both, as Hampton is hardly an endearing, much less enduring, singer. He tried to model himself after his idol and early employer Louis Armstrong, but exuded no real charm or personality traits other than a grimace-inducing awkwardness like that on “The Object of My Affection” and “Any Time At All.” Schoenberg acknowledges the Armstrong influence, but missed one example of Hampton’s idolization — the mispronunciation of Rockefeller (as Rockyfellow) in his 1937 version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” which Schoenberg gently jibes as “Hamptonese” is actually him mimicking the way Armstrong sang it on his 1934 recording.

What Hampton had, though, was a knack for the vibes. Here his percussive attack was cushioned by the instrument’s resonating timbre, and in those rare moments when he could avoid the tendency to bludgeon the beat with clunky, inflexible phrasing and repetitive patterns, he was capable of fetching, off-kilter melodic motifs and oblique harmonic asides. Apart from incendiary items like “Stompology,” “Everybody Loves My Baby,” and “Hot Mallets,” his best moments occur as he’s accompanied by the smooth, cool Nat Cole trio and the tasteful jive of the Spirits of Rhythm, where he’s eased into responding with a modicum of modesty, restraint, and lyrical nuance. Ironically, his own sextet from late 1940 and early ’41, with its unusual instrumentation — including electric violin (Ray Perry), rockish electric guitar (Irving Ashby), and clarinet/alto saxophone (Marshal Royal) — had real potential for r&b raunch and sophisticated swing (negating the pop-obsessed vocals of Lee Young and Ruble Blakey), but was quickly overhauled in favor of the circusy big band format that Hamp would front for the next 60 years. (FYI: There’s a programming error in this second-to-last session, with “Fiddle Diddle” from the October 11, 1938 date repeated instead of the correct track, “Fiddle-Dee-Dee.” Mosaic is aware of the problem, and will send out replacement CDs to those who purchase the collection with the incorrect track.)

The truth of the matter is these performances resonate with one exciting gesture after another, thanks to the superlative, personality-driven collective musicianship on display. Perhaps the best solution is to listen to them two sides at a time, as the original 78 rpm releases intended, so that Hampton’s redundancy is diluted and his extravagant mannerisms masquerade as intense, in-the-moment exhilaration. Schoenberg sums it all up nicely: “He created a musical universe that was all his own, and it ranged from (to use H.L. Mencken’s notable phrase) a carnival of buncombe to simply exquisite.” Whatever it is, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Art Lange©2008

New World Records

> back to contents