I have a picture hanging in my office which I'll scan and post on my music page later (see left). I see this picture every day and it helps in those rare cases when I need of a reminder of why I've made music a big part of my life. It's a picture taken of me and Lionel Hampton, circa 1980, after a performance at Brick Memorial High School that will go down as one of the most unforgettable performances I ever saw. Hampton must have been in his 70's at that time, and there was no stopping this man even at that age. He led a swinging big band and he was everything I had read and seen about the man - the big smile, the joy of making music, his kinetic stage manner, and the way he played those vibes. As a neophyte musician who had been struggling with trying to play swinging music, it was a revelation to see and hear it done live. Hamp was a very gregarious performer, even at that age....
...fast forward to the year 2000. At Atlantic City's annual music festival, Hampton and his combo perform a free outdoor concert at Brighton Park, the courtyard which is surrounded by the Bally's, Claridge and Sands casinos. Hampton is clearly hobbled by age. No longer playing standing, and not playing very much. Maybe a note here or there, or maybe three or four at a time if we were lucky. His wheelchair awaited at the edge of the stage, and he needed a lot of help getting places. But just being there was probably a huge accomplishment for Hampton, who in his lifetime had enough accomplishments for three or four men, including being a part of one of the first racially-integrated music ensembles ever, the Benny Goodman Quartet (which also included another African-American, Teddy Wilson, on piano, besides the Caucasian Goodman on clarinet and Gene Krupa on drums), leading his own big band after 1940, authoring the symphonic composition "King David Suite", touring the world as an ambassador of music, and becoming the recipient of many awards and accolades, culminating in the National Medal Of The Arts bestowed by President Clinton (himself a musician) in 1997. And suddenly it didn't seem quite so intrusive that we were witness to this man's weaknesses in his latter years.
Lionel Hampton died at 6:15 a.m. this morning, not three hours ago as I write this. (Officially, his age at death was listed at 94, but there have been reports that he was as old as 100.) His influence on the world, present company included, will never be forgotten.
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