TCS Daily

The Republican Who Broke the Color Barrier

By Joe Bendel - August 30, 2004 12:00 AM

One can only assume the Republican National Convention kicking off in New York this week will spend a good deal of time in tribute to President Ronald Reagan. As the man who drove a stake in the heart of an expansionist Communist Empire, and recast the Republican Party is his own image, such tributes are only fitting and proper. The RNC would also be well advised to give significant time to mark the contributions of another longtime GOP stalwart who passed away since the 2000 convention, jazz legend Lionel Hampton.

Hampton's musical significance cannot be overstated. He brought the vibraphone into jazz, and recorded some of music's seminal standards. Hampton also frequently campaigned for Republican candidates, as early as the late 1940's, when he worked on behalf of his friend Richard Nixon in California.

In 1930 Hampton, an up-and-coming jazz drummer, became the first musician to record legitimate jazz improvisations on the vibraphone at a Louis Armstrong session. The vibraphone, also known as the vibes, is an electrically amplified mallet instrument, resembling a large-scale xylophone, with sustain pedals underneath, like a piano. Until that recording session the vibes had almost solely been used for commercial purposes, to accompany radio station call signs (think of the famous "N-B-C)." To this day, most vibraphone soloists are found nearly exclusively in the jazz field. Diverse players like Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Roy Ayers, and Dave Pike have carved out a rich tradition, following Hampton's lead. For this innovation alone, he would stand as a hugely significant figure in jazz history.

As Hampton's career progressed, he started to play more vibes and less drums, capitalizing on the distinctive sound it gave his band. That sound, and Hampton's vigorous performance style caught the attention of the highly influential producer and promoter John Hammond, who urged a reluctant Benny Goodman to hire the vibes virtuoso. In 1936 Hampton became a part of American history, playing in the first racially integrated combo to record and perform in public. To his credit, Goodman hired Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano, to play in his quartet, thereby integrating American popular music. With Goodman himself leading on clarinet, and Gene Krupa rounding out the original quartet on drums, the Benny Goodman Quartet quickly became recognized as one of the most exciting small groups in jazz. Shortly thereafter, Hampton also joined the full Goodman big band.

To put this in perspective, Hampton and Wilson broke the color barrier in music eleven years before Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut, eighteen years before Brown v. Board of Ed., and twenty-six years before James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi. Jazz was truly in the vanguard of social progress.

Hampton was soon leading a big band of his own again, which had an enormous hit with "Flying Home," featuring a roof-raising tenor solo from Illinois Jacquet. Hampton had an eye for talent, hiring many important musicians early in their careers. Important jazz artists including Jacquet, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, Annie Ross, Clifford Brown, and Quincy Jones all paid early dues in the Hampton band.

Many don't know that Hampton was also a longtime Republican. Hampton had a long relationship with the Bush family, beginning in the forties, when he met Sen. Prescott Bush at a War Bonds rally in Connecticut, and culminating with his election as a New York State delegate for the first President Bush in 1988.

Hampton's Republican activity was not confined to the Bush family. In 1946, the then California-based Hampton was an assistant campaign manager for Richard Nixon's first congressional re-election campaign, after the man from Whittier had been appointed to fill a vacancy. As with the Bush family, Hampton kept in touch with Nixon, campaigning on his behalf throughout Nixon's political career.

In his autobiography Hamp! (1989) Hampton writes fondly of Nixon and his presidential tenure. According to Hampton: "Nixon was a true friend to black people. A lot of people don't know the things he did. One reason he created the Small Business Administration was to help blacks." (p. 154).

As a longtime friend of the Bush family, Hampton originally supported George H. W. Bush, in 1980, but he campaigned vigorously for Reagan in the general election, personally paying for political ads in magazines like Jet. Having moved to New York, in the 1960's Hampton also has a long history of helping New York Republicans. At one point he personally produced a campaign 45 record for Nelson Rockefeller consisting of "Rockefeller Rock" and "Rocking for Rocky." In 1984 he even served as Vice Chairman of the Manhattan GOP and was wooed to run for city-wide office.

Although he supported Rockefeller and other Rockefeller Republicans like John Lindsay locally, Hampton had strong conservative principles. Hampton makes his Republican inclinations crystal clear in his autobiography writing: "The Democrats use blacks just to get their votes. But when the time comes to compensate, they forget all about us. Republicans do good deeds for blacks without ballyhooing. I believe in a lot of the principles of Republicanism, like not being wasteful." (p. 167)

Hampton exhibited the best of conservative values in his life, particularly as an entrepreneur. Hampton's Glad-Hamp Records was one of the earliest and most successful examples of an artist-run record label. Raised by his evangelical grandmother, and later a convert to Roman Catholicism, religion also played an important role in Hampton's life.

As a result of strong sympathetic feeling, Hampton was an early and consistent supporter of Israel. In the middle fifties, Hampton made his first of several Israeli tours, donating his profits from the trip back to the State of Israel. His time there would inspire one of Hampton's few extended compositions, The King David Suite.

Hampton's generosity was not confined to Israel. At home, he truly exemplified the volunteerist spirit, establishing scholarships and playing benefits for many worthy causes. Hampton spearheaded the development of the Lionel Hampton and Gladys Hampton Houses, low income housing complexes in Harlem, personally funding a substantial portion of their construction. Like many Republicans, Hampton had far more confidence in direct action, than in the machinations of government bureaucracies.

Hampton was a giant of American music, and a tireless Republican campaigner. RNC convention organizers should pay tribute to his life and gifts. It's a life well worth recounting, filled with richly satisfying music. Paying proper respects to Hampton can only help the GOP's image as the party struggles with its attempts to reach out to African-American voters, while viewers of the convention might welcome a break from the standard political rhetoric typically featured at national party confabs.

A resident of New York City, the author teaches jazz history courses at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies.


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