Jazz great Lionel Hampton dies at 94

— There was more than musical magic on stage that day in 1936 when Lionel Hampton joined Benny Goodman in a Manhattan ballroom � it was a breakthrough in American race relations.

Hampton, a vibraphone virtuoso who died Saturday, broke a barrier that had kept black and white musicians from performing together in public. Through a six-decade career, he continued to build a name for himself as one of the greats in jazz history.

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AP File Photo

Jazz legend Lionel Hampton died Saturday at a Manhattan hospital. He was 94. Hampton, the vibraphone virtuoso and standout showman whose six-decade career ranked him with the greatest names in jazz history, performs with his orchestra in the East Room of the White House in this July 23, 1998, file photo, during a celebration in honor of Hampton's 90th birthday.

"He was really a towering jazz figure," said saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who played with Hampton in the 1950s. "He really personified the spirit of jazz because he had so much joy about his playing."

The 94-year-old showman and bandleader died of heart failure at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said his manager, Phil Leshin. Hampton suffered two strokes in 1995 and had been in failing health in recent years.

Hampton played with a who's who of jazz, from Goodman to Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Quincy Jones. His own band helped foster or showcase other jazz greats, including Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington.

"With Hampton's death, we've drawn closer to losing part of the origins of the early jazz era," said Phil Schaap, a jazz historian.

White House regular

During his career, Hampton performed at the White House for presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush. When he played for Truman, his was the first black band to ever entertain in the White House, Hampton once said.

Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., remembered Hampton's 90th birthday party at the White House, when the man known as the "vibe president" invited President Clinton to grab his saxophone and jam.

"Lionel was a spectacular guy," said Rangel, who recalled seeing Hampton play at the Apollo Theater, the legendary concert venue in Harlem.

In 1997, Hampton received the National Medal of Arts � while wearing a borrowed suit, socks and shoes, because all his clothes and much of his bands' arrangements and other memorabilia had been destroyed in a fire two days earlier.

"He was an American music legend and will be sorely missed," President Bush said in a statement Saturday.

He was a songwriter, too. His most famous composition, "Flying Home," was written in 1937, and he played it about 300 times a year for the next half-century. It was a hit in 1942, propelled by an Illinois Jacquet tenor sax solo.

Modest beginnings

Hampton did not have a copy of his birth certificate but marked his birth date as April 20, 1908. It was generally accepted that he was born in Louisville, Ky., and raised by his grandmother in Birmingham, Ala., and Chicago.

He learned to play the drums from a nun while in grade school, and launched his career with Les Hite's band after finishing high school. It wasn't until a 1930 recording session with Armstrong that Hampton played the vibraphones.

Breaking barriers

In August 1936, Benny Goodman heard Hampton play and three months later Hampton was at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, starting out "four gorgeous years with Benny" in the new, trailblazing Benny Goodman Quartet.

That quartet, with Hampton, pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa, broke racial barriers that had largely kept black musicians from performing with whites in public. Wilson and Hampton made up the black half of the foursome.

Hampton took to the road with his own orchestra in 1940 and built bookings into the million-dollar-a-year range. After the big-band era died, Hampton pared down to a smaller group � about eight players dubbed the Inner Circle � and he occasionally put bigger groups together to travel the globe as a musical ambassador of the United States.

Hampton also established a community development corporation which, with government support, built low- and middle-income housing in New York and Newark, N.J.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Saturday.

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