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Two jazz greats celebrate. Lionel Hampton: 60 years of putting jazz `out in front'

HE'S a world ambassador for jazz -- a great vibraphonist, a composer, bandleader, drummer, entertainer, and philanthropist. And he's got the biggest, most congenial grin in the business. Lionel Hampton is currently celebrating his 60th year in the music business with his usual energy and enthusiasm. ``Hamp'' had just wrapped up the McDonald's First Annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival when he agreed to be interviewed at his Manhattan apartment. The walls are covered with pictures of Hampton posing with famous jazz players and politicians, family, and friends. We sat down between a grand piano and a set of vibes and talked about the festival.

``We started the festival to educate the youngsters in jazz, and they like it! There are some talented young musicians out there that can write good songs,'' Hamp said. ``This will give a new jazz feeling, another plus that will help us put jazz out front.''

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Hampton feels jazz has gotten short shrift, and that most media attention has gone to promoting rock and roll: ``These groups that play now and sing now -- it's terrible. They call it metal rock, hard rock, and all that -- it's a disgrace, because it's really a mockery of the type of music that we blacks are known for -- the blues and the good swing music. But it had a lot of promotion. They had the media with them; they had the radio and the press.''

But, he says, ``there's nothing like getting a big jazz band and getting that swing and that feeling. Swing draws people together. When it's swingin', people can pat their feet; they can be happy with each other. But in a disco, there's no feeling at all. You've got to make the feeling, and you've got to get yourself interested in dancing, and the music is secondary.''

Hamp may be down on rock and roll, but he's certainly progressive when it comes to his own music. He keeps up with the times, and his current band is full of young players. His album ``Ambassador at Large'' received a Grammy nomination in 1985 in the big-band category.

Lionel Hampton lives and breathes his music, and it's obvious he loves it. Talking with him, you get the feeling that he lies in bed at night and dreams about chords, melodies, and arrangements. He's been criticized by some jazz purists for being ``just a showman'' -- Hamp used to jump on top of his tomtom, and he still loves to do fancy tricks with his drumsticks -- but nothing could be further from the truth. True, he knows how to give the audience a great time, but he's also a virtuosic vibraphonist and a great improviser on that instrument, which he pioneered in jazz.

Hampton is also a well-known philanthropist, having donated time and money to numerous causes in the United States and abroad. He helped construct two housing projects in Harlem, and he's currently planning to build one in Atlanta.

How does he view his involvement in social causes? ``Well, it's like music. When it's not hitting right, you got a bad note, so you got to change the note, you got to change the orchestration. It's a lot of fun, but you got to put the Mighty Man up front -- God's got to be in front of the deal.'' A religious man, Hampton can often be found backstage before a concert, deep in prayer.

A political enthusiast, he has rubbed elbows with many dignitaries and has performed at the White House.

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Hampton is also famous for breaking down color lines -- he was one of the first blacks to play in a white band when he joined Benny Goodman in the 1930s. He was also the first black to lead a band at a presidential inauguration -- Harry Truman's, in 1949.

``After all, you need both the black keys and white keys to make good harmony,'' he says.

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