All Judge Maurice Cobbs can say is, "Go, Hamp, go!"
"I just try to play like hell."—Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton: Swinging at His Best is a fantastic little DVD, an unexpected delight—doubly so, because while the name Lionel Hampton may resonate with jazz fans, he's not one of the generally well-known bandleaders. Presented as a series of performance clips that look as though they might have been recycled from old musical shorts and reworked as "music videos," this lineup features familiar standards like "Lady be Good" and "Who Cares" as well as Hampton originals like "Flyin' Home," "Air Mail Special," and "Slide, Hamp, Slide."
It's snappy stuff, as far as it goes, showcasing not only Hamp's wild-eyed over-the-top enthusiasm and his creativity and innovation on the vibraphone, but his talents with the drums and piano as well. Also featured are the jazz luminaries Hampton worked with (although many of the fantastic soloists who take the spotlight from time to time are regrettably never identified), and a couple of the performances feature vocalists Patti Page and Isabelle Freeman.
These performance clips don't look very good, even if they're not unwatchable; in some, there is a distracting amount of grain, dirt, and scratching, which makes it look as if the studio found this material somewhere tossed in a corner and all of a sudden, on a whim, decided to press a DVD from it. You know, just for kicks.
Which is as good a reason as any to get this hard-swinging Hamp material to the yearning masses—this stuff rocks! But, as seems to be the case with so many music DVDs focusing on the great artists of yesteryear, it's all meat and no gravy. No effort was made to provide any background material, so I have no idea where any of these clips were filmed, or why. No background information on Hamp's orchestra is provided, let alone on the man himself—not even one of those brief text biographies. Why not? I wondered. Could the disclaimer that appears on the front cover, defiantly declaring that "This Production Is Not Authorized or Endorsed by the Estate of Lionel Hampton," have something to do with it?
Certainly, Hamp's life is interesting enough to deserve at least a brief overview. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1908, Hamp quickly made a name for himself in the jazz world and made music history by playing in the first racially integrated combo to record and perform in public—the Benny Goodman Quartet, with Hamp on vibraphone, Teddy Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums, and the legendary Benny Goodman leading on clarinet. The quartet gained a much-deserved reputation as one of the most exciting in the jazz world, but Hamp had already become a legend in his own right as a band leader and performer. In fact, the list of names that started with Hampton reads like a who's who of excellent music—Charlie Mingus, Annie Ross, Dexter Gordon, Aretha Franklin, Art Farmer, Dinah Washington, and Quincy Jones, just to mane a few—and Hampton's Glad-Hamp Records was one of the earliest (and most successful) examples of an artist-run record label.
Hampton was equally accomplished in his private life. He was an active philanthropist and humanitarian who established numerous music scholarships, helped to build quality housing projects for low-income families, served as honorary chairman of the Jazz Foundation of America's Musicians Emergency Fund, and was always on hand to play a benefit concert for a worthy cause. A staunch Republican activist and fund raiser for many decades, Hampton performed as an honored guest at the White House dozens of times—the first black band, he later said, afforded that honor—for presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan (who gave him the idea to create the Lionel Hampton Jazz Endowment Fund), Bush, and Clinton (even inviting Bill up on stage to play a duet or two!). He played successful tours the world over and is regarded as one of the greatest musicians of the big-band era. Of course his stuff should be available on DVD—but maybe we could do just a tad better than this, hmmmm?
Still and all, Lionel Hampton: Swinging at His Best has got it where it counts: It sounds good—a nice, punchy mono track that delivers, which is surprising, considering the wretchedness of some of the picture quality. Granted, it would have been nice of our friends at Passport Video to have remastered these tracks, perhaps even in stereo, but if you buy a music DVD primarily for the music, then you shouldn't be too disappointed by this one. Any excuse to see Hamp play, even for a skimpy 45 minutes, right?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
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