Legendary jazz trombonist and bandleader Slide Hampton walked onstage at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh on the night of Dec. 3 and shared a bit of advice with the music fans in attendance.
"Hang onto your hats," he smiled.
With that, the 13-piece JazzMasters big band was off on a high-flying mission — complete with thrills and chills but nary a spill — to reimagine the music of Dizzy Gillespie.
It was only one of the many nights Mr. Hampton, a native of Jeannette, brought his wildly imaginative riffs, interludes and shout choruses, along with his deft handling of quirky rhythms and occasional dissonance to Pittsburgh over the years.
A virtuoso jazz trombonist and as a Grammy Award-winning composer and musical arranger, Mr. Hampton died Thursday at his home in Orange, N.J. He was 89.
Mr. Hampton spent his entire life in music, beginning as a singer and dancer with a family band that included his parents and most of his 11 brothers and sisters after they moved to Indianapolis. He began playing the trombone at age 12.
Even though he was right-handed, he played the trombone left-handed because the first trombone he received as a child was configured that way. His sisters gave him the nickname of Slide.
“I was hearing music every day from the time that I was born,” he said in a 2007 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, “so I knew right away that my life would be in music.”
The Hampton family band traveled throughout the Midwest and appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Apollo Theater and Savoy Ballroom in the 1940s. Inspired by the bebop generation of jazz musicians, including trumpeter Gillespie and trombonist J.J. Johnson, who was also from Indianapolis, Mr. Hampton embarked on an independent musical career in his late teens.
Although he began playing the trombone begrudgingly — “I only did it because the band needed a trombone, and I was the youngest,” he said — Mr. Hampton was soon praised for his mellow tone and for his dexterity on the unwieldy instrument, which requires the use of a long metal slide to change notes.
“It has to use the beauty of its sound to make a point,” he told the New York Times in 1982. “Playing a trombone makes you realize that you’re going to have to depend on other people.”
Musicians recognized Mr. Hampton’s abilities as a trombonist, composer and arranger, and he worked for many notable bandleaders in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Lionel Hampton (no relation), Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey, Max Roach and Gillespie. He also began to lead his own groups in clubs and recording studios.
In 1968, after touring Europe as a member of Woody Herman’s band, Mr. Hampton decided to stay. He lived in Paris for several years, working with European and expatriate American musicians and absorbing other styles of music, including Brazilian bossa nova and the classics.
“There is no way I’m going to tell you I don’t have a lot to learn from classical music,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 1992. “I listen to all the classical composers, from Bach and Beethoven to Stravinsky and Bartok. I’m looking ‘inside’ the music, to the musical and spiritual aspects.”
Mr. Hampton returned to the United States in 1977 with a renewed sense of purpose. He organized groups that emphasized the rich, brassy sound of the trombone, with as many as 14 trombones playing at a time. He developed a flair for performing and arranging Brazilian music.
He rejoined Gillespie’s band, serving as musical director, garnered critical acclaim for his own recordings and became widely lauded as one of the foremost trombonists of his time. Jazz critic Gary Giddins, writing in the Village Voice in 1990, called Mr. Hampton “perhaps the most underrated bebop virtuoso soloist alive.”
He practiced the trombone four to five hours a day, all the while continuing to write original compositions and musical arrangements.
In an interview with the Post-Gazette before that 1993 show, Mr. Hampton said his goal was to interpret the music of his predecessors, not repeat it.
"I think the thing that's important as far as the music that came before is to have an influence from that music that's obvious in what you do," he said. “But just an influence. Not a copy. Their purpose in making the music was so that it would influence people after them to do something of their own."
He found that influence listening to the big bands.
Big bands produce "a very high level of energy," he said. "You feel it physically. You actually feel it. It's not just a matter of listening to it. And that's actually what we want to achieve with this ensemble.”
In September 2000, he was back at in town at a North Side studio recording a Christmas album with legendary Nancy Wilson and members of the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Band, which also performed shows at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.
In 2001, he participated in an open jam session marking the first jazz festival at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Laurel Highlands.
And in 2002, he was among the class inducted into the Pittsburgh Jazz Society's Jazz Hall of Fame.
Mr. Hampton won his first Grammy for his arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail” on singer Dee Dee Bridgewater’s 1997 album, “Dear Ella.” He won another Grammy, for best instrumental composition, for “Past Present & Future,” an original work featured on a 2004 recording by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
“All my stuff is by inspiration, not by theory or even experience,” Mr. Hampton told Newark’s Star-Ledger newspaper in 2005. “I just write what I’m inspired to write, let it go wherever it goes.”
Locksley Wellington Hampton was born April 21, 1932. He was in his early teens when his family band played at Carnegie Hall.
Over the years, Mr. Hampton taught at several colleges, including Harvard, the University of Massachusetts and DePaul University in Chicago. During the early 1990s, he conducted master classes at Slippery Rock University and Duquesne University.
He became a mentor to countless younger musicians, especially trombonists. In 2005, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the country’s highest official honor for jazz musicians.
His wife of more than 50 years, the former Althea Gardner, died in 2006. A son, Gregory Hampton, died in 2019. Survivors include three children, Lamont Hampton of Nashville, Locksley Hampton of Wilmington, N.C., and Jacquelyn Hampton of Atlanta; five grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.
First Published November 23, 2021, 11:35pm