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Jazz Great Lionel Hampton, 94, Dies

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NEW YORK (AP)--Lionel Hampton, the vibraphone virtuoso and standout showman whose six-decade career ranked him with the greatest names in jazz history, died Saturday at a Manhattan hospital. He was 94.

Hampton, whose health was failing in recent years, died at Mount Sinai Medical Center at about 6:15 a.m., said his manager, Phil Leshin.

Hampton worked with a who's who of jazz greats, from Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker to Quincy Jones. But over the last decade, Hampton battled health problems and a fire that destroyed a half-century of his musical arrangments and all of his clothes.

Two days after the 1997 blaze at his Lincoln Center apartment, Hampton was forced to borrow a suit, socks, shoes and underwear to receive the Presidential Medal of Arts at the White House.

During more than six decades of music making, Hampton rose to a performing plane inhabited by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Goodman--two artists who played important roles in his early career.

Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson were the black half of the fabled quartet with Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa that in 1936 broke the racial barriers that had largely kept black musicians from performing with whites in public.

Wilson had recorded with Goodman and Krupa previously, and white soloists “jammed" informally with black groups, but a color line was drawn when a white band was on stage.

Later, Hampton's bands traveled the globe as musical ambassadors from America. They also were hothouses or showcases for such greats as Jones, Parker, Charlie Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Earl Bostic, Fats Novarro, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington.

Hampton's music was melodic and swinging, but audiences also responded to his electric personality--the big smile, energy and bounce that contributed to his skillful showmanship. When not swinging on the vibes, he drummed, sang and played his own peculiar style of piano, using two fingers as if they were vibraphone mallets.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to put on a show," he once said. “I always liked to be taking bows."

Originally a drummer, Hampton caught on with Les Hite's band after high school and followed Hite to Los Angeles.

The event that put Hampton together with the vibraphone, or vibraharp as it is sometimes known, was a 1930 recording session in Culver City in which Hite's band was backing up Louis Armstrong.

“There was a set of vibes in the corner," Hampton recalled. “Louis said, `Do you know how to play it?"'

Hampton said he had fooled around with a somewhat similar instrument, the xylophone, when he was growing up. After about 45 minutes of noodling on the vibraphone, he felt sure enough of himself to swing in behind Armstrong on “Memories of You." He played vibes while Armstrong sang and drummed when Armstrong played trumpet.

The vibraphone and Hampton had arrived as forces to be reckoned with in jazz.

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