In recognition of the 81st birthday of Locksley Wellington “Slide” Hampton, the great trombonist-arranger, here’s the transcribed proceedings of a “Musician’s Show” that he did with me on June 22, 1994, in which he selected music that had influenced him, and discussed his life and times.
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[MUSIC: Jazz Masters, "Tour De Force," 1993]
SH: …I think that first composition we played there, “Tour De Force,” was a great way to start the show. It made me feel real good.
Q: Me too. The three trumpets, Faddis, Roy Hargrove and Claudio Roditi all conversing.
SH: Yes! It’s good to hear the guys playing like that. And each of the guys have such a different style. Right in that piece alone, you’ll hear a lot of the influence of a lot of the music that we’re going to hear during the show, and where their influences are coming from.
Q: We’ll be begin with music from several periods by the source of modern jazz, Louis Armstrong. and parenthetically, we’ll hear some of the seminal early trombone players playing at somewhat later in their careers, like Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young. When did you first hear Pops?
SH: Well, actually Pops had been a favorite of mine for many, many years. I was born into a musical family, so we were listening to some music all along. We were hearing everything that was available which was on the radio at the time. And one of the most popular artists at that time was Louis Armstrong. He’s had a big influence on me; and he’s had a big influence on all of the musicians actually. I heard the group in person with Trummy Young and I heard the group also in person with Jack Teagarden. I had the opportunity to play for a week in Atlantic City opposite Louis Armstrong’s sextet with Trummy Young, when I was playing with Lionel Hampton — and also Ella Fitzgerald was also on that same time. So I spent a week there listening to Louis Armstrong. The amazing thing was that every time he played it was wonderful.
Q: Was it different every time? Did he have a set solo, or was it a fresh improvisation every time?
SH: Well, it always felt fresh. What I noticed, though, is that he was very organized in his approach to the composition. What he played always had a very, very strong relationship to what the composition was and the harmony of the composition and everything. He was never just playing at random. He was an improviser that really did try to interpret the composition that he was playing, and make his soul a part of that composition. It was really wonderful.
Q: It also seems to me when I listen to him, that the trumpet is an extension of his incredible voice. He’s my favorite singer as well as my favorite trumpet player. I see the two as intertwined somewhat.
SH: I feel the same way. And the thing that’s really wonderful, which I’ve remarked about Pops, is that he came along at a time when the musicians didn’t have a chance to do a lot of formal training, the black musicians in this country, because of the race situation and everything that existed then — and it still exists, in fact. But he was just a natural player. He could pick the trumpet up after maybe singing a song, or singing a couple of choruses, and start playing incredible stuff that you would think most people would have to do a little warming-up or something. But in his solo, he’d just pick the trumpet up after singing a chorus of some song, and play some fantastic music. I saw him do that kind of thing in movies and in person often, and it was tremendous to see that.
Q: You share a background with musicians like Louis Jordan and Lester Young of being born into a family band that played carnivals, circuses, so forth and so on. I read in one of the liner notes that you started blowing when you were three years old!
SH: Well, actually, at 3 I had to take part in the family… Actually, it was the family profession by that time. I was too small to play the trombone certainly; I couldn’t have gotten past third position or something. But I danced. I first danced and sang in the band. Then I actually played trumpet a little while, and then I finally started to play the trombone at 12 years old.
That was a wonderful period, because in this country at that time the pop music was the music that all the musicians were actually creating, and the artistic music that was being created was Pop music at that time. That’s what the audience was listening to.
Q: The dance music of the period.
SH: Yes. And the people going to the dances… There was always a group of people that went to the dances, and they would stand right in front of the bandstand, and listen to the band, and then there was a group behind them that would do dancing. It was a wonderful period in music in this country.
Q: A few words about your family that organized this band. What was your father’s musical background and your mother’s?
SH: Well, my father was the one that organized the band. He was a tenor saxophonist and he played drums. My mother played harp and piano.
Q: Where was he from?
SH: Virginia. They’re both from Virginia. A wonderful man, my father — and my mother. And to have twelve kids and keep them together the way they did, you had to be really something special. He taught all of us. He was a schoolteacher also. He was an artist and a carpenter — he did everything. But at that time you had to do everything to just maintain your existence.
But he put the band together, and everybody in the family had to participate in the musical part of the profession, in the band. So made that a rule.
Q: Would the band play all year, or only during the warm-weather months? How was that organized?
SH: We played whenever we could get a job, and usually that was all year. We were playing different kinds of jobs. There were fairs at that time, and circuses, and political things going on. We played anything, any time they would ask. They could call us at 3 o’clock in the morning and say there’s a job, and we’d go play it.
Q: This was during the late 1930′s and up until about the end of World War Two, I guess.
SH: Yeah, up to the Forties. The band still existed even in the Fifties. We came to New York, I guess, in the early Fifties.
Q: Did it function as a territory band, or did you travel around the country?
SH: We traveled all around the country, in the strangest transportation you could imagine, but we went everywhere. We went to the South, and we played often concerts opposite Louis Jordan. That’s one of the guys who really left a big impression on me. I remember playing opposite that group. We had about a 12-piece band then, and he had his five pieces; and man, they would swing you into bad health with five pieces. We’d usually go up and play a set, and then he would go up and play a set, and we would play one and he would play one. So it was a great experience for us.
But we came to play at the Apollo Theater at Carnegie Hall in the early Fifties with the band, had a big success here. I tried to talk my brothers and sisters into staying in New York at the time, but they wanted to go back to Indianapolis, so we had to go back.
Q: Did your father also take care of your education? You said he was a schoolteacher.
SH: Well, we actually went to school in Indianapolis. We did have a private teacher for a while, too.
Q: Is that where you were based, in Indianapolis?
SH: We stayed in Indianapolis most of my childhood. But for the rest of the kids, we were moving around to different places. But after we did move to Indianapolis, we stayed there, and that’s where we went to school, and that’s where we actually developed most of our orchestra repertoire and everything like that.
Q: What kind of repertoire would you be dealing with at the time?
SH: Well, from a lot of the orchestras that we’re going to hear today. We were playing music from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Fletcher Henderson, all of the guys.
Q: Let’s get started, because this is too exciting!
SH: Yeah, I’m ready!
Q: We’ll hear Louis Armstrong doing “Chinatown” from 1931. I guess if you were a young trumpet player, this must have just thrilled you.
SH: Louis Armstrong inspired you whether you played the trumpet or not. He inspired everybody.
[MUSIC: Louis Armstrong, "Chinatown," "Weather Bird," w/Teagarden, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," w/Trummy (only obbligatos), "I'm Crazy About My Baby"]
Q: In this next set of music we’ll explore some of the pre-World War Two, pre-Bebop, so to speak, trombone players, such as Trummy Young and Jack Teagarden and Lawrence Brown and Vic Dickenson and so forth. By the way, Slide, when did the trombone become your main instrument and vehicle of expression?
SH: Well, as far as my family is concerned, it became my main instrument when I was born, because they didn’t have any trombone players. They only waited for my arms to get long enough, and they said, “You’re going to play trombone.” That’s how it happened. They gave it to me on the left side, so I play it left-handed — although I’m right-handed. But that’s how it happened. Actually, they chose it for me. If I can ever thank them for anything, I do thank them for choosing the trombone, because I love that instrument, and the more that I scuffle with it and try to learn how to play it, the more I love it.
Q: How analytical were you about the trombone? You said you would listen voluminously to records and the radio. Would you try to copy solos? How did you go about learning to play it?
SH: Well, in the beginning we were very enthusiastic about learning, and we were in a very great musical environment in Indianapolis. There were a lot of young musicians that were coming up there. Also at the time, a lot of bands were constantly coming to Indianapolis to play; every week there were four or five bands there. So we were very inspired, the public was very into music, and we thought that if you just practiced hard enough, you’d learn how to play good. We didn’t know that you really had to have a sort of process of practicing to develop. So we practiced all day long. Sometimes we’d practice so much that we couldn’t play anything, you know, because we’d just kill our chops by practicing.
But it was a wonderful environment anyway. We did learn a lot about music in general. And I was constantly listening to all of these musicians that we’re listening to today. Whenever we could get records… We were very poor, so we didn’t have that many records available to us. But whenever we could get records, we were always listening to Trummy Young and Vic Dickenson and Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey and all of the guys at that time. So we were very inspired by that.
A lot of people don’t know that the trombone was quite popular at that time. In the Sixties and Seventies, you didn’t hear the trombone very much at all on recordings, but right from the Forties and the Fifties back, the trombone was a very popular instrument. Some of the great bands were actually led by trombone players.
Q: Let’s talk a little more about the trombone in this period. I guess Don Redman was the first to use the three-trombone section, and then that became pretty much it in the big bands of the 1930′s.
SH: Some bands, of course, didn’t use any trombone players, but there were usually two trombones (maybe); there were a lot of bands that had two trombones. A few bands started to use three trombones a little later. But the trombone was one of the solo instruments, so that’s the reason it was constantly heard much more than it was later. It was a solo instrument, so whenever there were any recordings you would hear somebody like Trummy Young, Vic Dickenson, any of the guys that we mentioned.
Q: I guess in the Tens and Twenties, there were a lot of marching bands… Well, the trombone has a fair amount of volume, which would have made it very good for days of pre-amplification.
SH: You can’t have a marching band without trombone, so I guess I’ve always had a lot of regard for the marching bands. I got a lot of my training in marching bands, too, and I think all musicians did actually at that time. What happened out of those marching band ensembles… Most of the jazz bands in the Twenties were small groups, any amount of musicians they could get together. The tradition of an organized group was usually six people. But the marching bands were the thing I guess that inspired some of the composers to start to write music for larger ensembles, then you started to get some of the big bands come into existence. The marching band probably had an influence on all of that.
Q: Slide Hampton is also an arranger, so we’re going to hear a number of these trombonists in different situations, beginning with Trummy Young in the Lunceford band, and one of his great features, “Margie,” recorded in 1938. A few words about the Lunceford band and Trummy Young.
SH: Well, Jimmie Lunceford, of course, was one of the really great bands. Jimmy Heath is always calling me and telling me, “I’ve got something by Jimmie Lunceford I want you to hear.” He’s very much into Lunceford. Lunceford was really one of the great bands. I guess the reason that he maybe finally didn’t have the popularity that Duke had is because Duke himself was such a strong guy. But a lot of people feel as though Lunceford was one of the main bands of the whole big band period.
Q: Lunceford’s main arranger, of course, was Sy Oliver, who was responsible for what became the established sound of the band.
SH: Yes, he did. Sy Oliver was very important in that band. Also, after he left Lunceford’s band, he went to help develop the repertoire of a lot of other bands. A lot of people, when they hear the music that he did later, don’t relate it to the Jimmie Lunceford repertoire.
Q: Well, let’s hear “Margie,” featuring the virtuosic trombonist Trummy Young.
[MUSIC: Lunceford/T. Young, "Margie (1938)," Dorsey/Teagarden, "The Blues (1939)," Vic Dickenson, "Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now," "Battle Axe" (1941)]
SH: Ted, as I was listening to this music, as I remember, in a lot of the arrangements that I hear in some of the big bands, I hear some of the riffs and things from the small groups of the time, so that the small groups actually had a big influence on the whole concept of orchestration and arranging. Actually, I guess a lot of the guys that were doing the writing were guys that had been in some of the small groups, and they were bringing some of that music right into the big band concept.
Q: Talk a little bit about your ideas about the relationship of dance music in the 1930′s to the emergent new music of musicians who were to be the founders of Bebop, including Dizzy Gillespie.
SH: Well, I saw a show on television a while ago about how important dance was in all the different societies. And at one time in this society, dance was also very important. So most of the music that was written was usually written with people dancing in mind. When I went to hear Dizzy Gillespie’s band for the first time, at the Sunset Terrace in Indianapolis, people had said that it wouldn’t be a very danceable music, but I must say that they danced more to Dizzy’s music than they did to a lot of the bands that we know as being the really great dance bands, like Lionel Hampton and the guys. Dizzy had the people dancing. They were hanging off the rafters, really having a great time dancing.
Really great music, I think, unless it’s something that’s really specially written only for listening, will be music that will make you want to dance. Dancing is a very important part of the development of any society, and the more that we’ve gotten away from it, I think it’s had a big effect on society. I think that we have to employ more music in what we do that makes the people want to dance again.
Q: In the next set of music, we’ll hear a few selections featuring Lawrence Brown with the Ellington band, which was a band that could function equally well as a listening band, a dance band — any type of band.
SH: I danced especially to this composition that we’re about to play now. I danced to this many times myself. Actually, Duke’s band could play the same composition either for concert or they could play it for dancing. They had such a variety…such a great ability to be able to do everything with their music. The great thing about Duke, too, that I tell a lot of young guys, is that Duke continued to play a lot of the same songs he’d played twenty or thirty years before. It shows you how long it takes to really get the most out of a song.
Q: Well, he was always tinkering with his compositions, finding new ways to orchestrate and so forth.
SH: Well, he probably didn’t actually premeditate to do it. As he was going along, he heard different things on the composition, so he kept writing them over, not really trying to accomplish any great level of quality or anything, but just that he’d hear “Solitude” or something this year one way, next year he’d hear some other things on “Solitude,” so he kept writing it. I think it’s very important to realize that in order to really get to know a composition, you have to play it a long time. You might know the melody and you remember it. But to really know it, you have to play it a long time.
[ETC., MUSIC: "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So" (1945), "Slippery Horn" (1932), Woody Herman w/Bill Harris/Earl Swope, "Lollypop" (1949)]
Q: Did you get to hear the Ellington band in Indianapolis a fair amount?
SH: Yes. In fact, all the bands came there. I got to hear Count Basie’s band there. In fact, I heard Billy Eckstine’s band there when Art Blakey was playing with him.
Q: Was Charlie Parker in the band at that time?
SH: No, he wasn’t in that band at the time, but…
Q: This was after he left.
SH: After he had left. I think Dexter Gordon and some of the guys were still in the band, and I was lucky that I… I don’t know how I got in. I guess we didn’t have an age limit on the dance-halls, because there wasn’t any alcohol being sold there. People were just going there to dance.
Q: What were the names of the main dancehalls in Indianapolis?
SH: Let’s see… We had one that I remember all the big bands used to come to. I think it was a dance hall in a place called the Claypool Hotel. There was a dance hall in there. It was a big place. Several hundred people could get in there. And all the bands, from time to time, would play there. There was one theater that the bands used to come to, too, downtown. I can’t remember the name of it right now, but I saw Stan Kenton’s band there with Charlie Parker, in fact — Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I guess that was the one time I heard Charlie Parker in person, was there, with that band.
Q: A few other words about the musical community in Indianapolis in the mid- to late-1940′s.
SH: Well, I was raised there with Wes Montgomery and J.J. Johnson and Freddie Hubbard and David Baker. It was a real great musical environment there. We all were very enthusiastic about learning. I guess sometimes we were a little more in love with music than we were with really trying to face the reality of what it takes to really be a good musician.
Q: How so?
SH: Well, a lot of times you think that if you love it enough, that’s going to actually help you to develop the musicianship that you’ll need to take part in the professional musical world. But that’s not really the case. It takes a lot of experience and a lot of understanding, a lot of help from a lot of people — which we did get from guys in the different big bands. They were very helpful to the young musicians. If they felt that you were really serious, they would give you all the help they could from their experience.
One great thing at that time I remember is that the musicians were very sincere and very critical of each other. If there was something that was weak about what you were trying to do with a musician, they would tell you about it. It wasn’t always patting you on the back and saying, “Great.” I mean, they were telling you when there was something that you were doing that was not good also. And I think that that was very healthy.
Q: Of course, your family band was primary in your musical background. But what were some local clubs and some of the strong local musicians who you learned from?
SH: Well, there was a place called the Sunset Ballroom. All of the big bands came there. The Ferguson Brothers, who owned this ballroom were booking agents, and all the bands that were travelling throughout the South would usually come in first to Indianapolis to get their contracts and things, and then they would go and travel through the rest of the country. Whenever you came there to get your contract, you usually had to play that ballroom. Now, we were too young to go inside, so we would go to the back door and listen to the different bands. But after we were old enough, we played there with the family band, too.
Then there were clubs on a street called Indiana Avenue. There were clubs all up and down the street, and bands were playing there every night. There was music every night, and it was just wonderful.
Q: Talk about what the music sounded like. Were they small combos? Larger ensembles? What sort of music were they playing?
SH: Well, at that time the radio was a really great outlet for music. You were hearing Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford and Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. You were hearing that music over the radio all the time. And in the clubs… You know, often you’d have a big band playing in a very small club, The people were just so glad to be there, they didn’t even care whether it was crowded or too much smoke. They were so glad to be there that they just went under any kind of circumstances. There were more big bands at that time than there were small groups.
Q: And we’re talking now about the years during World War Two?
SH: Yes, and before the World War, during that time. I guess you’d find that the main small groups were usually local musicians playing, and they were playing in some of the very small clubs. And there were some talented musicians there in Indianapolis, too, people that never became popular at all.
Q: Mention a few of them.
SH: Well, one man, I remember his name was Earl Grandy. He’s a pianist that was just an incredible musician. Earl Grandy was a guy that had perfect pitch. You could go to the piano and play a string of notes, and he could tell you what they all were. If you’d go put your arm dow on the piano on a whole couple of octaves of notes, he could tell you, “Well, you heard this note down there, and that note,” and he could… He was a tremendous man, and he helped a lot of us that were just starting to become musicians. He helped a lot of us. I remember he’d tell us from time to time, you know, “You’ve got to go home and practice; you’re far away from the mark.” He was very critical. But he was a real good musician, and certainly was a man that I’ll always have a great esteem for.
Q: Any others who made a mark on you?
SH: Oh, yes. In town at that time there were guys who were coming, and they lived there, but they were going out with professional bands. I remember Earl Walker was a great drummer that was there who played with Lionel Hampton, and of course, Wes and his brothers were there.
The great thing about Wes Montgomery and his brothers is that they were very, very devout musicians and very sincere. They were practicing every day for hours. That’s all they did. When they weren’t playing out somewhere, they were at home practicing. You could go there and find a group of them, all of them together practicing. They would practice one composition for weeks before they would play it in public. It was incredible, the dedication that they had and the kind of standards that they had set for themselves, how they wanted to have their music to sound before they would perform it in public. I learned a lot from Wes and Buddy and Monk Montgomery and those guys.
Q: In this next set we’ll hear a track by a trombonist who had a great impact on J.J. Johnson, who was a few years your elder and out of Minneapolis. I guess he heard Fred Beckett after first going out on the road with the Snookum Russell Band, and had taken the first steps to becoming a professional musician.
SH: Well, you always wonder about a guy like J.J. and we’re still wondering about him. All the trombone players constantly, when J.J.’s around, we’re looking at him, trying to see, “What is it about this guy that’s so different?” I’ve certainly asked him the question, and I imagine many other people have, too: “What was your influence? What gave you the idea to take music in the direction that you did?” And I very clearly remember him saying that Fred Beckett was one of the people that really influenced him.
At that time I had not heard much of Fred Beckett. Of course, I had heard so many great trombone players. You see, J.J., like Charlie Parker, came out of a period of music when there were a lot of great trombone players. So if you were going to come up with something new, you had to really be doing something special, because there were already a lot of guys that were playing the trombone incredibly well. When Charlie Parker came along, for instance, he came out of that period when the alto saxophone was really something special. And those guys were all great players before Charlie Parker. They were great readers, they played great in the ensemble, they were great soloists, their intonation was good. So that had a big influence on the level of quality that you finally heard from guys like Charlie Parker and J.J. at that period; it was just fantastic.
Q: The implication, then, is that really what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and J.J. Johnson were coming up with wasn’t particularly any radical break, but more or less a natural evolution of things that were happening organically within the big bands and the dance music of the time.
SH: If you go back and listen to some of the guys, like Roy Eldridge and Lawrence Brown and those guys, you can definitely hear the link that J.J. came from, for instance, and where Dizzy came from. If you go back and listen to Lester Young and Willie Smith and some of those alto saxophonists, you’ll hear where Charlie Parker came from, and how they were inspired to finally develop something that was even more sophisticated. Because they were coming from a very sophisticated period of music. When they started playing, music had already arrived at a very high level of sophistication, because of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson and all of the bands that were in existence at that time.
Q: The great arrangers of the time.
SH: Yes. Those arrangers actually inspired a lot of the soloists with their concepts of harmony that they wrote in the music, that caused guys that wanted to be soloists to hear things that they might not have heard otherwise.
But then, you had Art Tatum and guys like that, that were those once-in-a-lifetime people that came along, who inspired everybody. Art Tatum just had this natural thing for music. I don’t think he even thought about what what one chord had to do with another as far as resolution was concerned. He just resolved everything naturally. It was the same way when you were listening to Louis Armstrong. It’s incredible when you listen to that and you hear that he played with a rhythm section that sounded like it was recorded in the Twenties or playing in the Twenties or something, and then he comes out sounding like he’s years ahead of that, almost like he didn’t record at the same time that they did. That was natural for him. That was natural for Art Tatum. If you go back and listen to Louis, you’ll hear a lot of things that Dizzy and Miles all the guys did that was coming out of that same concept. Very close.
Q: Fred Beckett didn’t record that much, which is why I think his being such a source for J.J. has perplexed people. I’m sure he heard him live, and was able to hear him stretch out. Fred Beckett’s recordings are with the Harlan Leonard group. Undoubtedly Charlie Parker would have heard him, too, because he played briefly with Harlan Leonard shortly before coming to New York. Tadd Dameron did arrangements for the Harlan Leonard group as well, so there’s also that connection. The piece we’ll hear is “A La Bridges,” a Tadd Dameron composition and arrangement from 1940, and it features, amongst other things, a trombone solo by Fred Beckett, as we continue on the Musician Show with Slide Hampton.
[MUSIC: Harlan Leonard/F. Beckett, "A La Bridges" (1940); J.J. Johnson, "A Night In Tunisia (1955)," "When The Saints Go Marching In (19610"; F. Rosolino with Stan Kenton, "Frankly Speaking (1952)"]
Q: What did you think of Fred Beckett’s solo?
SH: He played beautiful. He really played beautiful. I can understand why, especially at that time when J.J. was listening to him, he must have been a great influence and really very impressive. When you think about the fact that at that time the recording technique and everything was much different than it is now, and the instruments that they were playing were much different than the instruments are now, and those guys played wonderful on those instruments… It’s hard to understand, except that it’s a very natural thing that brought about the possibility of them being able to play like that, at that period of time. You should have heard more of the flaws and more of the difficulty of playing, but they made it sound easy!
That’s one thing that was really wonderful about J.J. and about Louis Armstrong. It sounds very easy when they do it, and it’s very consistent. You don’t find after they’ve played, for instance, eight measures or a chorus or something, that they start to lose the control of their embouchure. Their embouchure stays intact, even with all of this great improvisation that’s gone on and everything. And that’s really something that’s very difficult to do, even for good musicians, to keep that consistent control over the sound of what they’re doing when they’re improvising. Because of course, there’s a lot of energy that goes into improvising alone. But to be able to keep the technical aspect of it together and all of that is just… Louis Armstrong was just fabulous for that. I guess I can never understand that.
Q: Well, I don’t think there’s any better person than Slide Hampton to give us an encapsulation of what is it about J.J. Johnson that is so great.
SH: Well, I was playing with Maynard Ferguson in the early Sixties, and we played a concert opposite J.J. for two weeks — and it was impossible to understand that a human being could play that well. It was every night, from the time that he would warm up. It was perfect! Just everything that you would imagine that a person should only do only once in a while, he played that way for the whole two weeks. For the trombone players, of course, in the band, it was very intimidating.
Then I was at one of his recording dates, I remember. This is the time when J.J. was playing that King 3B. He sounded so wonderful that they couldn’t get that sound on the record. It sounded marvelous on the record, but it didn’t sound as wonderful as it sounded in the studio. It was like the microphone would only accept so much of the sound, and the rest of it wasn’t there.
Q: Well, I think that’s another quality of his, that apart from all the technical virtuosity, he has a huge, warm, encompassing, enveloping sound.
SH: It’s incredible, you know, when you think that he’s playing a normal size instrument, a 3B, which is an instrument around the size that a lot of guys play on. But he would get this huge sound, like he was playing on something that had a big bore almost like a Bach-36 or something like that. And he kept that sound. Even when he was moving all over the horn, he was keeping this sound, and at the same time improvising incredible things.
Q: This is the Musician’s Show with Slide Hampton, and I guess now is a good time to mention that Slide Hampton and The Jazz-Masters primarily has been performing Slide Hampton’s arrangements of Dizzy Gillespie’s music. Is the repertoire of the band expanding?
SH: We’re developing our next repertoire, which is going to be on the music of Charlie Parker. The next album that we do will feature arrangements from all of the musicians in the band who are arrangers and orchestrators.
Q: In some ways I think arranging Charlie Parker’s tunes would almost present more of a challenge than Dizzy Gillespie’s compositions, which had that sort of arranger concept within them and many of which were written with his big band in mind. Most of Bird’s tunes were, if it all, only parenthetically done for big bands, and were performed in small combo situations.
SH: Well, that’s true. See, the thing about Dizzy’s compositions is that you heard them performed by large ensembles, and you heard Dizzy with large ensembles. All of his compositions at one time or another have been played by some large ensemble. So that gave you a lot of ideas, or at least a place to start with them. Charlie Parker’s compositions, his really great compositions were usually never orchestrated in any way. But I have always, even listening to them, remarked, man, there’s so much stuff there that you could do if you start to develop this thing and make an orchestration out of it or to arrange it. I’ve found that it’s really, really a lot of fun writing his music.
Q: Well, we’ve spoken about your development as a trombone player and we’ve spoken a little bit about the arrangers of the big bands, but we haven’t really discussed your career or avocation as an arranger and composer of music. And I’d like to talk about your first exposure to Bebop. I’d imagine, coming up when you did, you were an avid listener to all the records as they came out.
SH: Well, yes. Actually, the thing that happened to me and all of the musicians that I was raised with that actually directed us into the area of orchestration and arranging was that we felt this was all a part of being a musician. In order to be a well-rounded, a complete musician, you had to learn about arranging and orchestration and composition. So it wasn’t really something that we felt was separate from playing. We felt that you couldn’t really be the best player unless you knew about these things. If you wanted to play with other people playing ensembles, if you wanted to conduct orchestras, you had to learn to orchestrate and to arrange so you knew what you were dealing with when you were doing either one of those things by taking part in an ensemble or being a conductor, or even playing in front of an ensemble.
So we all were learning about orchestration, because we were hearing music all the time, man. In our sleep we were hearing music. We went to sleep listening to music, we woke up listening to it, we played and we rehearsed and practiced all day, and we listened to music all the time. So arranging was a very natural thing. When I asked Dizzy Gillespie, “Who inspired you to become an arranger?” he said, “Well, I was playing in bands that would have guys like Tadd Dameron and Gerald Wilson and those people, and I was listening to their arrangements. I was hearing eight brass play this harmony all night.” He said, “When I went to sleep at night, I was hearing harmony from these guys.” So actually it just became a very natural thing for him to start to take part in that himself.
Of course, most people might not know it. Dizzy was just a natural harmonic genius. I mean, harmonizing things and voice leading and stuff is very natural for him. He showed all of us a lot about that stuff when he was alive. One of the great things that we remember about Dizzy beside the incredible music that he played on the trumpet is that he was a great teacher — and a very humble person about it; he never took himself very serious. But man, the stuff that he could do as far as composition and harmonizing and arranging was concerned was just fabulous. It was so natural. It was like he didn’t learn it anywhere, just it was a part of his character that he could do it.
Q: Not to mention the incredible rhythmic understanding that he evinced. It really changed the whole rhythmic cadence and velocity of big-band music, and small-group as well.
SH: Well, he was hip enough to go to the Latin musicians and learn from them about rhythm. And you know what? You just can’t imagine how natural it is for them… The complicated rhythm that some of us would never use, for them is just us like playing a common time, a 4/4. It’s just natural for them to be able to deal with very complicated rhythms. So Dizzy went to those guys, Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo and a lot of guys like that, and he learned a lot from them. A lot of people don’t know that one thing that was just fabulous about the Latin musicians, when they came into New York, is that they gave a lot of work to all of the musicians. Everybody worked with them. They were not prejudiced against anybody working with them. With their strong traditional background, you would imagine that they’d always want guys that understood that background better. But they let everybody work with them. Dizzy worked with them, Charlie Parker worked with them, all kind of guys. So we all had a great advantage with them. Dizzy really took advantage of it, and learned from them.
Q: Let’s hear a few examples of the artistry of Dizzy Gillespie, including one of his very earliest big band compositions, recorded for Guild in 1946, “Ray’s Idea.”
SH: I really love this arrangement, which I think is by Gil Fuller. I don’t know whether it was inspired by whoever wrote the composition, but it’s a wonderful arrangement. When I first heard “Ray’s Idea,” I heard this trombone solo on it, and I’m thinking, “Now, this guy, we’re going to hear more from him.” We never heard one more note from this guy that plays the trombone solo on it. So when I was spending some time with Kenny Clarke in Europe (he was living in Paris at the same time I did), I asked Kenny, “Who was this guy that played this great solo?” — see, because the solo was just fabulous. Kenny said, “I know it was, because I wrote the solo for the guy to play!”
Q: It was either Alton Moore, Taswell Baird or Gordon Thomas. [ETC. WITH PERSONNEL]
[MUSIC: Gillespie BB "Ray's Idea" (1946); Slide, World of Trombones "Con Alma" (1980), Bird/Diz, "Hot House" (1945)]
Q: Slide Hampton mentioned while “Hot House” was playing, when you heard that, it absolutely floored you. You couldn’t believe how people could make music sound like that.
SH: Yeah, I had been listening to all of the bands before that. I had been listening to Duke and to Count and Stan Kenton and a lot of the guys. But man, when I heard that music, I couldn’t understand what kind of intervals they were using to make music sound like that. So it kind of got past me at the time.
The thing that I found so incredible as I was listening to it now is that usually, when you start to deal with theory on a very sophisticated level, it has a great effect on the amount of creative input that you’re going to have into compositions. Often theory will not allow you to really be that spontaneous when you’re going to improvise, or even when you’re going to develop or compose melodies.
But the thing that I found was very wonderful about the music we were listening to is that it related a lot to the level of spontaneity that Louis Armstrong had in his music when Dizzy and them were playing. They were playing, sounding very at home in the music, like they were very comfortable with improvising and being able to relate their solos to the compositions. You often find that when you hear really sometimes good compositions, but when the improviser plays, you don’t necessarily hear how the solo relates to the composition. But you can hear these solos, and what you’re hearing is almost a part of the melody. They felt so natural with it, it was so relaxed and so just swinging along in a very natural kind of feeling. I think that was one of the great things about that session.
Q: Sid Catlett’s presence I don’t think hurt much.
SH: That helped. That helped! [LAUGHS]
Q: You mentioned that you’d listened to Ellington and Basie at the time of Bebop. You can hear some of the harmonic implications in…well, particularly in one of the pieces we’re about to hear performed by the Ellington band in 1942, “Johnny Come Lately.” I’d like you to say a few words about Billy Strayhorn’s contribution. Everybody knows about his great lyric gifts and poetic sensibility. But he was really involved in very advanced harmonic structures and putting them into the flow of the big band context.
SH: Well, Ellington, of course, but Billy Strayhorn is one of the unsung heroes, also like Thad Jones. And it’s a pity… Now, there was a time when those guys actually would have been held in much higher esteem in this country.
Billy Strayhorn is a guy that had a tremendous natural ability to compose and orchestrate. He wrote some compositions that people have played from the time that they were written until now; also some of the great orchestrations that you heard in Duke’s band were actually done by Strayhorn. He was very influenced by Duke, because Duke was such an imaginative guy. But Strayhorn was a guy that actually could put that stuff down on paper exactly the way Duke heard it, in a very sophisticated, thorough, complete, organized way, you see.
When I think of Strayhorn, I also think of another man who is very much in that same kind of category or level of music, who is Thad Jones. He’s another guy that had this great natural ability to orchestrate. If you go look at the scores, you don’t see no theory in there that you ever studied before. You don’t understand anything you see there. All you understand is that when you hear it, it sounds great.
Q: I’ve been told by people in the band that he was self-taught, and he would write out each part separately, and then sort of layer them together.
SH: Unbelievable. It’s true. And I’ll tell you, to do that is just not thinkable. Because usually, when you’re writing for an ensemble, you’re looking at each chord and making sure you’ve got notes there that are going to be harmonious, whether it’s dissonant or not. Thad would write a part out for maybe a chorus, and then come back and write another part out, and write the whole thing down like that, and then put it together, and you’d hear all this organization of all of the harmony and everything. It’s just uncanny when you think about it. But see, for him it was natural. That’s how you do that. You don’t do that by studying, you know. You don’t learn that in school. It was natural for Thad to look at the voicings, and be able to orchestrate them and see which way they should move.
So Thad Jones could do that. Billy Strayhorn was that kind of guy. Tadd Dameron was like that. There were several guys. Duke was like that. If you go back and look at Duke’s music, you would never think, if you were going to make an orchestration, to actually put these instruments together to make an ensemble that he would use. Duke wrote music that used the very instruments that nobody else would use to make an ensemble or a family of instruments.
Thad Jones had a lot of that. I go down often and hear the music that he wrote maybe thirty years ago, and I’m telling you that that music written thirty years ago is frightening, to hear something that’s that modern and that sophisticated, and you hear it today and it sounds like something somebody that really writes incredibly great might have written today!
Q: Well, let’s hear a set of music. I think we’d better dig up something by Thad!
Q: “Johnny Come Lately” was recorded in 1942 by the Ellington band. Of course, this features trombone solos (given the theme of the show) by Lawrence Brown and Tricky Sam Nanton after Billy Strayhorn takes the first chorus.
[MUSIC: Ellington, "Johnny Come Lately" (1942); Curtis Fuller, "It's All Right With Me" (1959); Coltrane, "Countdown" (1960); Thad Jones, "Tiptoe" (1970)]
Q: …there’s nothing in the music like those Thad Jones charts.
SH: Well, you know, it’s funny, because I know the guys have other arrangers that are writing for them now, and they have good arrangers that are writing for them. But man, you can really see the difference when they get back and play some of Thad’s music. And the sound of the band when they play Thad’s music is so different. He’s got this thing that you would think, well, this guy must have studied orchestration in every way that you could. But it was just natural for him, man. When you listen to one of these arrangements, let me tell you, the amount of work that would have to go into doing something like that under ordinary circumstances would be incredible. And he was writing these things fast!
Q: Of course, I guess in a band like the Basie band, it would be like how you described Dizzy Gillespie, hearing harmony when you go to sleep every night…,
Q: …and having been immersed in the musical culture of Detroit before that.
SH: That was a good environment to grow in, the Basie Band. I loved that band, man! I’ve gone to hear them when the magic that they weave is just unbelievable. And so Thad certainly did get a big influence from that, and he took that and actually interpreted the music in his way, with that influence from Basie and all of the other bands that he had been in. It’s just tremendous. The accomplishment and the outcome of what he’s done is really tremendous.
Q: [ETC.] We’ll move now to an album that Slide Hampton recorded in 1985 for the Criss-Cross label entitled Roots, with Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, and the stellar rhythm section of Cedar Walton, David Williams and Billy Higgins.
SH: I remember this album very, very well, because the day we recorded it, Cedar Walton and his rhythm section had just come from someplace far away, and they got there just in time to come right in to the recording date. What I was thinking, I said, “Well, man, these guys are going to be tired, so you’re going to hear that.” But Cedar, when he gets in the recording studio in front of a microphone, it seems to transform into something unbelievable, and he just plays incredible. From the first note, you think some of the songs are maybe new to him, the whole situation is new. But he comes in, man, and just plays one solo after another. Any of the solos that he played on the date that are not on this album were just as good as these that you heard on here. He played marvelous on everything. And the guy should have been tired; they all should have been. But then you had Billy Higgins there, and Billy is always giving a lot of happy energy to everything, and David has such a beautiful attitude, too. And working with Clifford… It was a beautiful experience.
[MUSIC: Slide/Cliff Jordan, "Roots," (1985); Dexter Gordon, arr. is Slide, "Laura" (1977)]
Q: What’s most impressive about “Laura” is that it shows Slide Hampton’s gift for making mid-sized ensembles sound as rich as a big band, as he amply demonstrated at the beginning of the 1960′s on a series of currently out-of-print octet recordings. “Laura” sounds as though it were played by a 12-13-14-piece band, just as the Jazz Masters, at 10 or 11 pieces, gives the illusion of having an extra horn in each section. So great writing by Slide Hampton, great playing by Dexter Gordon.
SH: Well, thank you very much. It was a beautiful experience working with Dexter. Of course, I asked you to play that last composition because my mother’s name was Laura, and I was very happy to write that arrangement on the album for that reason. It was just a beautiful album, and working with Dexter was wonderful.
Q: Well, we wouldn’t ask Slide to give away his arranging secrets, and even if we had the inclination to, we wouldn’t have time.
We’ll conclude with one of the classics of the big band repertoire of the 1950′s, Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” done by the Basie band. You said before that you could listen to that band all day.
SH: I have to tell you that first of all, the Basie band, all the way back from the beginning, is just one of the bands that brought me probably more wonderful moments in music than anything that I can think of. Now that Frank Foster is the leader of the band, he is just one of the greatest musicians and people that I’ve ever known. And “Shiny Stockings” has always been one of my favorite compositions. I think that Frank probably doesn’t like to play it any more, but you can play it every day for me, and I love it.
[MUSIC: Basie, "Shiny Stockings" (1956)]