Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival kicks off with a look into the past

Scott Jackson Daily News staff writer, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho
·3 min read

Feb. 26—For its 54th year of existence, the University of Idaho's Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival's first day was more retrospective than usual.

Thursday evening, after a full slate of virtual workshops and performances hosted by students and faculty with the UI's Lionel Hampton School of Music, former friends and band members of the jazz legend reminisced about the history of what has become a world-renowned jazz festival.

UI Professor of Trumpet and Director of Jazz Studies Vern Sielert said even during an illustrious career playing alongside the likes of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, Hampton was a champion of music education.

Sielert said Hampton made hundreds of recordings throughout his life and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts, but those who played with him remembered him for the music. Sielert said Hampton started his own big band in 1940 and continued to lead it until his death in 2002. The group continues to play to this day.

Thursday evening, guests shared stories and helped to guide attendees through archival footage showing performances spanning Hampton's lifetime. Many featured the legend himself bobbing enthusiastically with the music while expertly hammering away on a vibraphone — an instrument he helped popularize that is now a common part of jazz ensembles. Former members of the band said this energy was normal for Hampton's performances.

"This is the thing about Lionel Hampton's music, if you hear that band and you're not tapping your foot — you're dead," said saxophonist and former band member Cleave Guyton.

Lynn "Doc" Skinner, former festival director and close personal friend to the man, said in everything he did, whether it was a movie or just helping someone to learn, Hampton had a talent for making people feel good about what they were hearing.

"Some of those people would say today that that was the greatest experience they ever had in life was playing with Lionel," Skinner said.

Skinner said after Hampton's first appearance at the UI's jazz festival in 1984, he became an instant and avid supporter of the event. At a celebration following that first appearance on a Moscow stage, Skinner said Hampton handed him a check written out to the UI for $15,000. Skinner said that check was the start of an endowment that would ensure the festival's continuation.

The next year, the festival was named for Hampton and two years after that, in 1987, the UI renamed its school of music The Lionel Hampton School of Music. Skinner said it was the first time a music festival or a music school at a major university had been named for a jazz musician or a black man. Hampton himself considered it one of the greatest honors in a lifetime permeated with high-profile performances with some of the greatest musicians the genre had ever seen.

In an archived audio clip shared during Thursday evening's virtual event, Hampton spoke to a group gathered for the announcement of the newly named music school.

"I've done many things in my life and traveled many places in the world and I've seen honors all over the world — I've had gold records, platinum records — and I've played with many tremendously talented musicians all over those years," Hampton said in the recording. "But this is the largest honor — bar none — of anything I ever had received in my lifetime."

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

More information

The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival continues with free virtual performances at 5 p.m. today and Saturday. Visit www.uidaho.edu/events/arts to register.

Once registered, the general public can attend the concerts at no cost. Those wishing to attend virtual workshops may do so for a one-time $25 fee.