Slide Hampton, celebrated trombonist, composer and arranger, dies at 89

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Slide Hampton, celebrated trombonist, composer and arranger, dies at 89
Slide Hampton in concert at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in Manhattan on June 4, 2006. Hampton, a jazz trombonist, composer and arranger who arrived on the scene at the end of the bebop era and remained in demand for decades afterward, was found dead last week at his home in Orange, N.J. He was 89. Rahav Segev/The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Slide Hampton, a jazz trombonist, composer and arranger who arrived on the scene at the end of the bebop era and remained in demand for decades afterward, was found dead Saturday at his home in Orange, New Jersey. He was 89.

His grandson Richard Hampton confirmed the death.

Slide Hampton made his name in the late 1950s with bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and others. He was considered a triple threat — not just a virtuoso trombonist but also the creator of memorable compositions and arrangements.

He won Grammy Awards for his arrangements in 1998 and in 2005, the same year the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master.

During the 1980s, he led a band called the World of Trombones that consisted of up to nine trombones and a rhythm section. Big, brassy jazz was out of favor at the time, but by then he had become an elder statesman of jazz, and he was able to insist on bringing his full band into clubs more interested in small, intimate groups. Once in the door, he was almost always a hit.

He was also a fixture on college campuses, teaching composition and theory to the next generation of jazz musicians and instilling in them a respect for jazz — and the trombone — that went well beyond the music.

“Playing a trombone makes you realize that you’re going to have to depend on other people,” Hampton told The New York Times in 1982. “If you’re going to need help, you can’t abuse other people. That’s why there’s a real sense of fellowship among trombonists.”

Locksley Wellington Hampton was born April 21, 1932, in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. He was the youngest of 12 children, and his parents, Clarke and Laura (Buford) Hampton, recruited most of them to be in the family band they led. Slide Hampton joined as a singer and dancer when he was just 6.

In 1938, the family moved to Indianapolis in search of more work. The city had a thriving jazz scene, and they were soon touring the Midwest.

They never lacked for gigs, but they did lack a trombone player, a deficit that Clarke Hampton remedied by handing the instrument to his youngest son when he was 12 and teaching him to play it. He took to the instrument — no easy task for a child — and it didn’t take long for him to earn the nickname Slide.

He studied at a local conservatory, but most of his musical education came through his family and other musicians. He was particularly taken by J.J. Johnson, the leading trombonist of the sophisticated school of jazz known as bebop, who lived in Indianapolis. Hampton later recalled that one evening he was standing outside a club with his instrument, too young to enter, when Johnson walked by. He was supposed to play that night, but he didn’t have his trombone. Hampton gave him his own.

Hampton later adapted several of Johnson’s compositions. He kept one of them, “Lament,” in his repertoire for decades.

After his father died in 1951, the family band was led by Hampton’s brother Duke. In 1952, the band won a contest to play at Carnegie Hall in New York, opening for Lionel Hampton (no relation).

While in New York, Slide Hampton and one of his brothers went to Birdland, a fabled jazz club, where they saw bebop pianist Bud Powell play. That experience, he later said, left a much greater impression on him than performing at Carnegie.

Hampton married Althea Gardner in 1948; they divorced in 1997. He is survived by his brother Maceo; his children, Jacquelyn, Lamont and Locksley Jr.; five grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. His son Gregory died before him.

The Hampton family band later returned to New York to play at the Apollo Theater, and Slide Hampton urged them to relocate to the city. When they demurred, he made his own plans.

A friend recommended a once-a-week gig in Houston, and Hampton jumped at the chance. It paid well enough that he could use the rest of the week to study and compose.

In 1955, R&B pianist Buddy Johnson recruited him for his band, and he relocated to New York. A year later he moved to Lionel Hampton’s band, and a year after that he joined Ferguson’s. He composed some of the Ferguson band’s better-known pieces, including “The Fugue” and “Three Little Foxes.”

Hampton found himself in high demand and struck out on his own in 1962 as the leader of the Slide Hampton Octet. Although that band lasted just a year and he later said he did a poor job as its leader, it greatly increased his visibility.

As a leader, Hampton was humble. He often took a seat in the audience after playing a solo so as not to upstage other band members when their turns came. Once, when a television crew showed up to film the band, he cut his solo short to make sure everyone got a turn on camera.

In the early 1960s he bought a brownstone in New York, which quickly became a hot spot for jam sessions and a crash pad for some of the country’s top musicians. Saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Eric Dolphy and guitarist Wes Montgomery all lived there for a time.

After his octet broke up, Hampton worked as a musical director for Motown Records, collaborating on productions for Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and others. There he encountered firsthand the rising popularity of pop and R&B and concluded that jazz was being boxed out of the American music scene. After touring Europe in 1968 with Woody Herman, he settled in Paris, where he found not just a thriving jazz audience but public subsidies that supported the music.

“The conditions and the respect for the artist in Europe were so incredible that I was overwhelmed,” Hampton told the Times in 1982. “They saw jazz as an art form in Europe long before they did here.”

He returned to America in 1977, initially to write arrangements for saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who had recently returned from Europe. By then the place of jazz had changed — major labels were becoming interested, government grants were becoming available and colleges were adding jazz to the curriculum.

Hampton was once more in demand as a musician — and now also as an educator. Over the next decades he taught at Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, De Paul University in Chicago and elsewhere. And he continued to play at New York venues into the 2010s.

When asked what explained his success over such a long career, Hampton insisted that it wasn’t just talent but also practice. He practiced four to five hours a day, and would do even more if he had the time.

“Everything that’s really of quality requires a lot of work,” he said in a 2007 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “Things that come easy don’t have the highest level of quality connected to them.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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