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Arranging for 'Hamp' Print

Frank Griffith recollects doing some arrangements for Lionel Hampton.   A nice picture of the musical climate, the times and the people.

img Any arranger knows that 'last minute assignments' are completely normal.   'I need it yesterday' is the standard request whenever due dates are mentioned.   As a youngish saxophonist/arranger on the New York scene in the 1980s, all of my arranging assignments for legendary figures like Lionel Hampton (1988, 1989) and Jon Hendricks (1993, 1994) were requested just days before they were needed.

In December 1988, Lionel Hampton, also known as 'Gates' and 'Hamp' was preparing for a gala New Year's gig at an Israeli-owned hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.   He wanted big band arrangements of Hava Nagila (Have-A-Tequila) and a lesser-known theme called Song Of The Negev for the occasion.   His pianist at the time, was Ray Gallon (Thelonious Monk Jr., Ron Carter) who was a classmate of mine at City College of New York, where we had both studied writing with Ed Summerlin.   Ray very considerately recommended me to Lionel to do the arrangements.

I was invited to meet with 'Gates' at his luxury flat near Lincoln Center (the one that burned down in 1997), in order to talk through the charts.   The place was full of awards, trophies, plaques and countless pictures of him with presidents, politicians and assorted royalty from many lands.   Apart from these surroundings, my enduring memories are of his effortless 4-fingered piano demonstrations of the harmony he favoured for a particular ensemble soli section.   For Hava Nagila, he wanted three choruses paced with graduating intensity, building to a 'big finish', as he put it.   Not unlike a climactic ending scene in a glorious MGM musical.

Song Of the Negev, on the other hand, was another minor theme that some readers will know as The Old Country, with different lyrics, recorded by Nancy Wilson and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1961.   It was also recorded by Hamp around the same time with a studio orchestra and adapting it for the big band was an enjoyable task and creative exercise.   Long-time Jimmy Heath guitarist Tony Purrone was on the band then, and I remember enjoying his eloquent readings of the obligati passages which I included for him.   (Tony, unlike many guitarists, does not epitomise the question 'How do you get a guitar player to turn down?' .... answer - 'Put a chart in front of him').   This chart was started and nearly completed on Christmas Day.   What else was I going to do?

I understand that the gig and charts went very well on New Year's Eve.   It also symbolised something very mutli-cultural.   An Afro-American bandleader leading a mixed band playing Jewish themes at a hotel in Puerto Rico.   Quite a musical melting pot, and one not unfamiliar to jazz musicians and fans alike.

The next year (1989) almost to the day, I was summoned to produce a medley of French songs as well as an arrangement of La Vie En Rose for Hampton's 1989 New Year's gig at the Le Meridien hotel in Paris.   The medley began with Auld Lang Syne (of course) followed by a medium tempo version of a rather fetching French delicacy entitled Comme Ci, Comme Ça (also known as Clopin Clopant).   This segued into the more well-known C'Est Si Bon (recorded by Satchmo, among others) and the medley was concluded with a flag-waving version of I Love Paris, one of Cole Porter's better known 'French' songs containing traces of Flyin' Home in the intro.   The arrangement of La Vie En Rose was also done at a medium bounce tempo (much faster than Josephine 'Ma' Baker's version some sixty years earlier) and, at Lionel's request, featured a Glenn Miller style clarinet lead over four saxes.   This chart, for some reason, appeared to be the least successful of the two, and at one point during its rehearsal, Lionel glanced at me as he walked past and whispered 'you write too fast - huh?'.   To this day I'm still not sure that he meant by that comment.

I gather, from keeping in touch with the band, that they continued to play these scores, up until his passing, and my London-based big band does occasionally play the French tunes.   (I neglected to retain the parts to the Jewish themes).   All in all, it was a great and rewarding experience to contribute music to the library of this legendary figure in jazz.   I will forever treasure those moments in Mr Hampton's presence and the musical results from our collaboration.

Frank Griffith.

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