Lionel Hampton, Jazz legend and President’s “Ambassador of Goodwill”

by Mr. James Carroll

IEA Area Subject Files (RG 306 U.S. Information Agency – Record Entry ID: HS1-65869038. Finding Aid: UD-2010 44). Records that have been recently declassified include cultural presentations, fairs, expositions, and educational and cultural exchanges.

While recently processing declassified materials at the National Archives, College Park location, I came across some fascinating photos and supporting documents related to Lionel Hampton.  Okay, I admit it, some younger folks reading this may scratch their heads and mumble “who?”  But, as I learned, Mr. Hampton was an American icon and jazz legend who rubbed elbows with presidents and spread American goodwill (and great jazz) around the world.

In 1969, when Mr. Hampton was already a “rock star” of the jazz world, and in his early 60’s, he was tagged by then-President Nixon to travel to the Far East, including gigs in Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan. The U.S. State Department facilitated the tour. Mr. Hampton, known as “The Hamp” traveled with his band on a month-long tour, giving performances which were well received, while meeting foreign royals and learning more about other cultures and traditions. His instrument of choice was the vibraphone, but he also played piano and percussion.

President Nixon sent a letter to Mr. Hampton and his wife Gladys as they embarked on their Far East journey.  In it he wrote, “I am delighted to hear that you are traveling again to the Far East to continue the effort which all of us share in creating understanding and goodwill between Americans and people everywhere.  Mrs. Nixon joins me in wishing you and Mrs. Hampton every success in your latest venture as Ambassador of Goodwill.”

Sadly, at the outset of the tour, former President Eisenhower died, and the news was relayed to the Hamptons, who were friends of the late president. Mr. and Mrs. Hampton knew President Eisenhower and had performed at both of his inaugural balls. It was Eisenhower who in 1957 officially bestowed upon Lionel Hampton the title “American Goodwill Ambassador.”

The Far East tour was a huge success! One of the documents in the Archives described his time in Thailand: “Lionel Hampton has a charisma all his own.  His personality reaches out to people and they react favorably. He is completely cooperative and equally engaging to the Thai public whether playing clubs, giving jazz workshops, performing for the Royal Household or touring the markets and landmarks of the city.”  In Tokyo it was reported that “Hampton was joined onstage by leading Japanese jazz musicians for a rousing jam session.”  He used music as a bridge between national cultures; they were all speaking the same language: Jazz.

In 1936, Mr. Hampton became part of one of the first racially integrated jazz groups, The Benny Goodman Quartet. The group would go on to record and tour to large audiences around the country.  Yet, Mr. Hampton would become a superstar in his own right, headlining his own big band.  Some of their hits included: Stardust, Toledo Blade, Flying Home, and Hamp’s Boogie Woogie. A little known fact not publicly known about Mr. Hampton was that the music he made helped pave the way for rock ‘n’ roll.

Mr. Hampton worked with many young rising African-American musical legends, such as Charles Mingus, Dinah Washington, and Wes Montgomery.

Over the course of his illustrious life, Mr. Hampton would receive awards and accolades, including numerous honorary doctorates in Music, Humanities, and Fine Arts and the presidential Medal of Freedom.  The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho is named in his honor. This year’s festival is February 20-23.  Lionel Hampton passed away in 2002, at the age of 94, yet his legacy continues to inspire new generations of musicians.

So, we’ve introduced you to Lionel Hampton and described part of his legacy, alive at the National Archives.  Now, go check out some of his music! I think he’d really get a kick out of that.

Additional NARA references of interest:

  1. Lionel Hampton Memories of Japan (motion picture/film).

(Archival Research Catalog) ARC ID: 48561. Local ID 306-2107

  1. Lionel Hampton Interview (sound recording). ARC ID: 134842. Local ID: 306-EN-71-4542.
  2. Nelson interview with Lionel Hampton before European Trip 3/3/1971. (sound recording). ARC ID: 134731.  Local ID: 306-EN-71-2676.

Hamptom Blog Images

8 thoughts on “Lionel Hampton, Jazz legend and President’s “Ambassador of Goodwill”

  1. Very interesting. I had no idea we were sending musicians to the East. And I have to admit, I didn’t even know the name Lionel Hampton until this post.

  2. Very Interesting! I knew of Lionel Hampton but did not know he was “global”. My dad was a jazz musician who played with Lionel Hampton on various ocassions. I have fond memories of Lionel Hampton coming to my home sitting in on a jazz set with my Dad and some of his musicians buddies. Thanks for sharing and stirring up fond memories from my childhood.

  3. Wow..Vera W…You are one lucky gal. We have a few images of Nixon with Hampton in the Nixon WHPO images collection. Recently BBC Radio 3’s “Geoffrey Smith’s Jazz” program (available online) broadcast a tribute honoring Lionel. Just stellar. He was world-class and an amazing crowd thriller into his late 70s at least. Known and recognized for being an endearingly kind man who mentored many Jazz greats of today.

  4. Thanks for this post. Lionel Hampton was fabulous, and I was lucky to hear him live in late 1960s. Not in my home, I might add. What a privilege, Vera!

  5. Several years ago a dance historian researching Lindy Hop asked me about similar “jazz ambassador” tours. Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” is a classic for Lindy dancing, and it’s the tune that Denzel Washington dances to in “Malcolm X.” (The scene was choreographed by Frankie Manning, the Ambassador of Lindy Hop,

    If I remember correctly, the researcher was interested in jazz ambassador tours during the 1960s or 1970s to Europe and possibly Africa. I don’t recall the musicians, but the tour included the Mama Lou Parks dancers, who helped keep Lindy Hop alive in New York City after the Big Band era faded. The researcher hadn’t been able to find anything in our records at the time, but has anyone come across information about these tours in the recently-declassified USIA files?

  6. I heard Lionel Hampton play at Pete Fountain’s bar in the New Orleans Hilton during the 1980s. Hampton was frail-appearing when he walked into the place, but once he was on the drums with Pete Fountain on the clarinet, the place rocked! It was one of my fondest memories of jazz sessions in New Orleans.

Leave a Reply