Lionel Hampton

Lionel HamptonNovember 27, 1995, New York City

Close your eyes. Can you hear it? It’s the sound of a big band. Right up in front, Lionel Hampton wears a big smile and taps on a vibraphone.

In a classy modern condo on New York’s posh Upper West Side, a vibraphone sits just inside the front door. I carefully run a finger over the metal keys. There’s a mirror on the wall, and beneath it scores of trophies and various professional awards. I think of my own mother’s living room, where all the family awards are enshrined. The difference here is that the accolades in Mr. Hampton’s living room are from Presidents.

As I walk toward the window, I remember when Lionel Hampton’s music played in my great-grandmother’s house. Did she ever know how to swing! And my mother could shake a leg, too. “Shake a leg,” by the way, is an expression once used to describe dancing.

Looking out an expansive window, I can see Lincoln Center and the busy New York City traffic below. Up here, it’s peaceful, warm, and serene. An L-shaped cream sofa runs the length of the room. On the piano are family photos and images of a long life lived well. I walk my fingers across the keys of the piano … my assistant sets up lights. I frame my shot.

I hear the sound of a door opening. With a graceful smile, Lionel Hampton enters on the arm of a striking young lady in a nursing uniform. In fact, she leads him by the hand.

The reality of what I’d wanted to see comes crashing down. What, then, did I expect an 80-year-old man to look like? Of course I’d imagined a “man’s man,” someone strong, and in control of his life. It is now clear that all the years have taken a toll.

The look on my assistant’s face reads, “If the price of fame and age means you can get a fine nurse to walk you around — then bring it on!” I rush to greet Mr. Hampton. He says, “Hey there — Audrey says you’re a cool cat.”

That’s me, baby! We laugh.

Hampton gestures toward the vibraphone. The nurse leads him over to the instrument, and he prepares to play a tune. His movements are natural as his hands flow over the keys. Cool and steady, he picks out a soft melody … leans forward, then changes the beat. We all applaud. “I just wanted to give you a taste!”

I look over his honors, ask if there’s any more room for awards. He replies, “I always have time to be recognized.” Taking his nurse by the arm, he turns the question around, “How much time do I have?”

“Baby,” I say, “it’s all about you today. How much you need?” Hampton smiles and shuffles off.

My assistant taps me on the shoulder. “Did you see her? Damn! She was fine!” He drops first to his knees, then flat out in a swoon, pretending to faint. I look at him lying there. I tell him he is no Lionel Hampton. “She will not be running out here to save you. Get up off that floor” I say, “and finish setting those lights.”