It feels like it cannot be real to be composing my thoughts about the passing of the great Slide Hampton. Even at 89, he was talking about the next gig or his practice routine. His energy reserves seemed unlimited, and he had the infectious curiosity for the next level of excellence that inspired those around him to reach higher and dig deeper. Everybody loved and respected this titan of the trombone. His choir, the World of Trombones, was a rite of passage for most serious trombonists in NYC and gave newcomers the seasoning they needed to dig into the scene.
It’s a profound moment for every trombonist when they first encounter the musical force that is Locksley Wellington Hampton. He commanded a warm, robust sound with zero range limitations, and realized the instrument’s potential to navigate through the evolving world of jazz harmony. He could play at any tempo, completely unfettered by the slide. As a trombonist, composer, arranger, improviser, and mentor, Slide was in that gilded category called “the greatest,” reserved for musicians who gave everything they had and made a tremendous impact on the music. Slide is equally respected for his humility and support for others in his community.
My college roommate Willie Applewhite first turned me onto Slide’s recordings, but it was in the recordings of trombonist David Gibson that I discovered the great influence of Slide Hampton and his musical lineage from the Lester Young school though J.J. Johnson and Dizzy Gillespie. As with Bird, J.J., and Stitt, I became a “Slide sponge” and soaked up as much of his style as I could. As an improviser he was supremely melodic, able to construct linear pathways that would make Frank Lloyd Wright jealous. I noticed that by studying Slide’s solos, I began making choices in my improvising that captured chord sequences more clearly and created a dialogue with my band using rhythm and careful phrasing. Gibson suggested I send one of my recordings to Slide, and that began a fruitful period of my life playing with his Trombone All-Stars, World of Trombones, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, which he conducted.
Being up close to the maestro was like observing one of the Seven Wonders of the World, as Slide had this timeless, peaceful quality in his spirit. He would construct these amazing solos, but then give me his undivided attention while I struggled to play coherently under his inspection. After playing together, he would ask me to show him what I was working on. I couldn’t believe how tireless he was in learning about music and giving emerging musicians encouragement, while offering a glimpse into his perspective as a lifelong student. Any attempt to compliment him about anything was a real challenge, as he could disarm and redirect praise with grace and wit on par with any of his musical abilities.
Slide was universally respected by everyone. I know I can speak for my trombone family when I say, “Thank you, Slide, for showing us The Way.”