Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Slide Hampton 1932 – 2021

One of the most respected—and last surviving—trombonists of the bop era, he was also a skilled arranger and composer

Slide Hampton at Baruch College, New York, November 1995
Slide Hampton at Baruch College, New York, November 1995 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Slide Hampton, a trombonist, composer, and arranger who was considered a giant of all three crafts, died November 18 at his home in Orange, New Jersey. He was 89.

His death was announced on social media by his nephew, jazz trumpeter Pharez Whitted. Cause of death has not been disclosed.

One of the last surviving trombonists of the bebop era, Hampton was also one of the most respected. He was playing professionally from the age of 12, graduating from his family band to Lionel Hampton’s (no relation), then to Maynard Ferguson’s, where he first demonstrated his gifts as an arranger. From there, his profile blossomed. Hampton would play and/or write for a vast array of top-shelf jazz musicians, including Melba Liston, Charles Mingus, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and dozens of others.

Hampton was also a successful leader in his own right. He formed an octet in the late 1950s that was his working unit through the early 1960s, followed by a variety of ensembles ranging from quartet to big band. He was particularly intrigued by the possibilities of multi-trombone combos, culminating in Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones: a project that grouped Hampton with eight of his colleagues and a rhythm section (also presenting him a formidable challenge in his work as an arranger). He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2005 and received the Jazz Foundation of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year.

In addition to his accomplishments as a jazz musician, Hampton was also in high demand in the world of R&B. Early in his career he worked with Buddy Johnson’s jump band. In the 1960s he was a musical director first for Lloyd Price, then for Motown Records artists Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops; he later performed with vocalist Diana Ross. As long as it was music, Hampton was happy to be a part of it.

“It’s very important for people to know what the real purpose of music is,” Hampton remarked to interviewer Bob Bernotas in 2000. “They think that music often is just for their entertainment.… Without music and without art we’d really be in trouble on this planet. We’re in enough trouble as it is, but it’s nothing like it would be, though! Music is very, very therapeutic, very healthy for people.”

Locksley Wellington Hampton was born April 21, 1932 in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, to Clarke “Deacon” Hampton, a saxophonist, and the former Laura Burford, a pianist. He was the youngest of 12 children around whom the parents formed a family band. The Hamptons moved to Indianapolis in 1938, making it their home base.

Locksley had the trombone chosen for him by his parents, since they needed a trombonist in the band; they started him on it as soon as his arms were long enough for the part of the instrument that gave him his lifelong nickname. But although he was naturally right-handed, his parents gave him a left-handed trombone—which was what he continued to play for the next 70 years. He joined the Hampton Family Band at age 12, debuting at a Carnegie Hall performance in 1944. A few years later he proceeded to an offshoot band led by his eldest brother, Clarke Jr. “Duke.”

Entranced by New York from his appearance there with the family, Slide set his sights on the city. He finally got there when he joined Buddy Johnson’s band in the early 1950s. By 1958 he had moved on to the Lionel Hampton Orchestra—albeit only briefly, before trumpeter Maynard Ferguson hired him away for his own big band. It was with Ferguson that he came into his own as an arranger, writing charts whose harmonies were influenced by the three-horn lineup of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Given his first chance to lead a recording session with 1959’s Slide Hampton and His Horn of Plenty, Hampton doubled down on the multiple-horns concept: He formed an octet that included two trumpets (Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little), a baritone horn (Bernard McKinney), and tenor (George Coleman) and baritone saxophone (Jay Cameron) along with a rhythm section. He kept the band together, occasionally augmenting it with a larger rhythm section, for several recordings and worldwide tours until he went to work for Price and Motown in the mid-’60s.

Joining Woody Herman’s orchestra for a European tour in 1968, Hampton opted to stay on the continent when he discovered its denser and more lucrative support system for jazz. He lived in Paris for four years, then in Germany for five more, working regularly and even collaborating with fellow expats like Kenny Clarke and Dexter Gordon.

Seeing broadened opportunities for jazz musicians in the States, Hampton returned to New York in 1977, again working with Gordon on the latter’s first studio album since his own homecoming, Sophisticated Giant. (The album’s arrangements, for 11-piece band, are sometimes regarded as Hampton’s finest achievement.) Shortly thereafter, Hampton made a splash under his own name with the creation of his World of Trombones band of nine trombones, piano, bass, and drums.

Hampton also became a jazz educator during this period. He served as an artist in residence at Harvard University in 1981, moving from there to the University of Massachusetts, DePaul University, and Indiana University (where he was hired by his onetime high-school classmate David Baker). He continued working as both a leader and a freelancer, and with increasing frequency as an arranger. In the late 1980s he found an important new outlet for both playing and writing when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, eventually becoming its musical director. Following Gillespie’s death in 1993, Hampton took the same role in the alumni ensemble the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band.

Late in his career, Hampton became a two-time Grammy winner—both times as an arranger. He won in 1998 for a live performance of “Cotton Tail” by Dee Dee Bridgewater, then again in 2005 for the writing on the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s recording The Way: Music of Slide Hampton.

Hampton is survived by two sons, Locksley Jr. and Lamont, and a daughter, Jacquelyn (all from a previous marriage to Althea Gardner that ended in divorce); three grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.