Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
January 13, 2007
Edited by Don Ball, NEA
A MUSICAL FAMILY
Q: I've talked to a lot of musicians about pivotal experiences they had in childhood that made them really know, "I'm going to be a musician."
Slide Hampton: I was very fortunate to be born into a musical family. I was the last child in the family, so there was already a musical organization in the family when I was born. They didn't have any trombone players yet, so they chose the trombone for me and I really appreciate the fact that they did.
Q: How did you feel about it when they did it?
Slide Hampton: We were just so glad to be in music that anything that we could do in music was an opportunity. We felt that it was wonderful to have the chance to play a trombone, a trumpet, or any other instrument. We just loved music so much that we just wanted to be a part of any musical events that we could. And our family, of course, was making music every day.
Q: How old were you when they chose trombone? Big enough to hold it?
Slide Hampton: Yeah, well, you have to be. I was 12, actually. I had been participating in the musical aspect of the family in another way. I was dancing and singing as a very young person, and I was hearing music every day from the time that I was born, so I knew right away that my life would be in music.
Q: Your family traveled together and performed in places like The Savoy in New York. Tell me about the first trip that you remember playing some of those famous clubs.
Slide Hampton: Our first chance to play in New York was in Carnegie Hall. The reason we were able to play there was because the Pittsburgh Courier, the paper, had a contest that you could enter and we won the contest. The prize was that you would have a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall with some well-known group. We opened a concert for Lionel Hampton.
Q: Was that intimidating?
Slide Hampton: Yeah. They had a great band, it was fantastic. But, of course, our chance to go to New York was the thing that was important to us. So we went to New York for the first time, played Carnegie Hall, and then I had my first opportunity to go to Birdland. I went to Birdland, and it was the first chance I had to hear Bud Powell and his trio.
Q: You went just by yourself?
Slide Hampton: One of my brothers took me. I was too young to go alone.
Q: Which made the bigger impression, Birdland with Bud or playing in Carnegie Hall?
Slide Hampton: Bud Powell.
Slide Hampton: Yeah, Bud Powell. I knew after I heard Bud that I had to try to get to live in New York as soon as I could.
Q: Had you heard Bud on recordings?
Slide Hampton: We had some of the recordings of Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Bud and J.J. Johnson. So hearing that in person was the thing that really inspired me to go to New York.
Q: Can you describe what it was about Bud -- was it his playing? Was it also the ambiance in the club with the audience?
Slide Hampton: The ambiance was certainly exciting, but it was his ability that really inspired me. I found out later that he only practiced classical music during the day, no improvisation, and at night he was playing improvisational situations. It was so exciting when I heard him play because he played with such a wonderful expression. It really inspired me to try to become a better musician and come to live in New York, where I knew I had to live in order to become the best that I could.
Q: Did you try to encourage your family to move there?
Slide Hampton: Yes, I did. I tried to encourage them. We went the second time to New York and we played the Apollo Theater for a week.
Q: How did you get that booking?
Slide Hampton: It was probably because of what we had done in Carnegie Hall. After the Apollo we immediately played the Savoy Ballroom for two weeks. And then we went back to the Apollo, by popular demand, right after the Savoy. So we were there for four weeks. I tried to encourage them to stay because I knew that we could really have a great benefit from staying in New York, musically, and also as far as employment was concerned.
Q: What was the band? How many of your family were playing?
Slide Hampton: At that time, we had all my sisters -- four sisters -- five brothers, and we had some friends that made up the band. We had three trumpets, two trombones, four saxophones, and three rhythm [players].
Q: When you were developing your sound, what did you want to sound like? How has that evolved over the years?
Slide Hampton: When I was coming up, the big bands were very popular. We were going to as many of those big band performances that came to Indianapolis as possible. A lot of music came through Indianapolis and played at all the different venues there -- Tommy Dorsey came, Glen Miller came, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton. So I was hearing a lot of great trombone players because there were many, many trombone players that were very popular at that time. Trombone became sort of an unpopular instrument later. But at that time, some of the most important bands were led by trombone players.
Q: What do you mean it became unpopular later?
Slide Hampton: In the '60s they didn't use trombones in recordings because it was pop music. Most recordings didn't use the trombone. They might use the trumpet, they often used the saxophone. But the trombone was very seldom used.
What was happening was this. In the big band period, of course, you had anywhere from 12 to 17 musicians playing. And when the bookers started to find out that they could book groups that were smaller, and the transportation, hotels, and everything else would cost less, they started using fewer musicians -- because they could. And that's what happened and it started to get to the place that sometimes you didn't have all the instruments that were usually in the big bands.
PLAYING THE TROMBONE
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the trombone and its challenges?
Slide Hampton: It takes a lot of practice. Being a musician you have to love to practice, because it's a lot of repetition over things that are maybe not that interesting as far as music is concerned, compared to compositions and melodies and things like that, which is also part of my practice. But there is a part of it that's just about developing the ability to be precise, about the precision of the instrument, being able to have the technical ability to play whatever things might be written for you.
Q: Do you still practice every day?
Slide Hampton: Oh, yes. I enjoy practicing, more now than I did before because I know more the right things to practice.
Q: How do you practice? How do you approach it?
Slide Hampton: My system this year is that I'm working on one scale or one key for each month of the year. This month I'm doing C. And next month I will do F, the next month will be B Flat, E Flat, and on through the flats. And then I'll go to the sharps. So the 12 months will give me all of the chromatic notes of the scale.
Q: And so when you're working within one key, does that mean you do exercises and also play tunes in those?
Slide Hampton: Yes. First, practicing all the scales, all the chords, and then patterns which have to do with intervals. And then patterns that don't necessarily stay in the key, but they are involved in starting in the key and ending in the key. All the different things that you can do when you're in the key of C, for instance. And that's what I do with each key.
Q: That requires a lot of discipline.
Slide Hampton: Everything that's really of quality requires a lot of work. Things that come easy don't have the highest level of quality connected to them.
Q: I would imagine you listened to other trombonists when you were developing your sound, I know you certainly came into contact with J.J. Johnson. Was he one of your influences?
Slide Hampton: J.J. was born in Indianapolis and raised there. I was born in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, but raised in Indianapolis. So J.J. was a big influence to us.
Q: But he had already left by the time that you got there.
Slide Hampton: He was on the road, but he was coming back from time to time. I actually heard him play in Indianapolis with the groups that he was playing with when he was staying there. He was a big influence on us, but so was Trummy Young. And, of course, we were hearing Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden and a lot of great trombone players. There were a great number of good trombone players. Another of my big influences was Curtis Fuller. Curtis was one of the musicians that played really well at a very young age. There are some musicians who learn much quicker than everybody else. Curtis was one of them. Lee Morgan was one of them. These guys played at the age that most guys are not really able to be a professional musician, as far as improvisation is concerned. There were just certain people that were able to play at a young age, really play the compositions and understand the harmony, know the compositions, and able to interpret the concept of improvisation with those compositions.
Q: When you're playing, how important to you is a connection with an audience?
Slide Hampton: The audience is very important. A performance can actually be taken to another level, to a level beyond what you are used to being able to reach, if the audience is really responsive to what you're playing. I think if I can play something that actually gives them some kind of a connection with what we're doing, [that] makes them a part of what we're doing, because that's what they're there for. I don't know what the percent is of people that listen so much higher than the amount of people that play music. So listening, evidently, is the most important aspect of music. We can play in our living room and that's for our own satisfaction. But when we play a performance, we're playing for large numbers of people.
Q: Do you have any preference for the type of venue you play in, whether it's an intimate setting or like last night, with thousands of people?
Slide Hampton: I liked last night [performing for 3,000 people at the NEA Jazz Masters awards concert during the IAJE conference]. What helped us last night was the technique, of course. The way the band was miked was great because I was able to communicate with the people like we were in a small room. It was like we were close to each other. If you're playing in a situation where you feel real distant from the audience, that limits your ability to feel as though you can express some kind of a feeling in what you do to the audience. But last night, I felt as though we were close to the audience. I felt as though they were really responsive to me. It really did inspire us.
You know they're musicians so you know they're hearing what you're playing and appreciating it on a lot of the different levels.
ARRANGING AND COMPOSING
Q: I want to talk a little bit about arranging the sound that you try to achieve. Can you tell me a little bit about how you tried to achieve getting bigger sounds with fewer instruments?
Slide Hampton: Arranging. Arranging is a form of composition. That means that you are composing something to support the melody or make the melody more beautiful or make the melody more exciting. It's actually the same as composing, but the second level of composition. And the compositional part of it is very important because what you do is you have a composition, and that composition will inspire you as far as the direction of your arrangement is concerned. And if the arrangement is really an arrangement that's based mainly on inspiration, then the level that you can arrive at or something that you have you would never guess. You'll come up with things that are beyond your level of understanding of theory, of orchestration, and all of that. It always goes back to the fact that inspiration is the highest level of energy that you can have in music. Of course, I've written a lot of music. but I feel that my arranging life is about over. It's time to let the young guys that have all of the energy. Because everything requires energy, as far as the amount of ability that you're going to put into organizing an arrangement, this organization of facts. And a lot of the young guys are really very good at this, so it's time for them to take what we've done and go on further with it.
Q: Do you feel like there is a solid generation of people that's up to that task?
Slide Hampton: Yeah. You know, one good example is the trombone, all the young guys that are now interested in becoming trombone players. They're so talented and so enthusiastic and so in love with becoming trombonists. That's what you need on every instrument and all the different aspects of music -- people that love that aspect of music that they're going to put their lives into and they're going to do it because they love doing it. We have a lot of young people that are very talented and really love the music. Some of them don't have all the knowledge of the history that they should have -- this is a very important thing that you need to have. And there's a disconnect because of commercial music being played on the radio and things like that. But we always try to make them aware of the history of the music so they can understand just how good the musicians were that came [before] when they didn't have near the advantages that we do today. Guys came and I don't know how they learned to play, but they played fantastic. And those are the guys that actually developed the foundation for us all to become musicians on. So you have to know about them.
IMPROVISATION AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
Q: How do you tell someone who isn't very familiar with jazz what's so great about jazz? There are so many people out there who just don't have familiarity with it.
Slide Hampton: I understand why people don't get it, because one of the things that is very important in what we call jazz is improvisation. Improvisation has always been important because it's always important in life. If you don't know how to improvise, you're going to find yourself in a lot of stressful situations that you can't come up with an answer for. Improvisation is what Louis Armstrong and those guys showed people can be a very sophisticated thing. It can be a very healthy thing. And it helps a person to grow to the greatest level of whatever they're trying to achieve because you have to have individual appreciation of things and of your own ability to do things.
What's happening today is, everything is based on being a part of groups of people. This is a good thing on one level, but the first level of things is individuality. That's the first level of things. People do things by themselves and then, maybe later, those things are organized by a group of people. And this is what jazz showed people. The musicians like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and those people, they actually tried to bring a very healthy aspect of thinking to the world in general, that you have to decide for yourself what your worth is. No one else tells you what your worth is. They can have an opinion, give you suggestions, but you have to be the one that finally decides, "I do have something that's valuable that I can do." And this is what jazz is about, teaching people this. We can't live without it. The world will finally be destroyed if the ability to appreciate individuality disappears. And then, finally, the world, like most things, will just disintegrate.
Q: Do you think that depth as a person affects one's ability to play jazz and to interpret things?
Slide Hampton: Yes. Your life experience is very important -- not so much for your creativity, but especially for your expression. The creativity is an important thing, but the expression is more important. It doesn't matter whether you are composing many notes, it just matters that those notes have a lot of meaning and that you express yourself individually in a way that makes the music have some effect on the people that are listening to it, including yourself.