“Flying Home” (1942) Lionel Hampton

“Flying Home”

Composed by Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman. Head arrangement organized by Lionel Hampton.

Recorded by Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra for Decca on May 26, 1942 in New York.

Lionel Hampton, vibraphone, directing: Karl George, first trumpet; Ernie Royal and Joe Newman, trumpets; Fred Beckett, Sonny Craven and Harry Sloan, trombones; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Ray Perry, alto saxophone; Illinois Jacquet and Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophones; Jack McVea, baritone saxophone; Milt Buckner, piano; Irving Ashby, guitar; Vernon Alley, bass; George Jenkins, drums.

The story: Lionel (always pronounced Lio-NEL) Hampton was unquestionably a great musician. When he performed in a situation where strong leadership and control was present, he invariably delivered excellent, often inspired playing. But when he performed in situations where he was either his own boss, or was not able to be constrained by whomever the leader was, he could and often did run amok.

I saw him perform in one of George Wein’s Al-Star bashes on the stage of Carnegie Hall around 1980. In his first tune, Hamp started out at the vibraphone, and played thoughtfully and well. The musicians with him also performed admirably. The audience reaction was positive, but not adulatory. Hampton moved to the piano for his next offering, and began playing the keys with his bent forefingers, as though they were his vibraphone mallets. The audience, not expecting this novelty, became a bit more excited. For his finale, Hampton moved to the drums, and played what can only be described as a chaotic solo that lasted for perhaps five minutes, replete with him tossing (and dropping) drumsticks. The unfortunate musicians who were caught in this maelstrom stood aside, shuffling their feet, as Hampton, with a manic smile on his face, continued playing worse and worse, and longer and longer. Finally, he lifted his closed fist into the air, signaling a wrap-up to the musicians, and with an unsteady chord, the bedlam ended. The audience was on its feet, cheering. I could not tell if their ovation was for Hampton’s crazed performance, or out of relief that the cacophony had finally ended.

I was in my late 20s when I witnessed this, and had come to the concert with almost reverence. Lionel Hampton, after all, had played with Louis Armstrong, and then Benny Goodman, and then had led his own bands of various sized for many decades. Hampton had played with legends of jazz while with Goodman: the sublime pianist Teddy Wilson, drummers Gene Krupa and Dave Tough, and the electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. Although then I was only dimly aware of the incredible series of jazz recordings Hampton had made fronting various ad hoc groups of musicians from 1937 until 1941 on the Victor label, I knew that on those recordings were many of the absolute best jazz musicians of that time including Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, to name only a few. Hampton’s performance that night at Carnegie Hall shook me. Another hero, I thought, with feet of clay.

From that event on, I noticed various stories of the aging Hampton, doing similar things. I also learned of his parsimony with the musicians he employed. This parsimony extended far beyond Hampton’s miserly ways with money. In his excellent liner notes for Mosaic’s The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941, jazz musician and historian Loren Schoenberg included the recollections of trombonist/composer/arranger Slide Hampton (no relation to Lionel) to interviewer Bob Bernolas about his time with Lionel: “After Buddy Johnson (a bandleader who led a good and very successful band in the 1940s), I had the misfortune of going with Lionel Hampton. I was much better off with Buddy, because Buddy was the exact opposite of Lionel Hampton. Lionel is a great musician, but really not a very caring person. He never tried to give the musicians the kind of conditions that they could work in and that would inspire them. And that was very unfortunate because he was a guy that had possibilities, especially for a lot of Afro-American musicians, to open up doors for them. But he was such an egomaniac that he couldn’t consider what was happening for any body else.”

Lionel Hampton stories abound. I will include a couple more. This first one involves Lionel’s wife, Gladys Riddle (shown at right), whom he married on his way from Los Angeles to New York to join Benny Goodman in late 1936. Gladys was something of a check on Lionel’s often manic behavior. She also was the keeper of the purse for both Lionel and later for the various Hampton bands, and her skinflint ways, especially with the musicians who worked for Lionel, and even Lionel himself, eventually resulted in them becoming quite wealthy. This tale was told by Arthur Rollini, who played tenor saxophone in Benny Goodman’s band from 1935 until 1939. “Gladys was very frugal with Lionel. He would have to beg her for money. I was with him one day on a train when he asked Gladys for a dollar. She replied: ‘Where’s the 50 cents I gave you yesterday?’ Lionel pleaded and she finally condescended to give him a dollar. Shortly after this, on our last visit to the Fox Theater in Detroit, Lionel had no money. Between shows for the time we were in Detroit, he ran up a tab of $62.50 at a local bar. On the day of our departure, Gladys was presented with the bill, and she beat Lionel unmercifully with a wet towel…”(1)

The second story involves Louis Armstrong, who was one of the first to give Hampton an opportunity to play his vibraphone, in the very early 1930s in Los Angeles. Lionel, even in those days, was what would later be called a “showboat.” He thrived while in the spotlight, and would do anything to remain there and, in his mind “entertain” the audience. Some of his extra-musical stage antics were quite wild and tasteless.(Benny Goodman kept Lionel under control during their time together.)

In addition to being a musical genius, Louis was a very wise man who understood a lot about humanity in general, and especially about the musicians with whom he had worked. He was also very generous in every way. The event described in this story took place in the 1960s. It was recounted masterfully by bassist Milt Hinton, who was working with Armstrong then. “It was at an outdoor concert in Washington, D.C., near one of the big malls, right on the Potomac. The stage and dressing rooms were set up on a barge which was docked at the edge of the river, and the audience sat on a long, wide grass bank in front of it. In addition to us, Lionel Hampton’s and Illinois Jacquet’s bands were on the program. Jacquet was scheduled to play first, from six to seven. Hamp was to follow, from seven to eight. Then, after an intermission, Louis would come out and do the finale. 

We had worked in New Jersey the night before and drove down from there in a private bus. We arrived at five-thirty, a half an hour before show time. There were about a thousand people in the audience, but no sign of Jacquet’s band. We unloaded our suitcases and instruments and moved everything over to the barge. By the time we’d changed into our tuxedos, it was six-thirty. Jacquet should have gone on at six, but he still hadn’t arrived. To make matters worse, there was also no sign of Hampton. Standing backstage, we could sense that the audience was getting restless. Every couple of minutes they’d start applauding and chanting, ‘Start the show. We want music.’

After about fifteen minutes, one of the producers went to Louis’s road manager and asked if Louis would go on first. Louis was the star of the show, but he didn’t care about billing or protocol. He was usually understanding and cooperative. So we went out and started playing. After waiting so long, the audience gave us an unbelievable reception.They applauded every solo and when we finished a tune they’d stand and cheer for a couple of minutes. We played about an hour and then took our bows, but the people wouldn’t let us off the stage. They screamed for encores and we kept doing them. Louis knew that there was no act to follow us, so he was content to stay out there and keep everyone happy until help arrived.

Finally, during out fifth or sixth encore, we saw a bus pull up and unload. As soon as Louis knew it was Jacquet’s bus, he told us, ‘This time when we end, walk off and stay off.’ As soon as we finished, we headed for the dressing room and changed.Then we packed up our instruments and hung around backstage talking to some of the guys from Jacquet’s band.

Illinois Jacquet – 1970s.

Trying to follow a performer like Louis put Jacquet in a difficult position. To make matters worse, the audience knew that he’d been scheduled to play first and had kept them waiting. So when he came out onstage, he got a lukewarm reception. Jacquet had eight or nine good musicians with him. They started with a couple of standards but got no response.They even featured the drummer, but that didn’t rouse the audience.Then Jacquet must have figured that he had nothing to lose, so he called ‘Flying Home,’ the tune he’d made famous with Hamp’s band. It took a couple of minutes before the audience recognized the tune and started to react. By then, Jacquet was soloing, and gave it everything he had, building, honking, screaming and dancing, all the moves, chorus after chorus. By the time he finished, he had the audience in the palm of his hand, just like Louis had them the hour before.(2)

The audience screamed for an encore, so Jacquet did another couple of choruses of ‘Flying Home.’ But right in the middle of this, Hamp’s bus pulled up. Hearing someone else play a tune he was known for and seeing the fantastic audience reaction must have made him furious.Everyone backstage saw what was going on and knew that somehow Hamp would want to outdo Jacquet. Louis was watching and he got interested too. I remember we were set to get on the bus, but Louis turned to us and said, ‘Wait, we have to see this.’

Jacquet finished, and after the stage got set up, Hamp came out. He began with ‘Midnight Sun,’ one of his famous ballads. But after Louis’s performance and Jacquet’s finale, the audience was in no mood for it. Then he did ‘Hamp’s Boogie Woogie’ and a couple of more numbers. He even played drums and sang, but still didn’t get much of an audience reaction. I was standing in the wings with Louis and a couple of other guys, and I could see how hard he was working. But time was running out. He looked frustrated and desperate. Finally, he called ‘Flying Home.’

The band started playing, but there wasn’t much response from the audience. But Hamp wouldn’t give up.He put everything he had into his solo, starting out soft, then building to a crescendo. When he finished his solo, sweat was dripping off every part of him, and a handful of people cheered. I guess that Hamp sensed that he was making some headway with the crowd. So when the band was playing, he went back to Monk Montgomery, who was playing Fender bass, and told him ‘Gates, you jump in the river on the next chorus and I’ll give you an extra ten.’ Monk must have agreed because when the band got to the next crescendo and Hamp raised his mallets, Monk jumped over the railing. The audience went crazy. The band was still playing when Monk came back onstage, soaking wet. Hamp had the band play the same crescendo, and Monk went over the side again. By this time, the audience was in a frenzy and Hamp knew that he had accomplished what he’d set out to do.

Louis then turned to us and said, ‘Start the bus. We can go now.'” (3)

The music: Lionel Hampton’s first recording of “Flying Home” with his own standing, touring band is essentially a showcase for the tenor saxophone playing of Illinois Jacquet. Although Hampton left Benny Goodman in the summer of 1940, and essentially began forming his own band shortly thereafter (being greatly assisted in this by alto saxophonist/clarinetist Marshal Royal, with whom Hampton had worked in Los Angeles in the early and mid-1930s), he did not record with it until late 1941. This recording of “Flying Home” reveals a solid, disciplined band and top-notch playing. (Royal also served as Hampton’s “straw-boss,” really an assistant bandleader, who was largely responsible for rehearsing the band. Royal would serve in this same role for Count Basie in the 1950s and 1960s.)

The arrangement is clearly a head, with successive parts (mostly riffs) of it being used as backgrounds for solos, and then for the building finale. By the time Hampton made this recording, he had already played “Flying Home” hundreds of times, but his playing still seemed fresh and swinging. Jacquet’s solo, in the big-toned tradition of the “Texas Tenors,”  players like Herschel Evans and Buddy Tate, is enthusiastic and swinging. This solo was something of a watershed for tenor players who increasingly began to use their instruments to produce honks, squeals and shrieks to generate audience excitement. (A major presenter of this kind of tenor saxophone playing throughout the 1940s and 1950s was Norman Granz at his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.) The chase sequence after the tenor solo features Hampton and high-note trumpet expert Ernie Royal (Marshal’s younger brother).

This performance, though calculated to create sensational effects as much as anything else, is nevertheless still the work of a well-disciplined band. This recording of “Flying Home” was a great commercial success, and propelled Lionel Hampton to popularity as a headliner thought the 1940s and into the 1950s.

“Flying Home”

Composed by Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman. Head arrangement organized by Benny Goodman.

Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Sextet for Columbia on October 2, 1939 in New York.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Lionel Hampton, vibraphone; Fletcher Henderson, piano; Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Arthur Bernstein, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

The story continues: Lionel Hampton was a most unreliable source for historical facts. His recollections, like those of most people after decades have passed, were jumbled. Hampton told historian Joseph Kastner in 1970 that “Flying Home” originated like this: “We were flying back to Atlantic City. It was my first plane ride, and I was humming a riff to myself. Somebody asked me what I was doing, and I said I was just amusing myself. What I was really doing was taking my mind off the plane ride.” (4)

The actual origination of “Flying Home” occurred a bit earlier. These are the key dates in that story: early to mid-August of 1939, John Hammond, working in some capacity, official or unofficial, for Benny Goodman, brings guitar wizard Charlie Christian to Los Angeles from Oklahoma to audition for BG. (Above right: Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman, late 1939.) Goodman, who only recently had signed a contract to make records for Columbia after four successful years with Victor, was about to make his first recordings under that agreement, and was edgy. Hammond brings Christian to the recording studio where Goodman is in the process of recording. (Benny’s first two Columbia sessions then were on August 10 and 11, 1939.) After an awkward and perfunctory audition by Christian, Benny dismisses him. He was focused on making recordings with his big band, and felt pressure from Columbia to create several new records in a short period of time. (He made twelve sides for Columbia in August. Another recording date was completed on August 16.) Hammond advised Christian, who was crushed by Benny’s rebuff, to be patient.

Within a short time (possibly on August 16), Hammond surreptitiously arranged for Christian to sit-in with the Goodman small group that then included Benny on clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, Artie Bernstein on bass and Nick Fatool on drums.This took place at the Goodman band’s one-week engagement at a large night club/restaurant called the Victor Hugo, in Beverly Hills, California. This event unfolded in a way where Benny was essentially unable to not give Christian a chance to really play. Benny called “Rose Room,” and after the first chorus, Charlie Christian was ready to improvise on the chords of that tune indefinitely. When “Rose Room” ended, some forth-five minutes later according to Hammond, an new jazz star had been created: Charlie Christian.

The Benny Goodman Sextet – 1940. L-R: Lionel Hampton, Artie Bernstein, BG, Nick Fatool, Charlie Christian and Johnny Guarnieri. Benny’s iron discipline prevented Hampton from running amok, and resulted in many brilliant performances by him.

Benny was now eager to integrate Charlie Christian into his small group, and the Benny Goodman Sextet debuted. (Christian did not perform as the regular guitarist with the Goodman big band.)  The first recorded evidence of Christian with the Benny Goodman Sextet is an aircheck performance of “Flying Home,” taken from Benny’s Camel Caravan radio show on August 19, 1939, which emanated from the Hollywood Bowl. This is also the first recorded performance of “Flying Home.” Shortly after that, the Goodman organization, which now included Charlie Christian, headed east by air, to play an engagement at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. During the interim between mid-August of 1939, when Charlie Christian first came upon the BG scene, until he made his first commercial recordings with the Benny Goodman Sextet, on October 2, 1939, three showcases for Christian were created and/or refined: “Flying Home,” “Rose Room,” and “Star Dust.” These three tunes were recorded by the Benny Goodman Sextet on October 2.

The music: One of the greatest features of Benny Goodman’s music is the marvelous balance he often achieved in his performances between discipline and abandon. This recording is a perfect example of that. The informality of the head arrangement is apparent. But listen to how crisply the musicians execute the simple riffs both behind the solos and out front. It is done with verve. This perfection came about in part because these men played together seven days a week, sometimes for months on end. Consequently, they thought, breathed and phrased as a unit. This recording is the distillate of probably dozens of performances of “Flying Home” over the previous six weeks. Fine solos were played by Charlie Christian, Hampton and BG. Pianist Fletcher Henderson’s introduction sounds rather old-fashioned and out of place in this high-powered swing group.

“Flying Home”

Head arrangement organized by Lionel Hampton.

Recorded by Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra on February 26, 1940 for Victor in Chicago.

Lionel Hampton, vibraphone, directing: Ziggy Elman, trumpet; Toots Mondello and Buff Estes, alto saxophones; Jerry Jerome and Budd Johnson, tenor saxophones; Spencer Odom, piano; Ernest Ashley, guitar; Arthur Bernstein, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

The story and music continues: Everyone who participated in this recording of “Flying Home” was a part of the Benny Goodman organization in the winter of 1940, except for these Chicago-based musicians: Pianist Spencer Odom, guitarist Ernest Ashley, and tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson. Johnson was a veteran musician who made his reputation as a member of the hard swinging Earl Hines band in the 1930s and into the 1940s. He was also an aggressive tenor saxophone soloist with an edgy sound, strong swing and good jazz ideas.(5)

The immaculate saxophone section is led by Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, one of the top lead alto men of the swing era (and for many decades thereafter in New York). Trumpeter Ziggy Elman not only solos twice, but functions as a brass section of one quite admirably on this recording. Hampton, once again, plays well both as soloist and in the various ensembles.

My informed speculation is that tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome listened carefully to what Budd Johnson had played on the tune recorded immediately before this one, “Till Tom Special,” and channeled that approach, and possibly Hampton’s request for a few honks, into what eventually became his colorful and humorous tenor saxophone solo on “Flying Home.” This small band recording set the basic pattern for the big band Decca recording that would be made two-plus years later.


(1) Thirty Years With the Big Bands by Arthur Rollini (1987), (64).

(2) In my youthful wanderings in search of jazz, I once saw Illinois Jacquet perform, around 1980. This occurred in a lovely, spacious basement jazz room in Manhattan operated by impresario George Wein called “Storyville.” (This venue was short-lived, and is not to be confused with the “Storyville” jazz club Wein operated in Boston through the 1950s.) As I recall, it was in midtown on the east side. With Jacquet that night was trumpeter Joe Newman, who was an old friend of Jacquet’s going back to the early 1940s in Lionel Hampton’s band. I also recall the excellent bassist Bob Cranshaw being a part of Jacquet’s group that night, with drummer Grady Tate. Jacquet was a stomping, romping tenor saxophone soloist, but he also played ballads with great expression and tenderness. In addition to recalling Jacquet’s playing that night, I remember that he was a short guy, maybe 5’6″, but he had extremely broad shoulders.

(3) Bass Line …The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton, by Milt Hinton and David G. Berger (1988), 200-201.

(4) The Swing Era 1941-1942  (1970), notes on the music by Joseph Kastner, 55.

(5) Budd Johnson was also an excellent arranger who, according to Leonard Feather in his Encyclopedia of Jazz, played a significant role in the transition of jazz from swing to bop in the 1940s. Although Johnson’s saxophone playing (he also played alto and baritone) later reflected a strong bop orientation, he never lost his ability to swing. I saw him perform on a couple of occasions in the 1970s and early 1980s, and he played with both passion and exuberance.

The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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  1. The guitarist on the May 26, 1942 Decca recording is Irving Ashby. Ashby was originally from Somerville, Massachusetts and joined Hampton in 1940. He later found fame as part of Nat Cole’s post Oscar Moore line-up of the King Cole Trio.

    • Nick, you are 100% correct. Irving Ashby played guitar, Harold Ashby saxophone, much later with Ellington. I went back to my source for that Hampton personnel, and saw that it included Irving’s name, not Harold’s. I must have had some kind of Freudian slip when I was typing that name. Nice catch and thanks. (I have corrected that mistake in the blog post.)

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