Monday Notes

Whispering, Lionel Hampton was the first great jazz vibraphonist

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[Monday Notes n.28] Like the saxophone, electric guitar and drums, the vibraphone reached the broader public through jazz music. An instrument invented in the ’20s, it was in fact popularized by Lionel Hampton, a vibraphonist hired by Benny Goodman in his quartet in the mid-’30s. Let’s listen to the two musicians playing Whispering.

On this recording of Whispering, dated 1936, the ensemble is small in size: Leader Benny Goodman on clarinet, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. The line-up is unusual because of the absence of the double bass, but also because it consists of two white musicians (Goodman and Krupa) and two blacks (Hampton, Wilson), which was not very common at the time.

The piece begins with Benny Goodman performing the theme in a low register, then launching into a solo in the highest register (0’45”). Because of this sudden change of register, it almost seems as if the theme and the improvisation are played by two different instruments. Next, we can hear Lionel Hampton’s improvisation on vibraphone (1’24”), then Teddy Wilson’s solo on piano (2’03”). The final reprise of the theme is performed in duet by clarinet and vibraphone (2’41”).

A few years later, bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie reused the harmonic progressions of old jazz tunes for their original compositions. The bebop musicians were also provocative and original in the choice of titles they gave to their compositions. For example, Charlie Parker’s tunes are famous, from My Little Suede Shoes to Yardbird Suite.

On the chords of Whispering, Dizzy Gillespie wrote his song Groovin’ High, which also means “to have a good time”. Bebop musicians had no desire to whisper, they played and said what they thought out loud, without hesitation.

Until next Monday!

This song is part of the list How to learn 100 jazz standards.

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