News flash: I started to review this seriously entertaining book a few months ago, lent it to a friend who promised to return it after a weekend, then didn’t . . . so this review is, with apologies, late. But I offer this anecdote to show I am not the only person who found the book irresistible.
Some books, full of invaluable information, are austere and forbidding. “Do you dare to approach, ignorant mortal? Are you worthy of opening my pages? Don’t even think of removing my dust jacket.” Other books, equally worthy or perhaps more so, are casual and welcoming. Reading them is like having a very relaxed old friend over to your house for a meal, and the friend — never boring — is a treasure chest of pleasing stories you’ve never heard before.
HAMP AND DOC is a marvelous example of the second kind of book. I’ve said it often, but books that tell me new stories are enticing reading, as are books that are narrated by the participants. And, I never thought of it as a criteria, but if a book has a great deal of affection in it — in this case, someone’s hugging or getting hugged every few pages — that, too, is a winner.
Lionel Hampton is deservedly well known, not only for his long career, his many talents, his ebullient musicianship, the hundreds of musicians whose lives he touched — so this book has a kind of anchor in its story of Hamp’s last years, from 1984 to 2002, years full of playing and energetic involvement in the lives of everyone he encountered.
Lynn “Doc” Skinner would not be well known, I think, outside of Idaho, but he also has touched many lives — as a musician, multi-instrumentalist and composer, a music educator, a festival organizer, an ingenious and kind man never at a loss for an idea, and ultimately as a friend to hundreds, perhaps thousands — some of them famous, others not known to us. Born in 1940, he is still with us, and HAMP AND DOC is his engaging story as well.
Engaging stories are at the heart of this affectionate, vivid book, and the ones that I find memorable reveal character. Many know that in 1997, a fire in Hamp’s New York apartment destroyed everything he had. He was 88, had had two strokes, and was sitting outside his apartment on the sidewalk in a wheelchair, clad in pajamas and robe, having been helped outside by two attendants. What you won’t know is this telling anecdote. Watching the fire from the street, Hamp calls Doc, who knows nothing of what is going on, and asks him, “Doc, are you okay?” and getting an answer in the affirmative, then tells him about the fire.
Of course, not everyone in this book is a saint (although most of the cast of characters are eminently nice): Doc tells the story of Sarah Vaughan refusing to get in the student’s four-door sedan that is picking her up from the airport because her contract specifies a limousine, and, later, refusing to go on because she does not have her $10,000 fee (cash) in her hand. Other sharp and tender vignettes have Stan Getz, Al Grey, Diana Krall, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Claudio Roditi, Clint Eastwood, Dizzy Gillespie, or Bill Charlap at the center. But the affectionate relationship between Doc and Hamp is the book’s backbone, and the wonderful things that resulted — the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival (the first jazz festival aimed at students, the first one named for a musician, the first one named for an African-American) and later, the Lionel Hampton School of Music.
The book is free from ideological bias or theorizing — in that regard it is blissfully old-fashioned, but it is as if we are privileged to spend some delightful afternoons with Doc as he shares his crystal-clear recollections reaching back to his childhood and forward into the present. Like Hamp, he comes across clearly, as a man with a purpose, devoid of artifice or meanness. He is ambitious, but his ambition is for the music alone and what it can do to reach others.
It’s a welcoming collection of lovely stories, well-edited, with beautiful photographs, many in color, and a lively design overall. Not incidentally, the book benefits hugely from the unseen talents of Alan Jay Solan, the man to whom Doc told his stories. The book works wonderfully as a book — not simply as a collection of associated memories — because of Solan.
Any jazz fan who loves Lionel Hampton, who feels good after reading stories where kind people treat each other kindly, or who wants to see lovely candid photographs will love this book.
Here‘s a link to Inkwater Press, although I am sure that the book is available in many other places (there’s a Kindle edition also).
And in case you have done the unthinkable and taken Hamp for granted, here are two pieces of evidence to prove that a truly bad idea.
Hamp and a stellar cast of Ellingtonian friends (Carney, Hodges, Cootie) and Jess Stacy in 1937:
Fifty years later, on the David Letterman Show:
May your happiness increase!