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In Conversation with Anu Sun: The Grammy Award Winner on Why Lionel Hampton’s Legacy is Immortal

The godson of the late jazz bandleader explains why his music is still necessary today.

This past award season found Anu Sun, the Grammy-winning engineer and musician whose worked with Robert Glasper and others, accept a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award for his godfather Lionel Hampton. And while the music industry vet felt the award was overdue, the moment represented the need to have the jazz great to continue to be a presence in his — and other music lovers’ — life/lives.

“He wanted me in New York with him, and I didn’t hesitate to be there,” Sun shared with BET.com exclusively.

For those unfamiliar with Hampton and his history, let’s go back to 1927. Born in Louisville, Kentucky and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Hampton’s family uprooted him to Chicago where, as a Catholic-influenced kid, allowed his bigger dream that led him to Los Angeles. Hampton played for several bands and was adept at playing the xylophone, but after some wise words from Jimmy Bertrand, he went on to practice drumming — eventually playing for the Les Hite Band at Sebastian’s Cotton Club.

It was in this grouping, which also included the birth of his trademark trick to juggle multiple pair of sticks without missing a beat, Hampton’s charm and captivating smile earned him an audience and the attention with the one person he revered most: Louis Armstrong.

It was a significant and impactful moment Hampton dreamed about and, more importantly, prepared for.

Under the leadership and tutelage of Armstrong, Hampton mastered the vibraphone, becoming, arguably, the best ever to do so. Hampton would continue to progress in his career into the 1930s, where his artistry and wizardry on the drums landed him with Benny Goodman, quickly placing him within one of the first integrated jazz bands in the country. In nearly four years with Goodman, Hampton — when asked about integration — confidently spoke for his community and planted the seed that would continue to root within the music world, saying that “both Black and white keys were needed to produce music.”

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Hampton would become an immediate star, even nicknamed “The World’s Fastest Drummer,” and start his own band in the 1940s. The Lionel Hampton Orchestra, which, thanks to Anu Sun is experiencing a revival, was at one point one of the longest running orchestras in jazz history. Through his band’s success, he helped to enrich and cultivate the careers of Dinah Washington, Charles Mingus, and Johnny Griffin. Hampton sought to fully enter into his own entrepreneurship within the music business alongside his wife Gladys, as he built two record companies, a publishing company, and community efforts meant to build public housing for the less fortunate.

He carried a laundry list of accomplishments that seemed never ending: Hampton was the first Black musician to play for a president during an inauguration; a recipient of the Harlem Jazz and Music Festival’s Legend Award, a holder of multiple honorary doctorates, a Goodwill ambassador, and plenty more. The success of the band he created continued to bless him with a bountiful life well into his elderstatesman status. And toward the end of his life, Hampton would be most proud of all the musicians that he nurtured. He made sure that every talent he came across was better than when he first found them.

Lionel Hampton is the embodiment of a true musician, of an architect behind Black music, and his extraordinary life is directly the reason why Black artistry was able to crack into once-forbidden places. His commitment to musicians influenced generational talents and he has left an undeniable imprint on jazz history.

Anu Sun, who continues to champion his family’s legacy, glows at the remembrance of the man who unknowingly saved his life. In speaking with BET.com, Sun gives Lionel Hampton his flowers for thanks for placing the drumsticks in his hands as a kid.

Read his reflection on Hampton, witnessing musicians crowding around Hampton’s apartment, and why it is important to re-introduce Hampton’s music to new fans.


BET.com: How did accepting the Grammy Award on Lionel Hampton’s behalf help to reintroduce him to a new audience?

Anu Sun: It’s an entirely new generation that we’re in now, you know? Young adults aren’t tapped into the history of jazz like how the older generation was. Even if they know it loosely, they’re not familiar with the strivings and struggles that had to take place to get it where it was and what challenges they faced. I thought [the 2021 Grammy Awards] was an awesome time to bring awareness about his life, as well as it was great to give him his flowers. It would have been best if he was still here to receive them, because he relished and loved those types of things, but for him to get his just due and be reintroduced into the music world — it’s major for us.

BET.com: How do you want newer jazz fans to receive Lionel Hampton and his music?

AS: I don’t want anyone trying to get caught up in attempting to play what he played because he wasn’t copying anybody. He lived his life and played music indicative of his life experiences. Don’t even try to recreate music that’s 100 years old, you know, because that’s not your experience. What you can do is honor his life, learn his music, and make what he inspired a part of your toolkit — but also bring your life experience to it and make it fresh because that’s how we keep it alive.

BET.com: What would you say was the family’s reaction to receiving such a distinction?

AS: Hamp was so accomplished [and] he won so many countless awards, which was then imbued by the love he received from his family and fans. I feel like this award was overdue, but also unexpected.

06302022-lionel-hampton-anu-sun-interview
Christian Fabian and Anu Sun attend the Recording Academy Honors presented by The Black Music Collective during the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards on April 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

BET.com: What was his outlook on other musicians?

AS: He loved Miles Davis and complimented him on being an innovator and visionary in music. He loved people who had their own voice, their own type of swing, and didn’t just copy and paste the past. He was still learning new ideas until the day he passed. We would visit the Blue Note together, and he would find that one little thing that a young musician did, and he would have me go get his number [laughs]. I would never see him talking to them, but we would go see his The Lionel Hampton Orchestra a few weeks later, and that same musician is playing in the band [laughs].

In the apartment he had, we didn’t have to go outside to places. We were on the 28th floor overlooking the Courtyard Center in Manhattan, and musicians would constant come over. I’m talking about icons, you know? We would sit there, listen, order food and talk about music.

BET.com: In your young eyes, who was Lionel Hampton to you?

AS: He was simply my godfather. He was amazing. Him and my mother were close my entire life. When I was born, he would always come to Las Vegas to perform at the Moulin Rouge, and then the hotels on the Strip. He would always visit family and bring me drumsticks. I grew up with him, so I knew he was a jazz musician, that he was the fist to play the vibraphone, but the magnitude of his legacy wasn’t really broken down to me until much later in life.

BET.com: Lionel Hampton had a full life and passed away at the age of 94 years old. How did he reflect on his success?

AS: He never really bragged or recounted much about his past. It would be like a scenario or place where we’re visiting him and a memory would spark. He did account for his friendship with former President George W. Bush, breaking the color barrier with Benny Goodman, and playing the drums with Louis Armstrong. He honestly told me that he didn’t know how to play the vibraphone, traditionally. He would beat on them like drums and knew they had the same notes as the piano, and got famous for it [laughs]. Most of our conversations surrounded his fandom for artists such as Count Bassie

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American Jazz Vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton, kept on playing the vibraphone and beating the drums while his band kept time with him in a packed Frankfurt movie house.

BET.com: How would describe the definitive take on who Lionel Hampton was?

AS: Lionel Hampton was an innovator, a trailblazer, and he always played the music he felt inside. He was an avid student of music and always tried to learn something new. Even when he was described as a legend and an icon, he was constantly trying to evolve. Hamp belonged to everybody in music — jazz, Black culture, Harlem, the world. Everybody loved him and he loved everyone.


Quierra Luck writes about your favorite athletes, and musicians, and ensures that your Black history is preserved. You can follow her latest musing on Instagram @Quierra_Luck.

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