NEW YORK -- There was more than musical magic on stage that day in 1936 when Lionel Hampton joined Benny Goodman in a Manhattan ballroom -- it was a breakthrough in American race relations.
Hampton, a vibraphone virtuoso who died Saturday, broke a barrier that had kept black and white musicians from performing together in public. Through a six-decade career, he continued to build a name for himself as one of the greats in jazz history.
"He was really a towering jazz figure," said saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who played with Hampton in the 1950s. "He really personified the spirit of jazz because he had so much joy about his playing."
The 94-year-old showman and bandleader died of heart failure at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said his manager, Phil Leshin. Hampton suffered two strokes in 1995 and had been in failing health in recent years.
Hampton played with a who's who of jazz, from Goodman to Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Quincy Jones. His own band helped foster or showcase other jazz greats including Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington.
"With Hampton's death, we've drawn closer to losing part of the origins of the early jazz era," said Phil Schaap, a jazz historian.
In August 1936, Benny Goodman heard Hampton play and three months later Hampton was at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, starting out "four gorgeous years with Benny" in the new, trailblazing Benny Goodman Quartet.
That quartet, with Hampton, pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa, broke racial barriers that had largely kept black musicians from performing with whites in public. Wilson and Hampton made up the black half of the foursome.
Wilson had recorded with Goodman and Krupa previously, and white soloists "jammed" informally with black groups, but a color line was drawn whenever a band was on stage.