Skinner’s engaging if slight debut memoir, as told to Solan, recounts his time organizing the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in the unlikely town of Moscow, Idaho.
The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival started out as the University of Idaho Jazz Festival in 1968, and Skinner took the reins in 1976, thinking it would be a one-year gig. It turned out to be a 31-year job—and the start of a lifelong friendship with legendary vibes player Lionel Hampton. Skinner wanted to move the festival forward and bring in bigger names. He brought Hampton in to perform in 1984, and he played every festival from then to 2002. In 1987, UI went one step further and named their music school the Lionel Hampton School of Music. That brought national news coverage to the school, and Hampton’s presence brought in a lot of talent, like Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Branford Marsalis, and Carmen McRae. The relationship was so close that when Hampton’s apartment caught fire in 1997, he called Skinner from the sidewalk while he watched it burn. Skinner tells his story in a fairly conversational style, illustrated with many photos of him with jazz legends. The bulk of the story is about how the festival expanded, adding more talent across more days, providing stage time and scholarships to area students and generally helping to keep jazz alive. Skinner devotes the rest of the time to stories about “Hamp,” as he calls him, and about his own education as a jazz fan and music teacher, ending, oddly, with the story of his tour of the Soviet Union in 1989. It’s clear there was a fine friendship between Skinner and Hampton, and there are some wonderful glimpses into Hampton’s personality, like his tendency to get lost in a jam with guests and go long. But as much as jazz fans might enjoy the book, they are getting only glimpses. Skinner never dives into a particular show to make the reader feel like they were there from beginning to end.
Jazz fans will enjoy reading about some of the legendary players involved but might be disappointed if they expect an in-depth look at Lionel Hampton.