Story last updated at 2:48 p.m. Thursday, December 19, 2002

Legend's passing a reminder of enduring legacy of arts
Howard Hedges
point of view

A big hole was left in the fabric of the American soul with the recent passing of musician Lionel Hampton in New York City at age 94.

It has struck me that we have lost many of our great artisans over the past decade. Because of my background in the musical world, many famous musicians come to mind. Artists in other media can name just as many artists who have passed on in their particular fields. A question among many of us is, "Just who is going to step in and take their place?"

Gates, Hamp, "The Say Hey Kid," Lionel: all relate to Hampton. He was a trailblazer in music and the American society as it tried to sort itself out following the wars and the Great Depression. He was one of the first African-Americans to break the color barrier into music and the Big Band Era.

With Benny Goodman's Orchestra, Hamp and pianist Teddy Wilson would have to make their way to a "colored" hotel following a hard night of playing. While on stage they were heroes, but off stage they had to revert back to their coloredness. They were members of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the No. 1 Big Band in the world at that time.

In the early 1980s, my career crossed paths with Lionel, and I worked on and off with him up until my retirement. On our first meeting, I introduced myself in tuxedo with my horn in its case. I stood a head taller than him. With this powerful handshake and huge toothy grin, he said, "Hey, Gates! (he called most everyone 'Gates') Lookin' forward to hearin' that plumbing (my bass trombone) ya got there. What say we get to it?"

By the end of the night we had a Palm Beach society ball broken down to bare feet, tux coats and furs thrown to the wind and people dancing in the aisles. He was respectful, joyous, laughing, loveable, musical beyond words and loved Big Macs at the end of a night.

I use Lionel's name at this time because I know how dedicated he was to his art form, and he's been the last figure in the news. He tried to say "hey!" to everyone he could and never stopped his creative momentum.

The arts, all of the arts, are caught up in a battle of priorities. Presidents, senators, House members, secretaries of whatever, state and local governments and their "constituents" are deciding the arts do not have a place at the table of society. What is art? You can chase that one as far back as you dare and not find the definition of what constitutes art.

Upon moving to Alaska and hearing of the "1 percent for art" clause, I felt I had reached civilization once again. How cool to insert funds to make a project truly Alaskan.

Now, in the time of budget deficits, the arts are coming under attack once again. When finances get tight in educational budgets, what are some of the things under the axe? Music, writing, theatre arts, the dance, educational programs and opportunities are all targets. Athletics take hits, but that is an argument left for another day.

In our elementary and junior high school, children are now faced with the choice of which activity they would like to participate in during the lunch hour, sometimes 20 minutes of contact time with the instructor, two days a week. By the time instruments are assembled or supplies readied, it's time to go back to class.

Homer's art instructors are spread between four schools and run from 7 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. at night. They interact with hundreds of students each day. Who do we get to replace these people when their bodies and souls burn out? It's just like the earthquake analogy, "not if, but when." Medical research has proven that artistic activity in infancy enhances the formation and development of a child's brain. Brain activity is enhanced in teens and adults when certain background elements are introduced during certain activities.

If the arts are so inconsequential, why did Hitler plunder the Hermitage in St. Petersburg? Why was he so pleased to have the Louvre under his control in Paris? Why did Alexander the Great go after the artistic riches of conquered lands? Why were the musical composers indentured to the service of royalty? Why have near-recent explorers gone after the great works of Native artisans? Why did the Taliban destroy the Buddha figures that had stood for centuries? When you steal or destroy a society's artistic infrastructure, you steal the very soul of those people. As has been demonstrated time and time again, civilizations will fight as long and hard as it takes to get their souls back.

In today's world, children need to be exposed to a balance of academics and artistic endeavors. The arts, no matter what the field, sparked and continues to spark creativity and, most important, imagination.

Would man have built a boat? How about flying like a bird? Walk on the moon? Being able (in your mind) to shrink yourself down to the size of a virus to look for its weakness. These last examples did not have their beginnings by crunching numbers. Only after the dream did the number-crunching begin.

The next time the Budget Blues are debated, look beyond the dollar sign to see which legacy will be the more enduring.

To that, Gates would say, "Say 'Hey!'"

Howard Hedges is a Homer musician.

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