Remembering the “Warrior”
She was tough, savvy, talented, focused and passionate. Those are just a few of the characteristics of the person I came to know. I had many nighttime conversations with Aletra Hampton in recent times that could stretch into hours. I was always amazed by how, even into her 90s, concerned she was about current events as well as with recollections of a past she loved to discuss.
At the core of what Aletra was about was music. This was instilled into her as the oldest of 12 children by her father and mother. It was a tough time being the oldest child. “I never had a childhood when I was growing up, it was rough but I have no regrets,” she said many times. Aletra lived through 80 percent of jazz history, but she always claimed, “Everyone liked what we were playing, which was rhythm and blues and swing. We were the only ones playing that style in town and the public learned to dance to our music.”
Jazz musicians felt Aletra was too modest about what the Hampton Sisters were doing. The Hampton home on West Vermont Street in the ’50s was a hotbed of learning for young jazz musicians. David Baker, distinguished professor of jazz studies at Indiana University, recalls how he grew musically in the Hampton tradition: “I spent so much time with the family, they were so great and did so much for us. We all played with that family band, I played four or five years with them and would tour locally with them. We played concerts, dances and we rehearsed almost daily at the house. I can remember sitting there and we would be playing and they would have a huge tub of Kool Aid with a 50 pound block of ice in it … For all intents and purposes it was our school. We learned from Aletra, Virtue, Carmelita, Dawn and Slide. These were the people that welcomed us into their musical family. It was like going to a university because they taught us so much.”
When asked to define what Aletra Hampton was about, Baker had an embracing reply. “First of all, Aletra was a survivor and she was somebody who said, ‘Look, this music is not just about art, it’s supposed to be entertainment.’ She said that more than once. That is reaching people and basically communicating with people and she lived that.”
There is one remaining member of the Hampton Sisters Quartet, drummer Larry Clark III. Clark has been the drummer since Aletra and Virtue reformed the group after Carmelita died in 1987. Clark said Aletra’s nickname was the “Warrior” among the musicians and she was known for a sly sense of humor. “She had a way of saying things to you that later on smacked you in the face. I was always in a rush and Aletra would always say, ‘You know I’ve got a problem, I have to work on it all the time,’ and it dawned on me she was talking about me. She would never dress you down personally.”
Clark shared insights about the Hampton band members who are gone. “I had a thought of each of them,” Clark said. “Carmelita was like the grass, the trees and the fruit. Virtue was like the earth, solid that we stood on. Aletra was the spirit that kept us all together. Pookie was like the farmer, the tour guide that showed me the way. People who saw them should have learned from them. They left more than just music. Aletra and Virtue left a sense of integrity and they both were very honest in what they said.”
After Virtue’s death, Aletra told me how she wanted to give music seminars to young people in schools. Her sense of responsibility, of sharing her music’s legacy, was very strong. In spite of her reputation as a tough and sharp leader with a no-nonsense approach, the Aletra Hampton I knew was also a compassionate, astute woman with a keen sense of humor and a very strong faith.
Aletra Hampton will be missed. She was a special, once-in-a-lifetime individual, who shared her gifts tirelessly with the public.
A Celebration of Aletra Hampton’s Life, a concert in memory of the Indianapolis jazz legend, has been scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 15 at the Indiana History Center, featuring local and national artists.