Rossmoor resident donates Lionel Hampton score to Ben-Gurion University

In the hours after a 1997 fire ravaged the New York apartment of jazz great Lionel Hampton, the distraught octogenarian asked his two assistants, “Where is my ‘King David Suite’?”

The pioneering jazz vibraphonist had composed the instrumental piece in 1953 as a tribute to the emerging State of Israel and his friend, David Ben-Gurion.

His assistants replied, according to the New York Times, that the sheet music and notes were destroyed. Gone were what were thought to be the only copies of the orchestral score and instrumental parts.

Unbeknownst to Hampton — or anybody until 2008, six years after Hampton’s death — was that a copy of the score, with Hampton’s original notes and comments, had been filed in the Rossmoor  (Walnut Creek) home of Frank Como. Como was Hampton’s arranger for 20 years, and he had also tucked away a notated sheet of Hampton’s vibraphone part of the piece.

Mo Levich presents “King David Suite” score to Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University. photo/shay shmueli, ben-gurion university of the negev

This week, with the help of Maurice “Mo” Levich of Lafayette, those documents were donated to the Ben-Gurion Archives, located in Israel on the Sede Boqer campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Levich, on the Jewish Federation of the East Bay’s annual community trip to Israel, presented the score to BGU president Rivka Carmi on April 22 on behalf of Como.

As he did so, Levich said he was “extremely excited and honored” that the piece of music will now be in a place “where people can see and study it. The music lives on as a survivor of time and fire.”

Levich’s connection to the piece is through his friendship with Como. The two men are the directors of the Big Band of Rossmoor, a staple for nearly 25 years at the huge East Bay adult community (1,800 acres, 9,500 residents).

“Frank was in agreement,” Levich said before he left for Israel. “If Ben-Gurion was Lionel’s friend — and he was — then the score should go to Ben-Gurion University.”

Levich, who owners Employerware, a publishing consultancy firm in Lafayette, said his association with the “King David Suite” began seven years ago, when he was buying a Lionel Hampton record at a jazz record store at New York’s Lincoln Center owned by Phil Schaap, a jazz historian, educator, disc jockey and producer. As the two men talked, they realized they both knew Como.

Schaap wondered: Might Como know of a remaining “King David Suite” score?

Levich checked, and Como still had a copy.

Levich said he decided to donate the score to the archives after hearing a speaker from the American Friends of Ben-Gurion University, the university’s fundraising arm in the United States.

The 20-minute “King David Suite” is a Third Stream work, meaning it weaves Western classical music with jazz elements. While Hampton wrote it in 1953, it “was just bits and pieces that he used when he played with symphony orchestras,” Como, 93, told J. “They were not scored as a full suite. It wasn’t a complete composition.”

Poster for a 1950s show in Israel

A suite is a single piece with various musical themes that move from one to another with no stops, which is what it became in 1970 after Hampton brought the piece to Como. “He wanted me to orchestrate it [so] I took those themes, and then I added the jazz part,” said Como, who worked with Hampton from 1968 to 1988.

The suite includes one Israeli-sounding theme and another reminiscent of klezmer. “Lionel came up with those because he wanted something to sound — I don’t know how to explain it — to sound Jewish,” Como explained.

The arranger said Hampton “was influenced by some Jewish folk music. He had come in contact with a lot of the Jewish music in New York.”

Como said Hampton viewed the suite as “a dedication to the State of Israel, and he had met Ben-Gurion. He also stayed at the King David Hotel [in Jerusalem] — one of the reasons he called it the ‘King David Suite.’ ”

How close Hampton was to Ben-Gurion is unclear. Hampton toured Israel several times in the 1950s and repeatedly said he had met Israel’s founding prime minister.

The Pittsburgh Courier reported in1956 that Hampton performed before large crowds in the Jewish state that included Ben-Gurion and President Chaim Weizmann. Hampton reportedly told Israel’s Overseas Broadcasting Co. that he read the Psalms daily. He maintained that King David was a music pioneer, and he suggested that biblical phrasing “did much to put the beat into” music.

Hampton, who played in Benny Goodman’s orchestra and small combos before leading his own bands for decades, expressed a connection to King David. In notes for a performance of the suite in 1993, Hampton wrote about sightseeing in Israel during a 1953 concert tour: “I remember I walked into [King David’s] tomb and looked around for a few minutes. I was thinking about David and his harp, and a chant just came over me.”

In 1958, Hampton told an audience of 2,000 at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel that he was inspired  to write the suite after visiting King David’s tomb at the urging of Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, according to the Pittsburgh Courier.

With the discovery of the score, Levich has hopes for further performances of the work. He said vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, who is organizing a Lionel Hampton tribute band, has expressed interested in playing the suite.

No commercial recording of the suite exists. To hear a 1979 performance of the work featuring Hampton with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, visit