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Feeling The Vibes: The Short History Of A Long Instrument

Lionel Hampton was the first musician to use the vibraphone on a jazz recording.
Reg Davis
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Getty Images
Lionel Hampton was the first musician to use the vibraphone on a jazz recording.

The legend goes like this: In 1930, jazz drummer Lionel Hampton was performing a gig at the NBC studios. In those days, and for a long time to come, the sound that identified NBC was three notes (G-E-C) on the vibraphone; naturally, there was a vibraphone in the studio. After his gig was over, Hampton started messing with the instrument and became fascinated by it.

Shortly thereafter, Hampton brought "the vibes" — as the instrument is now commonly called — to a recording session with Louis Armstrong. Their version of "Memories of You" is the first known jazz recording to incorporate the vibraphone. And jazz has been using the vibes like crazy ever since.

Jazz, in fact, is the only genre of music that uses the vibes as a lead or improvisational instrument, in the process helping to save this beautiful-sounding and versatile instrument from extinction. What follows are five examples of that beauty and versatility.

For more entries in NPR Music's weekly Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler series, click here.

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Nick Morrison
Nick Francis