It’s no wonder that Dawn Hampton—who was the opening night DJ for Midsummer Night Swing 2016 alongside the Catherine Russell Septet—knows how to stand out in a crowd. The 88-year-old vocalist, saxophonist, jazz whistler, saw player, and dancer was the youngest daughter in a family of 12. After learning the tricks of the entertainment trade from her father, Clark “Deacon” Hampton, Dawn passed through the New York cabaret scene and is now an unmistakable presence wherever you can hear swing music. Just look for an artful character in a gold turban.
Lincoln Center: I get the distinct impression that most jazz musicians don’t enjoy dancing; they’d much prefer to be playing. How did you cross the great divide from the bandstand to the dance floor?
Dawn Hampton: You are absolutely right. Most musicians don’t like to dance. My brothers had no alternative. My father said dance and they danced. I was involved with my family band since I was three years old. At three, pop would put you out onstage and say, “Do something.”
My dad taught all of us. Our family was a whole show. We danced, we sang, and played instruments. My father was a magician and a singer. But my father and my mother weren’t dancers.
LC: Why not?
DH: They didn’t have the time. They had 12 children! My mother played piano and accordion. When we were babies, she would put us behind the piano in an orange crate. I was born and raised on a carnival. We got used to playing in places where they didn’t have any lights. They brought lanterns out and hung them on tenpenny nails on the wall. We played so far back out in the woods one time that the management had us performing with a bear on the program.
LC: By giving you this kind of performance training, what do you think your father wanted you to achieve?
DH: We were black people. My father believed—and he was right—that as long as you could entertain people, you could find a job. And there were people who thought that nobody could entertain them like black people. That’s why white men started blacking their faces in minstrelsy.
Our father made us learn that because he knew we would use it. The older you got, the better the gigs you got. My family played together until my brothers came back from the service in World War II. We played Carnegie Hall, the Apollo, and the Savoy.
LC: And he trained the boys and girls alike?
DH: He didn’t believe in anything else. My sister Aletra first played Italian harp. Then when my mom got too pregnant with the kids, Aletra took over for her at the piano. My sister Virtue played the sousaphone and ended up playing bass. You did whatever was needed at the time.
LC: Today, jazz comes across as very serious music. It’s sit-down music. It’s concert music. In addition to the carnivals, you performed in some surprising places, like the Lion’s Den and the Continental Baths at the Ansonia.
DH: I came to New York City as a jazz musician and I couldn’t find a job. So I ended up being a cabaret performer. In the Village, I had an unbelievable gay following. Unbelievable. I did see all kinds of things. But gay men have always made women singers from way back when. They made Barbra Streisand. They made Bette Midler. They understood when I sang, “My man is gone now…”
My people loved me. I went to see Kinky Boots recently. And I came out of the theater and heard somebody calling my name. It was one of the men who used to come see me years ago. Every now and then, someone will tell me, “I danced with you in this place or that place.”
LC: So what is the best music for dancing?
LC: What are some of your favorites to play when you are deejaying?
DH: I have a favorite singer: Big Maybelle. Maybelle swings the blues. It’s amazing to hear her. I love Count Basie. My favorite is “Splanky.” Count Basie was one of the few musicians who loved to dance. He was a good dancer, too. Sometimes we play “The Push.” My brother Duke wrote it. It’s a song we played in Carnegie Hall.
LC: People who come to Midsummer Night Swing may never have danced before. Or maybe they dance some East Coast swing, but don’t know Lindy. What’s the difference between the two?
DH: Black people do it. That’s what makes Lindy distinctive. If you weren’t drinking and smoking, you were dancing. Sometimes people dance to forget their pain. The Savoy was the place we had.
LC: Do you have any pointers for dancers who are trying to do Lindy for the first time?
DH: All the kids ask me that same question, “Can you give me a hint?” The only hint is to dance to the music. Let the music move you. So many people think they cannot dance. And they don’t realize that whatever country they’re from, it’s comes from there. It’s in there. You can dance, baby!