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Meet Tom Hampson, whose life of unusual connections has shaped Rochester’s legal and cultural history

Do you know this man? 

Meet Tom Hampson, whose life of unusual connections has shaped Rochester’s legal and cultural history

Tom Hampson has been an avid birdwatcher since he was a child growing up in Allegheny National Forest. He's been a jazz lover since his teenage years and a radio host since his college days. But his listeners may still have been surprised the night he did a show of jazz tunes based on birdcalls.

            According to Hampson, Miles Davis' "So What" is the song of a chickadee. Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk" was actually written by a tufted titmouse. And the song of the golden crown sparrow bears an eerie resemblance to the standard "Gone with the Wind."

            Much of Hampson's life has been made up of unusual connections. When, as a lawyer, he represented a bookstore owner in a banned-book case, he appeared to be involved in a bitter dispute with then-District Attorney Jack Conway.

            "During the Tropic of Cancer case, if all you read were letters to the editor you would have thought that Jack Conway and I were mortal enemies, he representing the forces of good and I the forces of evil," Hampson says. "In fact, Jack and I were good friends. We went off birding together."

            Over the past four decades Hampson has been a ubiquitous figure in the cultural life of Rochester. While some think of him as the music lover who has hosted Mostly Jazz on WXXI 1370 AM for decades, others remember him as the lawyer who handled --- and won --- one of Rochester's most important First Amendment cases. Still others might recall his work with the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, promoting fairness in political advertising.

            Before his retirement, Hampson practiced corporate law, serving as counsel to Birdseye Foods Inc. But his frequent excursions into other areas, legal and musical, have taken him a long way from frozen peas.

Long before his first radio show, Hampson had ambitions to be a jazz performer.

            "Because of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and the overwhelming popularity of the clarinet when I was a kid, I had a music teacher in third grade who gave me a clarinet to try," Hampson says. "I couldn't get a sound out of it, not even a squeak. He was so critical and not willing to help at all that I fled into the night and never tried to play an instrument again. It took me a long time to realize I wanted to be a drummer."

            "My hero was Buddy Rich because he defined how to play drums with a big band," he adds.

            Between his jazz and legal work, Hampson got to spend a lot of time with his hero.

            One night in the early 1970s, Rich had played two out of three sets at the Tower Top of the Plaza, the nightclub that once occupied the top floor of Midtown Plaza. "Suddenly," Hampson says, "at each exit, four detectives from Buffalo showed up complete with trench coats, snap-brimmed hats, and a warrant for his arrest."

            Rich was accused of marijuana possession and Hampson, the jazz-loving lawyer, got the call. The detectives were detaining Rich, not allowing him to play the third set.

            "They said, 'You'll go down and pop off and there'll be a riot.' He said, 'Well, if I don't go down there and play a third set, I can assure you there will be a riot.' They let him play."

            Rich was to be arraigned in Buffalo, so Hampson arranged for representation by a top-notch Buffalo defense lawyer.

            Hampson was teaching at Cornell at the time. Monday morning he laid out the case as an assignment for his students.

            "Buddy and the band had played in Toronto and were playing the next night in Pittsburgh," he says. "Buddy flew to Pittsburgh; the band took the bus. When the bus got to the bridge at Lewiston, the customs guys asked to see the leader's bags. Someone had called and tipped them off. They opened Rich's bag and there on the top was a vial with just enough marijuana to constitute a felony, with the name Buddy Rich across the top of it --- an obvious plant --- probably by a bass player because he used to fire a bass player once a week or so. The issue was, can you be guilty of possessing something that you shouldn't possess if it's at Lewiston and you're in Pittsburgh?"

            The answer was no; the charges were dropped. To counter the negative publicity, Rich appeared on The Tonight Show Monday night to explain the situation.

            "Tuesday morning my phone rang and a student said, 'Mr. Hampson, we watched The Tonight Show last night. The charges have been dismissed, do we still have to do the assignment?'"

            Hampson and Rich eventually worked together on a PBS television program, Rich At The Top. At the Top went on to feature other greats including the Modern Jazz Quartet, Stephane Grappelli, and Earl Hines.

Hampson, who turns 75 this month, has been around law and jazz since he was a child. Born in Ann Arbor while his father attended law school at the University of Michigan, he was six months old when his family moved to Warren, Pennsylvania. His interest in jazz was spurred in his teenage years by a Boy Scout troop crazy about big band records. Each member was assigned a different band to collect; Hampson was responsible for Artie Shaw.

            "That got me going in jazz," says Hampson, who was also listening to the great radio shows of the day on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and other stations that could be heard from hundreds of miles away. Hampson tuned into Dave Garroway from Chicago, Jean Shepherd from Cincinnati, Bob Martin from New Orleans, and Symphony Sid from New York. "I wanted to be an ABC staff announcer. That was the most glamorous thing in the world in the pre-television days," he says.

            In the late 1940s he attended Cornell University, majoring in government and preparing for law school. He also jumped at the chance to host his first jazz show at the school's radio station, WVBR.

            Because Cornell is a land-grant school, Hampson was required to spend two years in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He was not happy about it, but it turned out to be a lucky break.

            "In my senior year the Korean War broke out and lo and behold the Air Force came around and said, 'We need administrative officers.' I entered the Air Force as a very green second lieutenant."

            Stationed at Mitchell Air Force Base in Garden City, Long Island, Hampson spent two years as an information and education officer. His job was to inculcate American values into the troops so they wouldn't be susceptible to brainwashing. But he really enjoyed his time off.

            "I spent a lot of evenings at the New York City Ballet seeing world premieres of ballets by Balanchine," Hampson says. "When I saw Petrushka I thought, 'My God, Stravinsky lifted a lot of that from Woody Herman.' Of course, that was exactly backwards. In 'Your Father's Mustache' Herman used a lot from Petrushka."

            Hampson also haunted Manhattan's jazz clubs: the Half Note, the Village Vanguard, Birdland, and The Embers, where he remembers hearing the Red Norvo Trio with Tal Farlow on guitar and Charles Mingus on bass. A great band, but he was the only one listening. He later learned that a high-class call-girl operation was being run out of the club and he, indeed, was the only one there for the music.

            One summer, while at Cornell, he clerked at Rochester's Harris Beach law firm. He liked the city and the firm. Upon finishing school in 1955, he came to stay.

It wasn't long before Hampson found himself participating in Rochester business history. He wrote the lease text for the first Xerox copier and the document itself ended up as a center ad in Fortune magazine. And he never shied away from lending his legal skills to a good cause, including a pivotal First Amendment case.

            Playboy magazine came out in the 1950s, shocking segments of the population and spawning many imitators. In an effort to clean up the newsstands, Rochester's mayor, Peter Barry, appointed a committee to screen magazines each week and decide what should be distributed.

            "That thing finally died of its own weight," Hampson says. "The [pornography case] that stuck, though, was over a book in the early 1960s, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Johnny Bunis, who ran the Clinton Bookshop wanted to sell it. Jack Conway, then-district attorney said, 'Absolutely not; I'll prosecute you.'"

            Hampson joined forces with Audience Unlimited, a group formed to protect Bunis. He came up with the idea of bringing an Action for Declaratory Judgment, which brings legal questions to the court for clarification. In this case, Hampson wanted to determine the legal ramifications for Bunis if he sold the book.

            He did this by filing a civil action suit for Bunis against Conway. It got thrown out of court, but Hampson appealed and got a ringing reversal.

            "I established a new procedure for the resolution of censorship issues by removing it from the process of criminal prosecution," Hampson says. "I didn't want my client to be arrested and arraigned with all the pushers, burglars, muggers, and thieves. So I had him sue the district attorney in a civil action to determine whether he could legally sell the book. Nobody had ever succeeded in doing that before and the appellate decision approving the procedure received the ultimate accolade; it was written up with approval in the Harvard Law Review."

            Because Tropic of Cancer was under attack all over the country, Hampson eventually went to the Supreme Court. Due to a clerical error, he was not admitted at the usual time, with dozens of other lawyers on Monday morning. Instead, he went by himself on Tuesday.

            "[Chief Justice] Earl Warren leaned across the bench and welcomed me to the bar. It was a nice moment."

            While waiting, he sat with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was there to honor Justice William Douglas. When the court took a Florida case validating the book, he didn't have to argue the case after all.

            Hampson's involvement in this case led to his playing a key role in the formation of the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. He also was involved in the founding of the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, formed in the early 1970s when local Democrats and Republicans decided that political campaigning had gotten out of control. The League of Women Voters, Council of Churches, Advertising Council, Chamber of Commerce, and Bar Association each designated members. Hampson chaired the committee for 14 years.

            "Our charge was to cry fair or foul; we had no power to enforce anything," he says. "But the news media covered it and by and large I think we made some headway. The level of campaigning was certainly better than it has been since we disbanded. Eventually the Republicans pulled the plug on it. They clearly didn't want to be encumbered by any obligation to be fair."

Hampson's law career had proceeded nicely from the start. But life was not complete without a radio show.

            In the 1950s, according to Hampson, Rochester's commercial radio was junk. So, in 1960, he and several friends got together and started their own station.

            "Believe it or not we simply filled out a form, applied to the FCC, paid $50, and got the license for WCMF. The antenna was a pole sticking up from the Lincoln Alliance building. We had a studio the size of a closet," he says.

            Back then, WCMF was more like WXXI FM, with all volunteer DJs. Chemists and engineers from Eastman Kodak hosted classical shows, a banker from Central Trust played baroque music on Thursdays, and Hampson started a jazz show on Friday nights.

            When the volunteer format ran out of steam in the 1970s, the station went commercial. WCMF turned to rock, but Hampson's jazz show continued. In 1980 WCMF was sold for about $400,000. Hampson's share was enough to help put his kids through college.

            In the 1970s there was a fair amount of jazz on Rochester radio: Will Moyle (WVET), Bobby Lloyd (WHEC), and Bill Ardis and Harry Abraham (WHAM). The competition was friendly. Hampson recalls one night when he rang the bell while Abraham was on the air and asked if he and a couple of guys could come up and talk.

            Abraham said yes. The guys were Buddy Rich and Jimmy Cobb, and they talked a lot about drumming on WHAM that night.

            Hampson also had a close personal and professional relationship with the great composer Alec Wilder.

            "Alec was a nomad. He had a couple of suitcases and moved around."

            Wilder also moved between the worlds of classical music, pop, and jazz.

            "I remember standing in the back of the Eastman Theatre with Alec and Stan Getz was rehearsing. Alec shook his head and said 'You know Zoot [Sims] swings like mad, but Stanley weeps.'"

            It was Wilder's eccentricities that got Hampson deeply involved with his legal matters.

            "Alec had a sport coat full of necessities, one of which was his original will," he says. "I suggested that he put the original will in a vault, and carry a copy. When he was dying in 1980 I got a call from Fran Miller [wife of Mitch Miller, of Sing Along With Mitch fame]. She found the will and went over it with him. She explained to him that he was leaving whatever he had to five people and he was not even speaking to four of them, so he ought to do something."

            So Hampson was summoned to Wilder's bedside in Florida.

            "I got there at 3 p.m. and he was still alert," he says. "I borrowed a typewriter and typed up his new will. I went back up at 6:30 p.m. and went over it with him. I said, 'You need somebody to be your executor and carry out your wishes.' I'll never forget, he looked like that World War I recruiting poster. He leaned up in bed, pointed a finger at me, and said, 'You!' He signed the will at 6:30 p.m. and died shortly after midnight."

            When a composer like Wilder dies, his songs can go on making money for decades. But because his songs are no longer in vogue, most royalty checks are small. According to Hampson, who still oversees Wilder's estate, there have been some notable exceptions.

            "Thad Jones wrote a lovely melody called 'A Child is Born.' Alec was so impressed with it he wrote a lyric. Neither of them had any intention of making it a religious song or Christmas song, certainly not Alec, who was a pretty aggressive atheist," he says. "I collect royalties [for Wilder's beneficiaries] on that only when it's sung. Usually I get a check for about $12.47. When the royalties for 2002 came in, there was a check for $3,600. It came from Billy Graham. The idea of Alec receiving a check from Billy Graham is just hilarious --- I can hear him chuckling all the way from his grave down in Avon."

Not even the Park Avenue area home where Hampson lives with his wife, novelist Zena Collier, can escape distinction. It's a modest but handsome house designed by Rochester's greatest architect, Claude Bragdon.

            The hallway in the basement --- lined with albums, tapes, and CDs --- leads to a small studio where Hampson records his radio show. Dominating the room is a drum kit. Hampson plays along with albums every night.

            "I'd rather play with singers than a band," Hampson says. "I want a song that has a structure that I can relate to. I think of drumming as punctuation." His favorite singer to accompany is Carmen McRae, but he admits to "letting it rip" with Count Basie from time to time.

            In his basement studio, Hampson reminisces about the Rochester's jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s.

            "It's not quite what it used to be in the days of the Pythodd and the Ridgecrest Inn," he says, pointing to a photo he took at a club called Duffy's. On the stage are Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea.

            Local players, he says, "are better than we've ever had. I wish they had a place to work. The audience for this just isn't there. People will pay zillions of dollars to see some country-and-western guy at the War Memorial and you just can't turn them out for this."

            Hampson's been playing jazz on the air for 40 years. Although each program is only one hour long (7 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays), Hampson usually comes up with a theme. He might focus on a particular musician or instrument. These days, with jazz's greatest generation dying off, many shows are memorial programs.

            While jazz and popular music were closely aligned during Hampson's formative years, he's seen jazz slip farther and farther from the mainstream.

            "I find it very distressing. I think people are missing so much," he says. "This is vital, great stuff and one reason is they don't get a chance to hear it and it's going to get worse with the consolidation of the media. Thank God for public broadcasting."

            He's also disappointed by what's happened to his favorite medium.

            "Radio used to be a very important medium," Hampson says. "It's turned into a right-wing hate medium. The right wing is very well organized; they're good at it. Most of us can't cope with change very well and look for some kind of certainty in fundamentalist religion or somebody who spews simple solutions to complicated problems."

            But Hampson has been doing his part to broadcast quality radio and support the music for five decades.

            "The nicest thing that ever happened was when I was broadcasting live," he says. "In the middle of the program I got a call from a guy who explained that he was a trucker who drove up and down the East Coast and he's a jazz fan. And he said, 'You know, you've got the best program on the East Coast.'"

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