The Unforgettable Hampton Family

Dawn Hampton will be in attendance at the April 5th Screening at Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, 5pm.


Julie Cohen, Film Maker

Julie is a veteran television news and documentary director and producer, and the founder of BetterThanFiction Productions, Inc. She has directed, produced, and written ten documentaries for WNET, NY and other PBS stations around the country; more than 20 hour-long and two-hour programs for Dateline NBC; and three webisode series for Lifetime Television; as well as segments for the national PBS series Need to Know. She also produces documentary-style films for non-profit and educational organizations. A Dateline NBC staff producer for nine years, Julie still does consulting projects for NBC. She graduated from Colgate and holds masters degrees from Yale Law School and the Columbia Journalism School, where she is now an adjunct professor.

About the “Unforgettable Hampton Family”

The story of a family of African American jazz musicians, from their early days playing as a family band across the American South, through their years performing at famed venues like the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall, to their later years as solo artists in their 70s, 80s and 90s. As individual artists and as a group, the Hamptons overcame poverty and discrimination to practice their art, becoming remarkable performers in the process. The film’s central character is the irrepressible Dawn Hampton, now 86 years old. After a career as a saxophonist and a popular cabaret singer in the gay nightclubs of Greenwich Village, Dawn still travels the world teaching swing dance and performing as a jazz whistler.

Dawn Hampton will be our guest at the April 5th screening of the Unforgettable Hampton Family at Rutgers University – Newark’s Institute of Jazz Studies!


Inside Thirteen recently spoke with The Unforgettable Hampton Family‘s producer, writer, and director Julie Cohen to discuss the film and the impact the Hampton family had on jazz music.

Inside Thirteen:What first interested you in making a film about the Hampton family?

Julie Cohen: I met Dawn Hampton while I was making another documentary, about the swing dancer Frankie Manning. I saw her dance down the church aisles at Frankie’s memorial service, I went to one of her popular dance seminars, and I heard her jazz whistling. Dawn had so much talent, zest, and joie de vivre that I wanted to learn more about her. When I found out she was from a huge, talented family, the sister of the jazz trombone virtuoso Locksley “Slide” Hampton, I was even more intrigued. Then, when I saw some footage of her older sisters performing their swinging bass and piano duet of “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” in their 80s and 90s, I was sold.

IT: How big of an impact did the Hamptons have on American music, particularly jazz?

JC: The Hampton siblings – and their kids and even grandkids – have made their mark in many different areas of the jazz world, from traditional big band swing, to more experimental jazz to cabaret singing. Between them, they’ve worked alongside many of the jazz greats spanning eight decades. Not a lot of families can say that!

IT: Are any parallels ever drawn between the Hampton family and more recent groups of family performers (such as the Jacksons)?

JC: Some people have made that comparison. Obviously, both are very large and very musically talented families, but I don’t think there are too many other similarities. The Hamptons grew up in a whole different era, and as talented as they are, most of the brothers and sisters didn’t become particularly rich or famous. And the Hampton kids managed to avoid the pitfalls many musicians fall into.

IT: Did Clark Hampton receive criticism for starting his children in the music business at such an early age?

JC: Yes, the Hampton parents did get some criticism, not so much for having their children perform from a young age, but for taking them out of school to go on the road. But as you’ll see in the film, Clark was very serious about educating his kids. He himself was self-educated, and he taught his kids not only music, but also English, history and math. From what I’ve seen, his book lessons and life lessons stood them in good stead.

IT: What message do you hope viewers will take from the film?

Julie Cohen and Dawn Hampton

JC: As with any documentary, there are different messages viewers could take from this film. I hope it shows the unexpected bonds a love of music can forge. Interviewing Dawn Hampton alongside Freeman Gunter, one of her biggest fans from the gay nightclub scene in Greenwich Village in the 60’s and 70’s was a great reminder of this. Here are two people from completely different worlds: an African American woman who spent her childhood in poverty traveling the carnival circuit in rural America, and a white urban gay man. But somehow, through Dawn’s music, and mutual respect and acceptance, they found a deep connection.

But this film isn’t primarily meant to impart messages. I just hope viewers enjoy the opportunity to spend a little time with an extraordinary family, learn their story, and hear some “burnin’ music,” as Dawn’s grand nephew Darius Hampton puts it.

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