“Flying Home” and the Riff-based Tune

People kept shouting for Hamp’s “Flying Home” and finally he did it. I had never seen such fever heated dancing.

—Malcolm X in his autobiography

The definitive version of “Flying Home,” recorded by Lionel Hampton, will be familiar to swing dancers, especially as the song that summons them to the floor for the Big Apple. During the swing era, “Flying Home” was also a favorite of dancers, so much so that it sometimes caused problems. “In fact, Hampton’s hottest number had such a reputation for whipping crowds up into a frenzy that one time in Connecticut police forbade him from playing it for fear that the balcony would collapse.” [David Rickert] Malcolm X also recounted the story of a man jumping off the second floor balcony of a theater in a pot-addled haze, thinking that he would be able to “fly home.” No doubt, “Flying Home” was as big a deal then as it is now.

Flying Home

Recorded: May 26, 1942
Written by: Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman
Arranged by: Milt Buckner
Label: Decca
Band: Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra
Personnel: Ernie Royal, Jack Trainer, Eddie Hutchinson, Mannie Klein (trumpet); Fred Beckett, Sonny Craven, Henry Sloan (trombone); Marshall Royal (clarinet); Bob Barefield, Ray Perry (alto sax); Illinois Jacquet (tenor sax); Jack McVea (baritone sax); Milton Buckner (piano); Irving Ashby (guitar); Vernon Alley (bass); Lee Young (drums); Lionel Hampton (vibraphone)

So we got on the plane, and I started amusing myself. I started singing, and Benny said, “What is that you’re humming?” I said, “I don’t know. We can call it ‘Flying Home,’ I guess.” We were on the West Coast, coming to the East Coast, see. So we got to jammin’ that night. And we played it with the quartet. Later on, we made a recording of it. After I went out on my own, my band always played the song. We still do.

—Lionel Hampton in his autobiography

Hampton first recorded “Flying Home” with Goodman in 1939 and adopted it as his signature song after he left to form his own band. The definitive version of the song was recorded in 1942 as a single by Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra with another one of my favorite songs, “In The Bag” on the B side.

There are so many reasons to love this song. The band is masterful at creating a simultaneously laid-back and high-energy tune that’s compelling as a dancer. Illinois Jacquet (pronounced “jacket”) honks and soars and takes the tune into outer space. But there is another reason that it is interesting to me: it is a great example of the rarely (if ever) talked-about and highly-undervalued song format in the swing dancing world: the riff-based tune.

So, what is a riff-based tune? A riff is a short melodic idea repeated over and over, almost like a chant. Rather than having a more traditional melody (something you might hum or sing along to) repeated throughout the song, the riff tune has a sequence of different riff choruses which change as the song goes on. You might find one band section repeatedly playing a riff as the main focus, a riff repeated under a melody or solo, or a collection of different riffs being played simultaneously, often called a shout chorus.

This recording of “Flying Home” starts off with a short intro by Hamp, followed by the first riff chorus played by the saxophones. This chorus consists of an 8-count riff repeated three times, followed by an 8-count resolution. If you were asked how “Flying Home” goes, this is the section you would most likely hum. But if you listen to the song carefully, you’ll realize that this “melody” never shows up again after the first two choruses. That’s very different than the AABA structure we are most familiar with, where the melody is repeated during the song, or at least at the beginning and end. If we map out “Flying Home,” it looks something like this, with each line being 4 8-counts or 32 beats:

Intro (2 8-counts): Lionel Hampton over rhythm section
A: Saxophone riff chorus (the Flying Home “melody”)
A: Saxophone riff chorus repeats
B: Hampton solos (no background riffs)
B: Hampton solos over new saxophone riffs
C: Illinois Jacquet solos over trombone riffs
C: Illinois Jacquet solos over trombone riffs
C: Illinois Jacquet solos (no background riffs)
C: Illinois Jacquet solos over the same trombone riffs
D: Illinois Jacquet solos over new trombone riffs, single note repeated riff for Jacquet
D: Illinois Jacquet solos over trombone riffs, single note riff
D: Illinois Jacquet solos (no background riffs)
D: Illinois Jacquet solos over new trombone riffs
Interlude (8-counts): Vibraphone
E: All band riffs. Listen to each section repeating their own unique riffs
E: All band riffs. Same riffs as before
F: Hampton trades back and forth with trumpet (no background riffs)
E: All band riffs. Same riffs as before
F: Hampton trades back and forth with trumpet (no background riffs)
G: Shout chorus

While I like the AABA structure for its predictability and neatness, I adore the riff-based tune for being able to take me on an unpredictable journey. As both a listener and dancer, I find the riffs compelling rhythmically and melodically, and I enjoy the variety of choices within a song. Every new chorus is a new playground. Other riff-based songs that dancers are familiar with are One o’Clock Jump and Main Stem.

Other versions of note:

Lionel HamptonReunion At Newport 1967—“The 8 minute version” played at a lot of Balboa events

Ella Fitzgerald—Lullabies of Birdland

“Her 1945 scatting version , included on the Decca release Lullabies of Birdland, was later described by The New York Times as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade….Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness.” [Wikipedia]

See Johnathan Stout play it Live—stand in front of Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five at the end of his first set and enjoy as Albert Alva melts your face off with his honking Tenor Sax reminiscent of Illinois Jacquet. That song alone is worth the price of admission.

And as a bonus, watch Lionel Hampton play it on this TV broadcast from 1957:

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3 Responses to “Flying Home” and the Riff-based Tune

  1. Lori July 23, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    Okay, this is a fantastic blog. =D I love the listen-along song notes to enrich my understanding of the musical structure, the succinct definition of musical terms, and the notable song links to expand on my understanding. Please do more of this; I’m learning so much!

  2. Dror July 24, 2015 at 6:02 am #

    What a song!
    I never noticed that the first riff never comes back, and of course I always hum that part too :)

    Another riff tune is Royal Garden Blues, and I hear it “… is perhaps the first popular song based on a riff” (Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930, by Gene Jones and David A. Jasen). Personally I like Benny Goodman and His Sextet’s version best. It doesn’t have Hampton, but it’s still pretty good… (I don’t think he ever recorded this tune, at least according to The Jazz Discography)

  3. Rich July 29, 2015 at 6:39 pm #

    I wouldn’t say Albert Alva’s “honking Tenor Sax” is just “reminiscent” of Jacquet – He, like many others, usually plays a section of the Jacquet’s note-for-note solo.
    This solo is one of the few that have entered the lexicon as a regular part of a song’s performance. Occasionally this happens for particular intros or outtros, but rarely is the performance of most if not an entire solo adopted as a de rigueur part of a song.

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