John Hammond: a giant of American music

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As heir to a Vanderbilt, John Hammond was born in 1910 with a silver spoon in his mouth and ears of solid gold. Growing up in a Manhattan mansion in the 1920s, those ears would perk up at the strange and exciting strains of jazz and blues "race" records wafting up from Victrolas in the servants' quarters below. Soon the boy was spending most of his free time downstairs, spellbound.

Hammond would write many years later that "in the grooves of those primitive early discs ... I discovered a new world, one I could enter easily and as often as I pleased simply by winding the handle of a phonograph."

Before long, the young Hammond would often be spotted in his prep school blazer, boarding an uptown bus for the speakeasies and jazz clubs of Harlem, to experience these thrilling new sounds firsthand. Hard to miss in his you're-not-from-around-here-are-you? wardrobe and perpetually toothy grin, he became a celebrated local jazz booster and Harlem denizen while still in his teens.

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The newly minted hipster had surely found his calling (or perhaps it had found him), and over the next 60 years he would promote, cajole, and wrangle America's most indigenous form of music up from dingy cellars to the world's premier stages. Between 1930 and 1984, Hammond discovered, or at the very least jump-started, the careers of a virtual Mount Rushmore of American Music. Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, among others, would all become beneficiaries of his talent-seeking ears and boundless enthusiasm.

Hammond's excursions both downstairs and uptown fueled another life-long passion as well. Author Dunstan Prial writes in The Producer that Hammond "sensed from an early age that there was a reason this music was as deeply passionate as it was. It was uniquely American music, written by and played by people who had known the harsher realities of life, firsthand. In particular, it was music by and for people whose skin color kept them perpetually at the bottom rung of American society. Listening to this music helped awaken Hammond to the vast class differences that separated him from the servants in the basement."

In 1936, Hammond set about using his newfound notoriety as influential jazz critic and Columbia Records producer to further his two great causes: improvised jazz and racial integration. After years of unrelenting pressure by Hammond, the great swing clarinetist Benny Goodman finally agreed to integrate his band, and his history-making trio appeared on a Chicago stage on April 12, to great acclaim.

Prial notes, "Just twenty-five years old, Hammond had emerged as arguably the strongest force behind the push for an integrated music industry. Little more than a fantasy a few years earlier, Hammond's crusade was rapidly turning into reality." Goodman band member Lionel Hampton put it more succinctly: "John Hammond started a revolution."

Sensing a breakthrough, Hammond began his most ambitious project yet. Even though swing jazz was already sweeping the nation, he felt that the roots of that music – the slave chants and field hollers of the deep South and the raw blues of the Mississippi Delta – deserved to be heard by mainstream America. And he figured he was just the man to make that happen.

Hammond and future Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson set off to scour the South for talent. On Dec. 23, 1938, "From Spirituals to Swing" played to a sold out Carnegie Hall, to an enthusiastic audience and rave reviews. It showcased down-home blues singers, gospel artists, and a rollicking trio of boogie-woogie pianists, with the swinging, sophisticated Count Basie Orchestra capping the night.

It was a triumph for African-American music and would mark Hammond's career pinnacle, until two decades later.

Prial's mostly laudatory biography finds in Hammond a symbol of an evolving America. His ability to sense where things were going and be one step ahead gave him a unique role as catalyst of social change. Often impatient and frustrated with the slow pace of this change, he would lash out at those who weren't ready or willing to follow his lead.

He lost several recording industry jobs after attacking his own bosses or the labels' stars in his music columns, and alienated as many music figures as he championed. As jazz lost its swing and bebop emerged, Hammond lost interest, and his mover-and-shaker status faded.

Returning to Columbia Records as a producer in 1959, Hammond was appalled to find the label recording what he considered to be "bland music for the masses." He set out to discover artists that would appeal to a younger, hipper audience. And his ears did not let him down. When he first heard 18-year-old Aretha Franklin sing, he instantly signed her up.

The book describes a scruffy unknown named Bob Dylan who scammed his way into playing harmonica at one of Hammond's recording sessions. Hammond heard something special in him that compelled another instantaneous offer. Unimpressed by Dylan, the Columbia brass thought their aging cohort had lost it, but in two short years, Dylan would claim his place among music's elite.

A decade later, when New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen burst on the scene, Hammond was behind him all the way.

John Hammond passed away in 1987. In the epilogue of this stirring book, Prial sums up the man's life, writing, "About a year before congress enacted the civil rights bill, John Hammond was replaced as Bob Dylan's producer by Tom Wilson, a black man. And no one gave it a second thought ... that might be the greatest testament of all to Hammond's legacy."

John Kehe is the Monitor's design director.

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