photo Frank Driggs Collection
John Hammond and the Soul of American Music
John Hammond is one of the most charismatic figures in American music, a man who put on record much of the music we cherish today. A pioneering producer and talent spotter, Hammond discovered and championed some of the most gifted musicians of early jazz — Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman — and staged the legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1939, which established jazz as America’s indigenous music. Then as jazz gave way to pop and rock Hammond repeated the trick, discovering Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan in his life’s extraordinary second act.
Dunstan Prial’s biography The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, presents Hammond’s life as a gripping story of music, money, fame, and racial conflict, played out in the nightclubs and recording studios where the music was made. It shows Hammond’s life to be an effort to push past his privileged upbringing and encounter American society in all its rough-edged vitality.
A Vanderbilt on his mother’s side, Hammond grew up in a mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As a boy, he would sneak out at night and go uptown to Harlem to hear jazz in speakeasies. As a young man, he crusaded for racial equality in the music world and beyond. And as a Columbia Records executive — a dapper figure behind the glass of the recording studio or in a crowded nightclub — he saw music as the force that brought whites and blacks together and expressed their shared sense of life’s joys and sorrows.
This first biography of John Hammond is also a vivid and up-close account of great careers in the making: Bob Dylan recording his first album with Hammond for $402, Bruce Springsteen showing up at Hammond’s office carrying a beat-up acoustic guitar without a case. In Hammond’s life, the story of American music is at once personal and epic: the story of a man at the center of things, his ears wide open.#
Prial discusses Hammond’s life with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a November 20, 2006 interview.
photo Frank Driggs Collection
John Hammond, 1939
“I am still a New Yorker who owns no house, who thrives on city weekdays and country weekends. I still would change the world if I could, convince a nonbeliever that my way is right, argue a cause and make friends out of enemies. I am still the reformer, the impatient protester, the sometimes-intolerant champion of tolerance. Best of all, I still expect to hear, if not today then tomorrow, a voice or a sound I have never heard before, with something to say which has never been said before. And when that happens I will know what to do.”
– John Hammond
Carolina Shout , by James P. Johnson
JJM Why did you choose John Hammond as the topic of your first book?
DP I wanted to pick a topic I was passionate enough about that would allow me to maintain my enthusiasm for a long period of time, and music is a great passion of mine — specifically the music of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Once I found out that Hammond was involved with so many other great musicians in addition to them, I figured he was someone I could spend however long it took to get the book done.
JJM How long did it take for you to complete the book?
DP About five years.
JJM So, you knew Hammond through his connection to Dylan, Springsteen and Vaughan
DP That’s right.
JJM What did you know about jazz, and about Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and the other jazz musicians he worked with?
DP Absolutely nothing. I wouldn’t have known Benny Goodman from anyone. If you played a recording Goodman’s, Charlie Parker’s, and then Miles Davis’, I probably could have picked them apart, but I couldn’t guarantee it. That’s how little I knew about jazz prior to beginning this project. But that was part of the beauty of it, because I wanted to do something that would help me grow. I didn’t see the point of writing a book on someone like Springsteen or Dylan, who are artists I already knew a great deal about and so much has already been written about. One of the things that fascinated me and kept me enjoying this process was buying Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Charlie Christian recordings, listening to them over and over again, and learning something about them and their music that I didn’t know before.
John Hammond on the lap of his mother, and with his sisters, 1911
“You know John always had to be in opposition to everything. I think he wanted to go in the opposite direction of his family. He used to tell people he was Jewish. He was overtly against everything establishment, and he sort of nourished that. He liked to shock.”
– Katherine Graham
You’ll Wish You’d Never Been Born , by Louis Armstrong, c. 1932
JJM So much of Hammond’s life was devoted to encouraging social reform. Who was his model for this?
DP There were two key people in his life concerning this. One was his mother, who was Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great granddaughter. There was a lot of money in his family, and as time went on, there was a sense among some of the Vanderbilt’s of wanting to give back. This feeling was particularly prevalent in his mother, who was involved in a number of social causes. The other key influence was his uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin, who at the early part of the twentieth century was one of America’s great protestant academic thinkers. As head of the Union Theological Seminary, he had a tremendous influence on Hammond. These family members helped promote his sense of progressive reform — it wasn’t like he looked at Teddy Roosevelt for this kind of awareness. It was handed down to him from members of his own family.
JJM An early experience with social reform came while he worked as a newspaper reporter in Maine
DP That job was where he was first able to combine a passion and a talent, which is really what his whole life was about. He was an excellent writer, and he often wrote best when he was angry. In this particular case, he went out to do a story on one of the Native American Indian tribes in Maine. Once he got to the reservation where they lived, he was deeply disturbed by their living conditions, which got him sidetracked from the story he was assigned to do. He was especially annoyed with the Catholic priests who were running the reservation and living like kings — they had plumbing and electricity while the Native Americans were essentially living in squalor. This offended Hammond, and the article he wrote about it landed on the front page of the Portland Evening News.
The nine “Scottsboro Boys” accused of rape, 1931
“Musical styles may come and go, but the dynamics of social change are eternal, notwithstanding periods of eclipse. Hammond could hear the important voices no one else could hear in the ’30s, the ’60s and the ’70s because he was the only figure in the commercial recording industry who was so profoundly in touch with the underlying intellectual, social and revolutionary forces driving those times. Hammond’s incredible string of insights from 1932 to the present simply cannot be explained as luck. His ears respond to new music as soundings of social change. He understands instinctively the equations between politics and culture.
– Jazz writer John McDonough, 1987
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo , by Duke Ellington, 1931
JJM Hammond is best known as a talent scout and producer, but he was also a journalist — a jazz critic for Downbeat and Metronome, as well as a writer for The Nation.
DP That’s right. His editor for the Portland Evening News was Ernest Gruening, who eventually went on to become a United States Senator and was a reformer in his own right. He was Hammond’s connection to The Nation.
During the Scottsboro trials, he called Hammond — who was in his early twenties at the time — and asked him to cover the trials for The Nation. He went down and wrote very articulate articles that described how the State of Alabama prosecutors could have put the case away in a manner that would have made everyone associated with the trials happy. Anyone in their right mind could have seen that a couple of the Scottsboro defendants were innocent. Hammond’s point in these articles was that anger and racism was so profound in the South that people were unwilling and essentially unable to let this thing go — that they had to keep the trial going until they got a result they felt vindicated their persecution of these kids. It ultimately led to them having a lot of egg on their face, because by the time everything was said and done, everyone in America realized what was going on. Hammond pointing out the racism that existed in the justice system took a lot of courage, especially considering he was all of about twenty-two years old. His work was not straight reporting, it was thoughtful opinion about what was going on and the ramifications this trial had for the South.
JJM How much did his political views impact his decision-making concerning music?
DP Quite a bit, but I don’t think he ever allowed his political agenda to sway him in terms of taste. One of the reasons we talk about John Hammond today is because he put Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson on the same bandstand. He groomed Wilson to be the first black musician to play with white musicians in public — basically, Wilson was Hammond’s Jackie Robinson. He could have pursued this agenda in a way that politics overtook the music, but part of Hammond’s genius was that the combination worked. Matching Teddy Wilson with Benny Goodman not only made social history, it also made beautiful music. He was able to balance the political and musical aspects so successfully that we still talk about it today.
JJM He spent a lot of time as a young man in Harlem. What was his introduction to Harlem?
DP His sister confirmed that his introduction to the blues, jazz and, essentially, jazz music was through the servants in his house on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. At some point, he probably learned from them that the music he enjoyed listening to on the radio or record player in their quarters was being played in clubs up in Harlem, which was only a fifteen minute bus ride from 91st Street. So, beginning around the age of nine, he took the bus and wandered all over Harlem, probably making a loop up from 5th Avenue, then west to 6th and 7th Avenues and about 134th Street, walking down a few blocks, and then coming back by 125th and passing by the Apollo, where he befriended the club’s doorman. His sister said this doorman took Hammond under his wing, and if it got too cold, too dark or too late, this guy would make sure that Hammond got back on the bus that would take him back to East 91st Street.
JJM Would he tell his parents where he was going?
DP Absolutely not. He would just walk around or stand outside the clubs and watch the musicians come and go. Toward the end of the evening he would go back to the Apollo and talk with the doorman awhile, then get on the bus and go home. He was clearly a precocious young fellow.
JJM Why did James P. Johnson’s recording of “Worried and Lonesome Blues,” in Hammond’s words, change his life?
DP I understand he said that about a few songs. He talked about that one, and he also talked about some Bessie Smith songs, and a Garland Wilson song. Different songs were mentioned as life-changing throughout his life. Stride piano like that played by Johnson was something Hammond loved all of his life.
JJM Garland Wilson was his first recording artist. What did he learn from the experience of working with him?
DP I don’t think he learned anything more than persistence. He handpicked Garland Wilson because he met him at one of the club’s that he was hanging around. By this time he was maybe nineteen or twenty years old, had dropped out of Yale, and was using his own money to sort of buy his way into the music industry, and Wilson was the first person he could get to record. While Wilson had recorded before, he was basically a “B” list pianist on the Harlem circuit, and he was the kind of artist Hammond could reasonably expect to work with at that stage of his career. He recorded a few sides, but I don’t think they were good enough for a record company like Columbia to pickup. This didn’t deter Hammond at all, because about six months later he went back to the studio with Wilson — using his own money — and recorded a couple sides that this time were good enough for Columbia to distribute. By now, Hammond had obviously learned something, because his next recording session was with Fletcher Henderson’s band, which was a very big leap even though Henderson was down on his luck at the time. So, Hammond was moving along quickly in his evolution as a producer and a figure in the music business.
JJM Not only was he learning the business, but he was learning how to advocate for himself as well, even if his actions were clear conflicts of interest — which was pretty obvious regarding the way he promoted the Henderson recording.
DP That was just the earliest example of what he did many times over the next ten or fifteen years.
JJM Specifically, concerning this 1932 recording by Henderson — produced by Hammond — he wrote in Melody Maker, “Not so long ago Fletcher and his band made ‘King Porter’s Stomp’ [sic] If that comes out, it may rightly be considered one of the most important discs ever made.”
DP Right, and he neglected to say that he produced that recording
JJM It seemed as if he felt he was above reproach
DP There is no question that he was an arrogant guy. When Hammond felt he was right, he simply felt he was right, and that’s that. In hindsight he was right a lot of the time, because when you listen today to the recordings he touted in the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle, Downbeat, and Metronome, you realize this is indeed great music. Does that make it right? Absolutely not.
An obvious objective of touting your own artists would be for monetary gain, but since Hammond didn’t need the money, he felt he was promoting them because he genuinely felt they were making the best music out there. I’m not arguing that it’s right, I’m just saying that’s how Hammond interpreted what he was doing.
JJM He may have also been doing it to create a certain stature for himself within the music business that money can’t buy.
DP He was not above self-aggrandizement.
JJM Hammond originally described Benny Goodman’s band as “merely another smooth and soporific dance combination.” A year later, he acted as Goodman’s agent for a recording contract. What changed his opinion of Goodman during that time?
DP Probably the fact that he started working with Goodman.
JJM How did he get in a position to work with him?
DP During the worst part of the Depression, the record industry in America was essentially down the toilet, so he went to England and put together a contract with the English unit of Columbia Records to record six American artists, five of whom he already had some contact with. Needless to say, he negotiated these contracts without telling any of the artists that he was doing this. The only wild card was Goodman.
When he returned to the United States with these contracts, he had to convince Goodman that they were real, and for him to make the recordings. As the story goes, Hammond chased Goodman down on 52nd Street and told him he had contracts for him to record some sides for the English unit of Columbia, to which Goodman responded by saying to Hammond, “You’re a goddamn liar.” Goodman thought he was being lied to because he couldn’t believe anyone was giving contracts for relatively unknown session men at the time, which is what he was at the time. It took Hammond a bit of time to explain to Goodman that he had gone to England, and through the contacts he had as a result of writing for Metronome, entered into legitimate contracts. Hammond was pretty persuasive and got Goodman on board. He soon began replacing a lot of Goodman’s band members, and one of the first people he brought to Goodman was the drummer Gene Krupa, who had been a favorite of his.
JJM At what point did he see that Goodman’s band could act as a catalyst for social change?
DP Hammond saw the growing popularity of Goodman’s band, but using his band as a catalyst for social change was sort of an odd pick because Goodman was two things, essentially; a businessman, first, and a musician, second. He was a businessman whose business happened to be music. But Goodman was not a risk taker. He grew up dirt poor on the south side of Chicago and had to drop out of high school to work and help his family make ends meet. In his early twenties, he was able to support his family by doing session work in New York, and his fledgling band was gaining popularity, so the last thing he wanted to do was rock the boat by adding black musicians to his band. He was not someone given to social experimentation.
The question of when Hammond saw Goodman’s band as a catalyst for social change is not something I can answer. Knowing that Hammond loved a challenge is an impractical reason — the practical reason is that Goodman was who he was closest to at the time. It took him the better part of two years to convince Goodman that this was the right way to go. The results were that bringing Teddy Wilson and, eventually, Lionel Hampton, into the band were not only good socially, but they made great music together. The argument Hammond used was that people wanted to hear great music, and they don’t care who makes it. Goodman wasn’t convinced at first but eventually saw that Hammond was right. This showed pretty quickly, because the music they played together both in recording sessions and live was widely accepted by the American public, who demonstrated they didn’t care that blacks and whites were playing together.
JJM What sort of relationship did Hammond and Goodman have during this time?
DP Goodman clearly trusted Hammond to make decisions about his music during this time, which is interesting because Goodman was a very controlling guy. They always had an up-and-down, mercurial relationship that could be described as a fraternal rivalry. It’s interesting that they got along and were able to do as much as they did because they often fought, and would swear to never work with one another again, but I believe when Hammond’s decisions proved to be correct, Goodman had a change of heart. From the beginning, when Hammond informed Goodman about the recording contract — during a time when very few American musicians were getting contracts — he could see that regardless of his methods, Hammond had the ability to get things done.