Dunstan Prial, author of The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music

November 20th, 2006

JJM  Hammond had conflict with many of the great musicians of the era — those he managed and those he didn’t. A famous encounter was with Duke Ellington. Regarding Ellington’s “Reminiscing in Tempo,” Hammond wrote, “Ellington’s music has become vapid and without the slightest semblance of guts…The Duke is afraid even to think about himself, his struggles, and his disappointments and that is why his “Reminiscing” is so formless and shallow a piece of music.” Why did he take on Ellington?

DP  As Hammond’s biographer, I don’t defend his methods as much as his motives, and at times Hammond’s hubris caused him to be extremely heavy-handed. This is arguably the biggest instance of that. At the time he wrote this — in 1934 or 1935 — he was only in his early twenties and had recently dropped out of Yale. And, as a member of the powerful Vanderbilt family, he was basically given a yearly allowance the equivalent of what a business executive’s salary was at the time, so he had plenty of money to do whatever he wanted to do and to say whatever he wanted to say. In Ellington he took on one of the most successful black businessmen/entertainers of the era, who earned his success in a completely segregated society. Hammond was criticizing Ellington essentially for not taking a stand for other blacks, or for providing opportunites for them. While Hammond’s motive was to expand opportunity for other black musicians, his method for doing this — through criticizing Duke Ellington — was appalling. There is no other way to explain this than to say that was John Hammond, and that was the way he conducted his business. It wasn’t always pretty.

JJM  There is no question he is a controversial figure who often twisted facts to make a point. In one instance, he fabricated a tour of England that was to include a number of well-known white and black musicians — Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa among them — and when the tour didn’t happen, he falsely blamed an English promoter by the name of Jack Hylton for its failure. How could he get away with this?

DP  Probably because he had a lot of money and because he was a prolific, good writer, so when the editors at Downbeat discovered that the tour was a farce, they just basically overlooked it and told him to write about something else. I don’t think anybody took it all that seriously, and everybody just went about his or her business.

JJM  Sure, but why would he make this tour up in the first place? It is as if he just wanted to bring all this attention to himself without regard for his or Hylton’s reputation.

DP  Absolutely. He wanted to pretend that he was in a position to make this integrated tour happen. Again, it is a case of method versus motive. Who was going to make a mixed race tour of this magnitude happen? Who would arrange to have all the players change their schedules in order to participate? Who would get the visas? The logistics of it were unthinkable, but here is John Hammond, pretending it is going to happen, writing about it and promoting it, and then the whole thing falls apart — although it really couldn’t fall apart since it never existed in the first place!

JJM  He had an incredible eye for talent, was a great promoter, and a good writer, but he was a lousy reporter.

DP  He wasn’t a reporter…

JJM  Well, he certainly reported things as fact. For example, he reported the false circumstances of Bessie Smith’s death as fact in Downbeat, and continued to do so even years later…

DP  If he was a great guy from start to finish, he’d be uninteresting and I wouldn’t have written about him. These kinds of stunts were attempts to further his own agenda. In the case of Bessie Smith’s death, he didn’t like facts getting in the way of a good story. From what I understand, some black musicians with their own agendas told Hammond that she died because she was not admitted to a white hospital. As you say, a good reporter would go out and find out if that really happened, but instead, he decided not to do that — he took their word for it and wrote about it. The question is why didn’t he change his tune about the story decades later, after Smith’s biographer Chris Albertson clearly proved it to be wrong? Why didn’t he admit the story was a lie? It’s because he was Hammond and he had a lot of money and he wasn’t going to back down from what he originally wrote. He felt that it was more important to get this false story out there to raise awareness of a social injustice in the South rather than tell the truth, which was far more boring.

JJM  Sure, but he could have raised awareness without fabricating a story like this, and surely his life would have still been interesting …

DP  I work in journalism, and this kind of thing still goes on today. He added a little spice to the story, which he was completely capable of doing.

JJM  You write about Hammond’s influence on Count Basie, which obviously was really important. Chuck Haddix, who wrote a history of jazz in Kansas City, believes that Hammond would not have known about Basie had it not been for local Downbeat writer Dave Dexter goading him into coming to Kansas City.

DP  Yes, Haddix told me that story too, but I don’t believe it. Hammond heard Count Basie on the radio and went out there. If he met Dave Dexter while he was out there, then that’s fine.

JJM  What were Hammond’s ideas for Basie’s band, and why was Basie receptive to them?

DP  Basie saw what Hammond could do after setting up dates for him in Chicago, where he made the kind of money he never dreamed possible before meeting him. He then took him to New York, where he played in the city’s biggest ballrooms, as well as getting him recording dates. Basie developed a level of trust for Hammond as a result. Perhaps an argument can be made that he pushed the relationship too far by replacing some of the musicians in the band, which engendered some bad feelings for him.  The most significant replacement was of the guitarist Claude Williams, whose place in the band was taken by Freddie Green. Green was a New York player who Hammond used to see play at a club in the Village called The Black Cat. There’s a great story about Hammond bringing Basie, Goodman, and Lester Young to this club one night to meet Green, and they all started jamming together. A week later, Green joined the band, went on tour with them, and stayed for fifty years, becoming arguably one of the greatest rhythm guitarists in the history of jazz. Again, perhaps Hammond’s methods were not the best — he was a heavy-handed guy who felt that when he was right, he did what needed to be done. No one can argue with his results, though.

JJM  In 1938, Hammond produced the “Spirituals to Swing” concert performed in Carnegie Hall, which to this day is considered to be one of the most ambitious and creatively conceived concerts ever. What was his vision for this concert?

DP  Hammond believed that a lot of popular music in America during that time — especially swing jazz, which was arguably the most popular music at the time had its roots in African American culture, going all the way back to the African rhythms that were brought here, and to the slave chants that evolved out of that. Little by little, this turned into the Delta jazz and Delta blues, and into the jazz that came from New Orleans. He felt that the highest evolution of that music was the Basie band, and he wanted to create a show that displayed the music’s evolution to a well-heeled white audience in New York City. He went down south with Goddard Lieberson — who later ran Columbia Records — and together they found eight or nine acts there and brought them to Carnegie Hall to perform in the concert and help display the evolution of American music from African Rhythms, to field chants, to spirituals, to Gospel, to Dixieland jazz, to the Kansas City sound of Basie’s band. The concert was a huge success, and the CD remains one of the finest collections of music a jazz fan could own.

JJM  It is interesting that Hammond didn’t get involved in the bebop period following World War II. Why was his influence on bebop so minimal, especially given what you describe as “the rebellion inherent in the music,” a characteristic seemingly well-suited to Hammond?

DP  There are different trains of thought on that. Hammond felt the music was unnecessarily challenging and therefore pretentious, and he stuck by that. Conversely, the school of thought is that the people who were making that music — the Charlie Parker’s, the Thelonious Monk’s, the Charlie Christian’s — were the kinds of personalities unlikely to allow themselves to be led around by the nose by a guy like John Hammond. That’s the point often made, that even if Hammond had wanted to participate in bebop in a fashion suitable to his liking, the musicians wouldn’t let him — the door was locked. And, since he claimed that the music was pretentious, they didn’t want to have anything to do with him anyway.

JJM  Why did he feel bebop was pretentious?

DP  He thought that the music was written by a small group of jazz musicians solely for a small group of jazz musicians. Hammond liked his music to be inclusive — he wanted everyone to hear Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, and Lionel Hampton — he didn’t want only fifteen people to appreciate the music that was being performed. He felt in some cases the thought processes around the making of early bebop was to preclude rather than include.

JJM  So he was uncomfortable that bebop was not a popular music — not something large groups of people could dance to.

DP  Very much so. The music didn’t swing.

JJM  By the mid-fifties, you wrote that Hammond had a reason to feel older. “The music landscape had changed dramatically in the ten years since he had been released from the Army. Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Count Basie, Hammond proteges and stalwarts of the swing era, were now regarded more as legends than as vibrant contributors to the contemporary scene. Hammond’s reputation had similarly faded over time.” How was he determined to change his reputation?

DP  I don’t know whether or not he was determined to change his reputation. He spent about ten years in the quasi-jazz wilderness of Vanguard Records, which was a very small, independent label that had really earned its chops as a classical label. Hammond was hired to build up their jazz library, which is what he did for most of the fifties. He recorded musicians like Mel Powell, Ruby Braff and Buck Clayton, whose music was a mix of the swing he was producing in the thirties and the bebop that was popular in the fifties. It is akin to the chamber jazz that he made with the Goodman Trio and the Goodman Quartet, that sort of stuff. Nice recordings that were basically done well under the radar.

In 1959, his friend Goddard Lieberson — who was running Columbia Records — called and asked Hammond to go to work for him. He agreed, and it was at this point that he made the leap from jazz to folk, and the first artist he signed to Columbia was Pete Seeger, who couldn’t have been further away from the jazz music he had been a part of during the first thirty years of his career. Though Seeger was not a jazz musician, he represented the kind artist Hammond had always worked with — he was a great musician whose music possessed a social message. And, on top of that, he had a feeling that Seeger would sell a lot of records for Columbia, which he did. In addition, Seeger’s presence on Columbia opened the door for Hammond’s third signing for Columbia, which was Bob Dylan. People often ask me how Hammond had this ability to find these genius artists, and I can’t answer that other than to say that he just knew.

JJM  Yes, and whether he was able to plot the signings or not, it is possible that without Seeger on the label, Dylan wouldn’t have signed with Columbia.

DP  There are so many stories about Dylan. I was fortunate to interview Harold Leventhal, who was the guy young folk musicians in New York City consulted at the time, and he told me that Dylan signed with Columbia because Seeger was there, and that he heard Seeger was given free rein to do what he wanted to do.

JJM  Concerning the signing, Dylan wrote, “John Hammond put a contract down in front of me — the standard one they give to any new artist. He said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ I looked at the top of the page which said Columbia Records, and I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ Hammond showed me where and I wrote my name down with a steady hand. I trusted him. Who wouldn’t? There were maybe a thousand kings in the world and he was one of them.”

DP  That’s right. Dylan did me a big favor. He wouldn’t speak to me in person but he published his memoir right around the time that I was finishing up my book. Dylan is not one to flatter an awful lot of people, let alone people who helped him in his career along the way, but he made that unbelievably flattering reference to Hammond near the end of his book. He also wrote about how much of an influence he had over him, and how he gave him unreleased recordings of Robert Johnson because Hammond felt he was the “real deal.” Dylan claims to have carried these all over Greenwich Village with him.

JJM  Did Hammond immediately recognize that Dylan’s music could be the catalyst for social change?

DP  I think saying that he recognized that ability in Dylan immediately would be overstating things. In Dylan, Hammond saw a rare combination of many things, in particular an almost provocative charisma he witnessed during his live performances. He also saw that Dylan was taking risks few other performers were willing to; for example, putting in twists to popular songs other artists were performing basically note for note. Hammond was intrigued by that. Could he have predicted in 1961 that Dylan would rewrite the rules to popular music? Hardly. But was he surprised when he did? No.

JJM  He didn’t have much support at Columbia for Dylan, who was referred to in-house as “Hammond’s folly.”

DP  That was early on. Hammond was an old friend of Lieberson’s, so he had a lot more rope, and because he wasn’t shy, he had no qualms about going directly to the top and asking for he what he wanted. Naturally, that engendered some resentment on the part of some of the other A&R guys he was working with. Hammond loudly promoted Dylan at Columbia and made it clear that the label should keep him, even after his first album did not sell well.

Dylan proved to be a pretty savvy young man, having hired Albert Grossman — one of the more notorious figures in rock and roll — as his manager. He insisted that Hammond and Columbia renegotiate his entire original contract, claiming it to be void after the release of his first album. Hammond had to sell the idea of renegotiating Dylan’s contract to his superiors, who saw nothing remarkable about him and questioned the wisdom of giving him more money. In fact, they were not even sure they wanted to put another album of his out, and discussed releasing him from the label. To this, Hammond basically said, “Over my dead body.” He told them Dylan was powerful and he needed more time to develop and become the artist he can become — which is what Hammond said about many of his artists. Luckily for Hammond, at some point during this period Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which quieted everyone’s concerns about whether he was going to have a lasting impact, not only as a songwriter but also as someone who could make money for Columbia. This is another example of Hammond’s ability to spot artists who would not only appeal to a broad number of people in an aesthetic way and commercial way. That is what happened with Dylan, and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the turning point for “Hammond’s Folly.”

JJM  How did he get connected with Bruce Springsteen?

DP  By the time Springsteen came along, Hammond was a living legend and artists wanted to get their tapes to him, hoping to be the next Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Leonard Cohen, or whoever. Springsteen’s manager and producer at the time, Mike Appel, was somehow able to convince Hammond’s secretary to tell him he should see this twenty-two-year-old rock n’ roller from New Jersey perform. He was armed with no more than an acoustic guitar, but after three songs, Hammond very famously informed Springsteen that he had to be on Columbia Records. Again, I can’t begin to quantify how Hammond was able to see this kind of talent. One explanation is that Hammond touted hundreds of artists over the years who did not turn into the next Bruce Springsteen; along with the dozen or so we are familiar with, there were many dozens more who didn’t get past the demo stage or may have only had a minor hit. But his track record for turning unproven quantities into icons is unmatched.

JJM  Given Hammond’s sensibilities, how did he deal with the artists who, despite his interest and involvement in their careers, experienced failure?

DP  I interviewed several people like that and they all spoke about his enthusiasm for their work, but then the phone would ring and he would say it’s not going to work out, that he couldn’t get them past the demo stage. He would remain committed to them but pass the buck, saying he couldn’t convince the “suits” at Columbia to move the project beyond the demo stage. These people all took Hammond at his word and were still very grateful for the enthusiasm and the passion that Hammond had put into their work. Were they bitter that they didn’t become the next Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen? Not really. Those who I spoke with were all thrilled by the fact they had been brought under the Hammond umbrella.

JJM  You wrote about one of these players, Roy Gaines, a blues guitarist who landed on his feet and ended up having a nice career…

DP  He sure did. When George Benson was down, Hammond offered to lend him money of his own, and he called clubs up and down the East coast, he called music writers — whoever it may have been to help get him work.

JJM  There is a perception that he could spot raw talent, but he didn’t know what to do with it in the studios.

DP  I would say that is an accurate perception.

JJM  According to Columbia producer Robert Altshuler, “…although he had these incredible ears and the ability to recognize talent at its earliest stage, at its embryotic stage, he was not very good at producing.”

DP  Ahmet Ertegen, the founder of Atlantic Records, may have had the best explanation for this. He told me that the artists Hammond touted early in his career — Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa and Benny Carter among them — were virtuoso musicians and confident professionals who didn’t need to be “produced.” They knew what they were doing, and Hammond’s job was merely to bring these people together and get them in the studio, and while they played, he would read the New York Times off in the corner. Later on, it was his idea to do the same thing with artists like Dylan, Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen. He put them on a stool, hung the microphone over their head and had them sing their songs, but none of them wanted to do that. They were much more ambitious than that. They all wanted a bigger sound, and they wanted opportunities to do different things, and when they began to express this, it clashed with Hammond ‘s approach. In that sense, at least, their professional relationship would end, and he had a pattern of that. The personal relationships didn’t end — Hammond remained friends with most of the musicians he worked with — but he was an old school producer. He was not someone who fiddled with dials and created a Phil Spector-like sound. That was not Hammond’s role as a producer.

JJM  He was not into new technology……

DP  No, he saw it as gimmickry. He felt technology was for those who weren’t talented enough to make real music of their own.

JJM  How do you measure his influence on our culture?

DP  His influence is huge. My wife and I will sometimes move up and down the radio dial and try to find a song performed by someone who was connected to Hammond, and it never takes us more than a few minutes. Look at all the artists whose career he influenced: Aretha Franklin can be found on the oldies station; ten years ago, Dylan was seen as an over-the-hill flake, but he is now arguably the preeminent icon of pop of the Baby Boomer generation; Springsteen is more popular than ever, having just been part of an album of songs made famous by Pete Seeger, who was another Hammond guy! I would argue that someone like Billie Holiday is more popular now than she was when she was alive, and, when asked about their influences, people like Nora Jones and Diana Krall will list Billie Holiday. His influence is as broad as the American landscape.

There were so many variables to John Hammond’s life. If he had been all good, he would have been boring to write about, and if he had been all bad, I surely wouldn’t have chosen to spend five years of my live with a despicable guy. If he had just been influential in the jazz world, I wouldn’t have wanted to write this book, nor if it had just been folk or rock and roll. But, Hammond had his fingers on many different pulses — not just the pulse.



photo Frank Driggs Collection

John Hammond (at left), with Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian


“Was it merely a coincidence that the same man provided the springboard for such a diverse and lasting array of talent? Hardly. Time and again Hammond proved eerily prescient in his awareness of seismic change that loomed ahead for American society, and in how that change would manifest itself through popular culture, in particular through music. He seemed to know what America wanted to hear before America knew it.”

– Dunstan Prial



The Producer:

John Hammond and the Soul of American Music


Dunstan Prial





John Hammond (right) in a studio session with Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman and Count Basie

Hammond played a key role in the career of many artists.

Among them:





Fletcher Henderson


Underneath The Harlem Moon

Shanghai Shuffle

Billie Holiday


Some Other Spring

The Blues are Brewin’, (a film clip featuring Louis Armstrong)

Benny Goodman


Sing, Sing, Sing

Roll ‘Em, (a film clip from “The Powers Girl”)

Charlie Christian


Seven Come Eleven

Flying Home


Bessie Smith


Do Your Duty

St. Louis Blues, (a film clip)

Robert Johnson


Ramblin’ On My Mind

Me And The Devil Blues


Count Basie


One O’Clock Jump

God Bless the Child, (a film clip from 1952, featuring Billie Holiday)

Aretha Franklin


Today I Sing The Blues

One Step Ahead, (a film clip from c. 1964)

Pete Seeger


This Land is Your Land

What Did You Learn in School Today?, (a film clip from 1964)

Bob Dylan


It Ain’t Me Babe

Blowin’ in the Wind, (a film clip from 1963)

Leonard Cohen



Stranger Song, (a film clip from 1967)

Bruce Springsteen


Born To Run

Henry Boy, (a film clip from 1972)





About Dunstan Prial


JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

DP  Paul Newman.

JJM  Why?

DP  Hud. Cool Hand Luke. Do I need any other explanation? Those characters are the iconoclastic anti-heroes. I like that sort of stuff.



Dunstan Prial, born in New Jersey in 1970, has worked as a reporter with the Associated Press, and was led to Hammond’s career by his admiration for Bruce Springsteen. He lives in Bristol, Rhode Island.









John Hammond products at

Dunstan Prial products at


Interview took place on November 20, 2006


If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson.








* Text from the publisher




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