Swans Commentary » swans.com April 7, 2008  



The Jazz Man From Vanderbilt Heaven
Dunstan Prial's The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Prial, Dunstan: The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. Picador, NYC, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-312-42600-2, ISBN-10: 0-312-42600-3, 347 pages


(Swans - April 7, 2008)   For Harlem musicians in the 1930s, John Henry Hammond, Jr. seemed to have fallen on them out of the sky. Yet he resided around the corner in an opulent mansion. Nine East Ninety-first Street came to his mother as a Vanderbilt heiress and still stands brazenly five stories high on priceless ground. Hammond's interest in black music is usually attributed to childhood sessions around the hired help's gramophone in the basement. It must have also had to do with the soporific classics that spun on the state-of-the-art Victrola upstairs in the music room seating three hundred.

A rebel from childhood, Hammond's money and ungovernable tongue often made him pass for a mere eccentric. In this sober and painstaking biography, Dunstan Prial wrestles with the feel-good myths that gathered around Hammond's life, often revved up by the man himself. All the same, there are certainties. Hammond's musical acumen was as sharp as his childlike delight in the music he loved. He trained as a classical violinist, but from childhood was marked forever by the visceral rapport he witnessed between black musicians and their audience. This led him to the music that worked the magic, and as an adolescent he slipped in and out of Harlem surveying the musical topography. He was by temperament an explorer in a fever to find quality.

Quality and equality: Hammond's opposition to racial segregation, no matter how oddly it rode on his Brahmin shoulders, was also beyond doubt. He not only spurred on the most vital music of the swing era, but was also the person who did most to bring black and white together on the same stage.

Hammond first stepped into a recording studio in 1931 at twenty. He paid for the time and learnt the ropes. The next year he returned to record Fletcher Henderson. The pianist bandleader's career had stalled after he'd helped swing take off. The big white bands then dosed it with saccharine. So the pattern was set. The young producer found hidden excellence and then promoted it with all his might. He linked up with Melody Maker magazine in Britain and unblushingly touted the musicians he backed as if he were a disinterested melomane.

Hammond began to dabble as an impresario and inveigled a radio slot as DJ. He was unpaid but could broadcast what he pleased. He ran through his own record collection and held a weekly jam session with needy musicians like Chick Webb, Art Tatum, and Chu Berry. They got ten dollars each out of Hammond's pocket. He arranged for Benny Carter's band to be recorded by English Columbia. Then, roaming Harlem speakeasies he made one of the finds of his life, Billie Holiday. Still in her teens, she had already begun performing. Hammond would record her in 1933 when he himself was only twenty-two. It was a bonanza year as he also produced records by Bessie Smith, Teddy Wilson, and a new acquaintance, Benny Goodman.

By a subterfuge he got Goodman to lead his first integrated recording studio band. His relationship with the clarinetist from the Chicago ghetto would be long and rocky. At this point Hammond sang Goodman's praise in the Melody Maker and began to take some credit for his band's success. He deserved it, for the recordings of the trio -- Goodman with Wilson and Holiday, both Hammond's protégés -- have been called "one of the finest small bodies of work in jazz history." (Page 73) Goodman, however, was prickly. His lethal stare, known to musicians as "the ray," had often without a word driven band members to quit. Hammond would criticize Goodman in print when he felt the band wasn't up to snuff. For years the two men avoided conflict by keeping a distance. In 1942 their story culminated in irony. The poor rabbi's son with eleven siblings had the presumption to become the second husband of the millionaire's sister, Alice. Hammond's iconoclasm proved selective. He was not amused.

Jazzmen, often from impoverished backgrounds, were astonished by the fact that Hammond never sought to make money for himself. The world being what it is, they were right to consider this an excellent rule of thumb for measuring virtue. The restless and opinionated Hammond found other rewards. As with the Goodman band, he liked to have his advice followed. His satisfaction came in shaping events and being at the origin of success. Peerless at unearthing talent, he could be too mindful of his gift. This caused resentment in artists like Billie Holiday and Lester Young, who broke off completely with him. In other cases the debt to Hammond was simply too obvious to deny. Count Basie might have known merely local fame in Kansas City had not Hammond dragged him onto the national scene to put spunk back into swing. Charlie Christian could well have died young in Oklahoma City had he not been set up by Hammond to initiate fifty years of triumph for the electric guitar.

Hammond's work for racial integration was sincere and consistent but could at times skewer his musical judgment. This happened when he attacked Duke Ellington in The Brooklyn Eagle in 1935. Ellington's music had "become vapid and without the slightest semblance of guts" because, Hammond insisted, Ellington had refused to take up a militant role in defense of his race. (Page 77) Similar comments would be heard right up to the 1970s and underlined the dilemma of black artists. They could defy the competition with their talents alone and succeed in the mainstream or else bring militancy along with them and find their career path blocked.

Hammond did manage to integrate the jazz world. Prial sees it as "the first domino to fall in a sequence" that would lead eventually to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Page 310) But Hammond's activism had always stretched beyond music. Encouraged by a progressive editor he wrote about the poor for a Maine paper during his vacation from Yale. He joined an expedition to aid striking miners. He covered the Jim Crow-contaminated Scottsboro case for The Nation. For a while he fraternized with the Communists, but was soon put off by the way they used blacks as pawns in a larger policy. Some homegrown Lenin even cogitated a coo coo plan to consign blacks to their own reservation in the Southwest. Hammond was a friend of the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whom he visited in Russia in 1935. Seeing how artists were persecuted there sealed Hammond's contempt for the Party.

In the fight for integration, Hammond considered the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) grossly ineffective. But in 1935 when its leadership changed, he joined up and sat on the board. In 1939 he voted to create the Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It would be the instrument that led to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling striking down legalized segregation in the nation's public schools. In 1943 he tongue-lashed the foot-dragging executive secretary Roy Wilkins. The two men would skirmish on and off until the explosion of 1966. Wilkins, by then head of the NAACP, contested Martin Luther King's insistence that the struggle for civil rights also implied opposition to the Vietnam War. Hammond left the NAACP in disgust.

During WWII years, the draftee Private Hammond took on special duties in several military camps. He was asked to think of something for black troops to do. Blacks could volunteer or be drafted, but segregation in the military kept them idle or in menial jobs. At Camp Plauche in Louisiana, Hammond found that the camp buses were segregated on the southern pattern. Though fifty percent of the soldiers were black, Negro newspapers could not be sold. Hammond worked at his usual solution based on his belief that mixing socially or in work would make blacks and whites get along together. He organized integrated concerts.

It was the tactic he used with Benny Goodman. First he got Goodman to break the taboo against mixing the races in a recording studio band. Then, after settling Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton into the orchestra, he urged Goodman to play engagements in the South. An appearance was scheduled for the Dallas Exposition in October 1937. Everyone but Hammond advised Goodman to leave the two black players behind in the North. But at the peak of swing's popularity, Goodman's fans thought he could do no wrong, and the orchestra opened at the Exposition without problems. Goodman, however, was no revolutionary, and hesitated to form his usual quartette between big band numbers. The foursome included Wilson and Hampton. Again Hammond had to nudge him. The quartette played without incident.

Hammond wrote the event up in Downbeat, "Most of the middle- and upper-class Southerners I spoke to about the use of Negroes with white musicians assured me there would be no objection to the mixture as long as the music they produced was superlative." (Page 108) This was pure Hammond, always something of a wishful thinker: as though lynching would only start if the music wasn't up to scratch. One wonders what he thought in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 15, 1963. It had taken courage for him to come with his son from New York for the funeral of Medgar Wiley Evers. A Southerner, obviously not middle class and no music lover, had shot the black civil rights activist in the back.

Hammond's most impressive public monument must be the concert he organized at Carnegie Hall in December 1938. His intention was clear: "To bring recognition to the Negro's supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of." (Page 117) He set out to trace swing back to the blues of the Deep South and thence to Africa. He toured the nation for talent and came back with exemplars of authenticity like Big Bill Bronzy, Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Sidney Bechet. (Page 115) Summarizing the concert, Prial seems infected with Hammond's optimism:

From Spirituals to Swing represented a culmination of the ideals that Hammond had promoted so tirelessly during the past decade. Winnowed down to its essence, it was a simple message: good music played by talented musicians could and would transcend generations of ignorance and hatred by functioning as a vehicle for bringing people of all colors together. The concert itself, brash, eclectic, and laced with paradox, acted as a mirror held up to Hammond's character. He was all of those things, and the concert, his creation from start to finish, was nothing if not a direct extension of his extraordinary will and dynamic personality. (Page 121)

Hammond had made a name for himself with Columbia Records in the 1930s. In 1959 he came back to Columbia at a modest salary. He immediately recorded Shakin' the Rafters with the choir of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark. He actually filled the church with the customary worshippers while recording. Hammond knew something about the interplay between audience and performers, and the record was electric with the flow of energy between the two.

In 1961 he saw folk music coming back and signed Pete Seeger. Then he brought Bob Dylan to Columbia. It was a couple of years before Dylan sold much, and Hammond became the butt of the bright young men of the corporation. Why stay with a make-believe hobo who couldn't really sing or play decently on either the guitar or the harmonica? Hammond's answer, the wisdom of which soon began to tell in sales, was that he'd read the young man's lyrics and signed him as a poet. Hammond would afterward follow the same logic when he got a contract for Leonard Cohen.

It was Hammond who brought Aretha Franklin, barely eighteen, to Columbia. The way things went bad between them tells us a lot about Hammond and changes taking place in the industry. John Hammond, the Producer, wasn't really much of a producer. He was primarily a discoverer of raw talent. He heard it and immediately saw how far it would go. He made it his business to be in the right place -- an obscure barroom or dusty agent's office -- at the right time: in the first season of an artist's special gift. But the jazzmen he worked with in the 1930s and 1940s simply needed a platform. Once he put the right people together, they only required a chance to record and then to be deftly promoted. In the recording studio, Hammond used to bury himself in The New York Times while the musicians recorded themselves.

In the 1960s, new technology meant that a producer sat before a huge soundboard, busily overdubbing and concocting a single blended sound. It was something that Hammond thought artificial and unacceptable. His way was to put one microphone in the center of the studio and let the musicians play.

A heart attack failed to slow Hammond down. In 1972 he sorted through a thousand demonstration tapes that agents had brought him. He singled one out by twenty-two-year-old Bruce Springsteen and signed him for Columbia. As with Dylan, he had to stand by his young friend through a few lean years against the corporation's doubts.

In 1982 Hammond, working apart from Columbia, brought to the national stage Stevie Ray Vaughan, a blues guitarist from Austin, Texas. Vaughan's early death cut short a career that would have equaled Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck's.

Hammond himself died in 1987, listening to a Billie Holiday record. Just days before he'd made visitors to his bedside listen to tapes of his latest discovery. In his last years his money ran out. Not taking royalties on artists' work left him no nest egg. His mother, once widowed, had given away her fortune. When she died it came out that Frank Buchman, the Moral Rearmament evangelist, had pretty well drained her dry. Hammond wasn't bitter. He may have felt that what was best in his own character came from his mother's unworldly and un-Vanderbilt spirit.


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Published April 7, 2008