A "behind the music" story without parallel
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. Dunstan Prial's biography 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.
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 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.
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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.
Late in the evening of July 7, 1957, Count Basie and his orchestra took the stage to wrap up that year's Newport Jazz Festival. The all-black band was introduced by a tall, skinny, crew-cut white guy with a voice so plummy as to border on unintentional self-parody. I was there and remember it vividly, but anybody can hear it on the album "Basie at Newport," and to this day almost everybody is likely to agree that the contrast between the Manhattanite voice and the down-home Kansas City band is just about too exquisitely hilarious to be true.
But it was, and is, no joke. The speaker was John Hammond, and he deserved to be there. Though little-known beyond the innermost circles of American popular music, Hammond was a man of almost incalculable influence on that music. Twenty years earlier, after hearing the Basie band on the radio -- the band was celebrated in Kansas City but otherwise obscure -- Hammond had driven to Missouri from New York specifically to offer his services as producer, booker and just about everything else, not for the money it might make for him but because he believed Basie and his band deserved and must be presented to a larger audience. For this Basie remained grateful ever after, which is why he was no doubt delighted to be led onstage in Newport by his old benefactor and friend.
It could be said that Hammond spent almost his entire life leading musicians onstage. Born in December 1910 into a wealthy New York family -- his mother was a Vanderbilt -- Hammond rarely had more than fleeting financial worries throughout his 76-year life and was free to concentrate his very considerable energies on the two causes with which he was obsessed: American popular music, jazz most particularly, and civil rights for African Americans. As a boy he was steered toward classical music by his mother, but he was far more interested in the music sung and played by the servants, many of whom were black. Dunstan Prial writes:
"As Hammond observed in his memoirs, as well as in numerous interviews, he 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 for 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."
Hammond was barely out of knee-pants before he started venturing to Harlem, where musicians and nightclub operators seem to have adopted him as an odd but agreeable mascot. He attended prep school at Hotchkiss and college at Yale, but his inner compass was trained on the jazz clubs and recording studios of New York. By the time he was 20, he "had been listening to and collecting jazz records for ten years" and felt he was ready to start producing records himself. The first session he presided over, featuring a pianist named Garland Wilson, provoked little interest, but it pointed him in the direction he followed for the rest of his life. Eventually he became perhaps the most influential talent scout and producer in the history of American popular music, not because the musicians he sponsored always enjoyed huge success but because he had an absolutely uncanny ear.
Over the years he earned a huge reputation, "not only by being in the right place at the right time -- he was at Monette's in Harlem in 1933 the night Billie Holiday performed there, he was at Mildred Bailey's home in Queens the night Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman first jammed as part of a trio, and he was in Oklahoma City long enough to hear Charlie Christian knock out a handful of tasty guitar solos -- but also for knowing what to do when opportunity came knocking." He rushed Holiday into the studio when she was an unknown kid and set up some of her most important early recordings; he boosted Goodman when the band leader was still feeling his way and was instrumental in setting up Goodman's alliances with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton; then, after a long dry period when jazz seemed to have passed him by, he reversed gears and almost literally gave the world Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
His greatest period was the 1930s, when he was still in his twenties, bursting with the youthful enthusiasm that he never really lost -- a case can be made, in fact, that through all his mature years he was an arrested adolescent -- and making discovery after discovery. As Prial says: "The list of musicians he brought together for recording dates in the 1930s is staggering. Contemporary jazz historians can only shake their heads at the thought of walking into a studio in midtown Manhattan and finding Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones . . . . 'It astonishes me, as I look back, at how casually we were able to assemble such all-star groups. It wasn't that we didn't know how great they were. We did. It was simply a Golden Age,' Hammond recalled in his memoirs."
It was, of course, the Golden Age of Swing, and all his life Hammond was a swing man. When the boppers came along in the 1940s, Hammond "appreciated the rebellion inherent in the music, [but] found the music itself impenetrable and ultimately pretentious." By the mid-1950s, though he introduced Basie at Newport and otherwise made his presence felt, Hammond had been left behind. He didn't recover until Columbia Records rehired him in late 1959, and his recovery went in a direction that no one possibly could have predicted, Hammond himself included.
It is here, with Hammond's discovery and/or sponsorship of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, that The Producer really comes to life. Prial, a freelance journalist, became interested in Hammond's story after learning about his relationship with Springsteen. He worked hard to bone up on Hammond's earlier life in jazz, but he relies too much on secondary sources -- in particular James Lincoln Collier's often wrong-headed biography of Benny Goodman -- and one senses that he's going through the motions. When it comes to the music of his own generation, though, Prial writes with knowledge and feeling. He also had the good fortune to get an extensive interview with Springsteen, who speaks eloquently about Hammond in words that doubtless could just as well have been spoken by Count Basie or Charlie Christian:
"He was somebody I felt that my music was very safe with. He just exuded love of music. The minute he heard something he liked he was capable of expressing such enthusiasm. . . . When there were no clichés in the songs, when it's all you, when it's all yours, when he's hearing something he hasn't quite heard before. That's what he looked for. That's what moved him. A singular voice, some sort of distinctive voice that came from some place particular and spoke with a certain sort of emotional force."
As to Hammond the man, he seems to have been an odd duck who could invest emotion in music that he couldn't find for intimate relationships. His commitment to civil rights was deep and passionate, yet he was also a haute WASP who may have inherited some of the prejudices of his class. How else to explain Hammond's lifelong unhappiness that Benny Goodman married his sister: Goodman, after all, was both a musician and a Jew, which seems not to have occurred to Prial but which may explain Hammond's opposition to a marriage that brought unwelcome strains of the outside world into his hermetic family. Once an aristo, always an aristo, and no amount of down-home American music is likely to change that.
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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