Commentary Magazine

John Hammond’s Jazz

If John Hammond had not been born, it would never have occurred to anyone to invent so unlikely-sounding a character. The great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 19th-century railroad baron, he grew up in a mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side, attended Hotchkiss and Yale—and became the greatest talent scout in the history of American popular music. Starting in the 1930's, he was intimately involved in the early careers of Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Teddy Wilson, and later on he did the same thing for Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He is widely credited with having “discovered” many of these artists, and while the use of that ambiguous word would be criticized after the fact, there can be no possible doubt that he played a pivotal role in making each of them famous.

Hammond was also deeply involved in Left-liberal politics. A longtime member of the board of the NAACP, he contributed in the 30's to publications like the Nation and the Communist-controlled New Masses, and it was at his urging that Columbia, the record label with which he was associated for most of his professional life, signed Pete Seeger, a folk singer whose ties to the Communist party had caused him to be blacklisted in the 50's.

Whatever company he was keeping, Hammond always carried himself like the well-born WASP that he was. His bristly crewcut, toothy smile, and button-down attire came to be universally known among popular musicians of the 30's and 40's. So did his strong, bluntly expressed opinions on musical and other matters, from whose adverse consequences he was insulated by his private income. As Otis Ferguson, the jazz and film critic, wrote in a 1938 profile of Hammond, “John won't compromise on anything because he never learned to, and he never learned to because he never had to.”

Such a character was bound to attract the attention of the media sooner or later. Hammond became the first record producer to be widely known by name outside the music business, and in 1955 he was portrayed (after a fashion) in a big-budget Hollywood biopic, The Benny Goodman Story. His lack of sympathy with postwar developments in jazz caused him to fade from the public eye for a time, but the part he played in launching the careers of Dylan and Springsteen introduced him to a new generation of listeners—and reporters. In 1977 he published John Hammond on Record, a memoir that was widely reviewed, and the New York Times treated his death a decade later as front-page news.

Now Dunstan Prial, a financial reporter who became interested in Hammond's life after learning of his relationships with Dylan and Springsteen, has written the first biography of this central pop-music figure, The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music.
1 Prial is an enthusiast who has had no musical training and appears to have known nothing about jazz before writing this book. But he has made a serious and reasonably successful effort to master his subject. Despite its musical solecisms, The Producer offers a factually reliable account of Hammond's career as a jazz record producer, as well as an even-handed discussion of his political views. Though Prial's approach is journalistic, not scholarly, his readers will come away with a clear understanding of what Hammond did, why it mattered—and where he went wrong.


Hammond was born in 1910, and from his youngest years showed both an aptitude for and a passionate love of music. Though he studied violin as a boy and continued to play it in adulthood, becoming sufficiently competent to participate in amateur string quartets, he seems never to have given any thought to pursuing a performing career. He liked classical music but was more interested in jazz, which he first heard on records played by his family's black servants. In the 1920's, he began sneaking up to Harlem to hear it live.

Hammond continued to visit Harlem throughout his prep-school days. In 1930, when illness forced him to drop out of Yale, he decided to buy his way into the music business. By then the Great Depression had laid waste to the American recording industry, and the major labels considered jazz too financially risky to record. At the time Hammond was receiving an allowance of $12,000 a year (the equivalent of roughly $146,000 today). This made it possible for him to function as a freelance producer, paying for studio time out of his own pocket, hiring musicians, and using them to cut recordings. Having subsidized these records, he was able to interest the major labels in releasing commercially music they would never have recorded on their own.

Had his taste been less reliable, Hammond would have gotten nowhere. But he had a natural ear for talent, which he honed in the course of countless evenings spent listening to jazz in the nightclubs of New York and other cities. (He delighted in making impromptu road trips to Chicago or Kansas City to check out groups he had heard on the high-powered radio in his car.) After a false start with a now-forgotten pianist named Garland Wilson, Hammond brought Fletcher Henderson's big band into the studio in late 1932 to make two of its greatest recordings, “New King Porter Stomp” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
2 Two months later, he heard an unknown seventeen-year-old named Billie Holiday performing in a Harlem speakeasy, decided on the spot that she was “the best jazz singer I had ever heard,” and resolved to record her.

By then he had talked his way into a slot as the American correspondent for Melody Maker, an English music magazine, and his enthusiastic reports were widely read by record-company executives in London. When English Columbia signed him to a producing contract in 1933, he promptly began making records with Holiday, the alto saxophonist Benny Carter, the blues singer Bessie Smith, the jazz violinist Joe Venuti, the pianist Teddy Wilson, and a much-admired but as yet obscure studio clarinetist named Benny Goodman. English Columbia leased the performances to its sister label in the United States, and most of them sold well enough to give Hammond a toehold in the American recording business. He never looked back.


Having started out as a dilettante, Hammond turned himself into a professional by sheer force of will, without losing the enthusiasm that had initially propelled him into the business. Unlike today's producers, most of whom take an active role in shaping the music they record, he was usually content to let musicians play as they pleased at recording sessions, preferring to do his work outside the studio. Once he took an interest in an artist or a band, he attached himself to them, supplying an abundance of free advice and (when needed) financial support.

In 1936, for instance, he began promoting the band of the pianist Count Basie. Not only did he encourage Basie to come east from Kansas City, but he pushed him to replace several musicians with superior players of Hammond's choosing. It had similarly been his idea to team Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, thus bringing into existence what remains to this day the most admired group of vocal jazz recordings made in the 30's.

Many musicians—including some of the ones who worked with him—found Hammond cocksure and condescending. (According to Otis Ferguson, his arrival at a nightclub would often be heralded by the muttered phrase “Uh-oh, the Bringdown's here.”) But no one questioned his seriousness, and black musicians who might otherwise have been disinclined to take orders from a young and high-handed white man were impressed by the fact that Hammond made records for love, not money. In a business notorious for its venality, that set him apart.

In addition to advising the artists he recorded, Hammond promoted them. In 1935 he began writing a jazz column for Down Beat, a widely read American pop-music magazine. He also wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle, a now-forgotten newspaper that in the 30's covered the arts closely. “I write best when I am angry,” he once remarked. True or not, his columns, which have yet to be collected, were famously direct: he liked what he liked, hated everything else, and never stooped to the niceties of nuance. In truth, he was not so much a critic as a know-it-all with taste; although he made his fair share of blunders, in retrospect he was right more often than not.

Virtually from the outset of his writing career, Hammond used his columns to plug the artists he recorded, often neglecting to mention his professional relationships with them. This practice was not uncommon in the jazz journalism of the period (nor is it unknown today), but Hammond seems to have felt that, lacking a financial interest in the records he made, he was especially exempt from any need to steer clear of conflicts of interest. After his first recordings of the Benny Goodman Trio in 1936, for instance, he wrote as follows in the Brooklyn Eagle:

Victor has just assembled a three-piece combination which, although it may not break any sales records, provides an excellent example of what swing music can be. The pianist is Teddy Wilson, an extraordinarily sensitive young Negro with tremendous lift, Benny Goodman, the superb clarinetist, and Gene Krupa, a surpassingly fine drummer.

All true—but the fact that Hammond had produced the records about which he was writing so effusively was passed over in silence.


In 1933, Hammond began writing about race relations for the Nation, covering the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of nine black men charged (apparently falsely) with raping two young white women on a freight train passing through Alabama. These articles brought him to the attention of a national audience for the first time, and strengthened his resolve to fight racism by helping to integrate the music business.

Although the world of jazz was not wholly segregated in the early 30's, it was still unusual for black and white musicians to perform together other than in informal jam sessions. Hammond was determined to change that. Among many other things, he played a key role in integrating the big band of Benny Goodman, who by the mid-30's had become one of the best-known musicians in America.

The clarinetist had started appearing in public with Teddy Wilson a year or so after the two men first recorded with Gene Krupa, and it was Hammond's idea to turn the Goodman Trio into a quartet by adding the black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Two years later, he persuaded Goodman to hire a brilliant but unknown black guitarist from Oklahoma named Charlie Christian, whose hugely influential performances and recordings with what became the Goodman Sextet were the first extensively to feature an electrically amplified jazz guitar.

Although Hammond's main interest, then and always, was in the music these men made, he was fully aware of the political implications of presenting mixed groups on the bandstand and in the studio. So were the black musicians with whom he worked. Hampton, for one, considered his stint with the Goodman band to be “an important part of the history of the country. . . . John Hammond started a revolution.” As Hammond himself later put it, “To bring recognition to the Negro's supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.”

On occasion, however, he let his political opinions get in the way of his musical values, most inexcusably (and inexplicably) in the case of Duke Ellington, whose music he attacked in 1935 as “vapid and without the slightest semblance of guts.” He went on to claim that the quality of Ellington's music had been diminished by the musician's unwillingness to take political stances:

[T]he real trouble with Duke's music is the fact that he has purposely kept himself from any contact with the troubles of his people or mankind in general. It would probably take a Granville Hicks or Langston Hughes to describe the way he shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race and his original class.

Given his views on race and other political matters, it was predictable that Hammond would become involved to some degree with the Communist party. But unlike most of the other artists drawn into the party's orbit in the 30's, he had no illusions about the Soviet Union, which he had visited in 1935 and whose tyrannical ways he thereafter viewed with wide-open eyes. Moreover, he was no less aware that the leaders of the American Communist party interested themselves in race relations primarily as a means of manipulating public opinion. The FBI, which opened a file on Hammond in 1941, concluded that despite his extensive Communist ties, “there is no information indicating that he is a member of the Communist party.”

Still, just as Hammond took it for granted that his financial independence allowed him to praise his own recordings in print, so did he assume that his political independence made it acceptable for him to work with the Communist party whenever this suited his personal purposes. In 1938, for instance, he produced a pioneering Carnegie Hall concert called “From Spirituals to Swing” for which the New Masses (meaning the party) supplied financial backing. The concert featured Count Basie, the New Orleans clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet, the pianists Albert Ammons, James P. Johnson, Pete Johnson, and Meade “Lux” Lewis, and a group of blues and gospel singers of comparable significance whose work was at the time unknown to the general public.


Though it was not the first time such music had been heard in America's best-known concert hall, the 1938 program, along with a similar one presented the following year, were among the first large-scale events of their kind. Their success helped make Hammond a celebrity, inspiring Columbia to offer him a full-time producing job in 1939. The outsider had become an insider at last.


In his autobiography, Hammond would recall with undimmed affection the recordings he made in the 30's:

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.

But all golden ages must come to an end, and Hammond's reign as jazz's top talent scout ended when he was drafted into the wartime Army in 1943. By the time of his discharge two years later, the jazz scene was in the throes of dramatic change. Not only had the big bands of the Swing Era been superseded by the romantic balladry of Frank Sinatra and other pop singers, but younger jazz instrumentalists like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were turning their backs on the swing style of the 30's to forge the revolutionary new jazz idiom known as bebop.

Like many jazz fans of his generation, Hammond disliked bebop, and after an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Columbia to let him become a classical producer, he resigned from the label, in time becoming vice president of Mercury Records, a smaller company that permitted him to record both classical music and jazz. By then he had no choice but to work for a living, since his mother had given away much of her fortune to the leaders of Moral Re-Armament, a quasi-religious group popular among wealthy socialites of the 30's and 40's.

Not surprisingly, he was too independent-minded to be at ease as an executive. After six years at Mercury, he quit and returned to his now-precarious life as a freelancer. Though he produced a number of memorable jazz albums between 1953 and 1959, most of them by musicians with whom he had worked before the war, it was widely (and rightly) felt that he had lost touch with the contemporary jazz scene.

But Goddard Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records, still believed in Hammond's talent for sniffing out promising artists, and in 1959 he brought him back to the label. Lieberson's confidence was rewarded almost immediately when Hammond signed Aretha Franklin, an obscure gospel singer who was to become the most prominent female rhythm-and-blues performer of the 60's, and Pete Seeger, whose career had been in near-total eclipse ever since he was blacklisted. Hammond's timing was perfect, for the folk-music revival of the early 60's was just getting under way and Seeger soon enjoyed a resurgence of popularity.

Seeger's presence on the label's roster was also one of the main reasons why Bob Dylan agreed to sign with Columbia. The other was Hammond himself, who heard the twenty-year-old singer-songwriter in 1961 and decided to take a chance on him, unknown and untested though he was. “I trusted him,” Dylan later wrote of Hammond in his memoirs. “Who wouldn't? There were maybe a thousand kings in the world and he was one of them.”

Hammond played no part in Dylan's career beyond signing him and supervising the recording of his first two Columbia albums, Bob Dylan (1962) and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963). “I had no direction on him at all,” he later said, “because I felt Bob was a poet, somebody who could communicate with his generation.” By then Hammond was a producer in only the most nominal sense. Never interested in working closely with artists in the studio, he was even less interested in the recent advances in recording technology that made possible such elaborately multi-tracked studio recordings as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fortunately, Goddard Lieberson understood all this, and Hammond repaid his unswerving loyalty by signing not only Dylan but, in 1972, Bruce Springsteen, a young singer-songwriter from New Jersey who would become one of the most successful rock stars of the 70's and 80's.



Not long before Hammond's death in 1987, the jazz journalist John McDonough paid fulsome tribute to his life's work:

Hammond could hear the important voices no one else could hear in the 30's, the 60's, and the 70's 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. . . . His ears respond to new music as soundings of social change.

There is some truth to this tribute—but not much. For one thing, it does not explain why Hammond's ear for “soundings of social change” deserted him in the 40's and 50's when he failed to recognize the significance of bebop, many of whose creators were politically self-aware men who understood themselves to be creating a new musical style with wider cultural implications. As for rock, Hammond seems never to have taken any great interest in it, and after 1960 Dylan and Springsteen were the only artists of major importance with whom he worked.


It makes more sense to think of Hammond not as a cultural revolutionary but as an aesthete with political interests. The literary critic Edmund Wilson, who knew him in the 30's, wittily described him as resembling “somebody who had modeled himself on Proust, then received an injection of Communism.” That seems fair enough. He took politics seriously, but music even more seriously, and though he saw its potential as an instrument of cultural change, he (almost) never made the mistake of using it as a means to a political end.

What made him a great record producer? While there is no accounting for the mystery of taste, there was definitely more to Hammond than an ear for talent. For all his limitations, he was one of the very first people to think seriously about jazz—to treat it not as commercial dance music but as an art form deserving of wider and deeper consideration. It was his love and understanding of music of all kinds that led him early on to recognize the particular significance of jazz and popular music, and then to spend the rest of his life promoting them in whatever way he could find.

The defect of this virtue was Hammond's inclination to treat his own enthusiasm as a universal aesthetic yardstick. Born to privilege, he became, in Otis Ferguson's words, “accustomed to deference and not having his word disputed,” too often taking it upon himself to attack men of comparable or (in the case of Duke Ellington) greater gifts whose only sin was that they dared to differ with him. For this reason, he was widely disliked, and deserved to be. But despite his vanity, no one ever questioned the selflessness of the passion with which John Hammond served the music he loved—and no one before or since has served it better.



1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 347 pp., $27.00.

2 “New King Porter Stomp” and “Honeysuckle Rose” are included on Fletcher Henderson: The Quintessence, a well-chosen anthology of Henderson's best recordings (Fremeaux & Associés FA-219, two CD's). This album, as well as the other recordings mentioned below, can be purchased online by viewing this article during the month of October at COMMENTARY's website,

3 All the recordings Hammond made with Count Basie are on America's #1 Band! The Columbia Years (Sony C4K-87110, four CD's). Most of the best of the Teddy Wilson/Billie Holiday 78's are on Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday (Sony C2K-85979, two CD's).

4 The complete studio recordings of the Goodman Trio and Quartet are on Benny Goodman: Complete RCA Victor Small Group Master Takes (Definitive 11169, two CD's). All of the studio recordings Charlie Christian made with Goodman are on The Genius of the Electric Guitar (Sony C4K-65564, four CD's). The cautious Goodman initially preserved appearances by presenting these groups as “special added attractions,” but he insisted that his black colleagues be treated as equals backstage and in the otherwise segregated hotels where his band stayed on tour.

5 Though Hammond appreciated many white players, he was not immune to charges of reverse racism. “When he goes around saying ‘white musician’ the way you'd use the term ‘greaseball,’ ” Otis Ferguson wrote, “he not only confuses his readers and upsets his own standards but starts the Jim Crow car all over again, in reverse.”

6 Ellington returned fire in a devastating article that called Hammond to task for his conflicts of interest.

7 All of the surviving recordings made at the two “From Spirituals to Swing” Carnegie Hall concerts organized by Hammond are on From Spirituals to Swing (Vanguard VAN-70169, three CD's).

8 Hammond did not produce any of Springsteen's recordings.

9 He also signed George Benson, a talented jazz guitarist who later had a brief period of stardom as a pop singer, and Leonard Cohen, a Canadian singer-songwriter who acquired an enduring cult following.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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