July 30, 2006


The life of a talent-spotter who left his mark on both jazz and rock-and-roll. (Jonathan Yardley, July 30, 2006, Washington Post)

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 30, 2006 9:50 AM

John Hammond Jr. was/is pretty good bluesman too. Wasn't Dylan one of Mr. Hammond's finds as well?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at July 30, 2006 11:02 AM

Yeah Tom, and Aretha and Springsteen as well.

Didn't know about his blue blood.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 30, 2006 11:19 AM

I remember seeing some tribute concert to JH, Sr. on PBS when I was a kid. The bill included Sonny Terry, Mr. Zimmerman, and John Hammond Jr., among others. I've seen JH Jr. a couple of times--well worth the ticket price if he comes to your town. JH Jr. also played on the wonderful soundtrack to Little Big Man.

Posted by: Ted Welter at July 30, 2006 11:31 AM

He also helped launch the careers of Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and Charlie Christian. I'm pretty sure Goodman married Hammond's sister...at least that's the way it's portrayed in "The Benny Goodman Story." (Hammond is played by the guy who later played Dennis the Menace's father on TV and Ms. Hammond/Mrs. Goodman is played by Donna Reed.) Benny's mother doesn't approve of his courtship of a WASP and admonishes his son: "Benny...Bagels and caviar, they don't mix."

Posted by: Foos at July 30, 2006 7:03 PM