John Hammond, Sr.

One of swing music's greatest propagandists, John Hammond was responsible for at least partly discovering a remarkable list of musicians through the years including Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. Although these artists would certainly have made it on their own, Hammond's intervention made their rise to fame swifter. As a masterful talent scout, producer, promoter, and an early fighter against racism, Hammond could be a bit dominant and overly forceful in his viewpoints, but time has found him to be have been generally right and well-intentioned. Although born into a wealthy family and educated at Yale, Hammond had a great love for black music from nearly the start. As early as 1933 (when he was 22), he was active in the music business, discovering Billie Holiday and getting her into the recording studio, producing Bessie Smith's final sessions, and becoming a friend of the young Benny Goodman (who would marry Hammond's sister). Hammond produced freewheeling American jazz sessions for the European market, worked with Fletcher Henderson and Benny Carter, and encouraged Goodman to form his first big band. In 1935 he teamed Lady Day with pianist Teddy Wilson for a series of classic recordings, the next year he discovered Count Basie's orchestra while randomly scanning the radio dial (he soon flew to Kansas City and encouraged Basie to come East), and in 1938 and 1939 he organized the famous "Spirituals to Swing" all-star Carnegie Hall concerts. After hearing about Charlie Christian in 1939, Hammond took a plane to Oklahoma City, listened to the young guitarist for himself, and flew him to Los Angeles where he had Christian audition for an initially reluctant Benny Goodman. In addition to his work as a promoter and a record producer (most notably for Columbia during 1937-1943), Hammond also worked as a jazz critic where some of his very favorable pieces about artists he was working with can certainly be looked upon today as conflicts of interest. After serving in the military during World War II., Hammond felt out-of-sorts in the jazz scene of the mid-'40s; he never gained a taste for bebop. In the '50s he produced a superior series of mainstream dates for Vanguard featuring swing era veterans, Hammond worked through the years for Keynote, Majestic, and Mercury, and during 1959-1975 he was again a major force at Columbia, where he helped the careers of Dylan, Franklin, Benson, Springsteen, and Adam Makowicz, among others. In 1967 he organized a new "Spirituals to Swing" concert, and in 1977 his autobiography John Hammond on Record was published. His son John Hammond, Jr. has long been an impressive blues guitarist/singer. Although he could be a pain (Duke Ellington did not care for his dominant personality), John Hammond certainly made his mark on jazz and music history.
Scott Yanow, Rovi

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