John Hammond was an American record producer, Civil Rights activist, musician and music critic from the 1930s to the early 1980s. In his service as a Talent scout, Hammond became one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music. Hammond was instrumental in sparking or furthering numerous musical careers, including those of Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Bassie, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen. He was largely responsible for the revival of delta blues artist Robert Johnson's music (who was a big influence on Dylan), He also strived for racial integration, not only in the musical frontier but in the United States in general.
I've been fascinated by John Hammond since reading about his signing Dylan to his first record deal, even though Hammond mainly had jazz artists on his label. I guess he saw some raw, unrealised talent in the young folk singer from Duluth Minnesota. He signed Dylan to Columbia Records in 1961. He had also signed legend jazz singer Billy Holiday. I decided recently to go look him up on here.
John Hammond believed that music might bring people together. His mother was a ‘Vanderbilt’ and she was incredibly wealthy. Hammond played piano and violin and the classics upstairs, while in his basement the Negros played their upbeat blues songs and he would sneak down to listen to them. He had a New York music teacher and after the lessons he’d go to Harlem to hear the Jazz musicians playing. His family made a trip to London in 1922 where Hammond saw the show ‘From Dixie to Broadway’ and a Caucasian jazz group, which changed the way he saw music.
Hammond attended Yale University, but he left after a bit for a career in music. He was first a correspondent for Melody Maker. He then went into recording and producing – and moved to Greenwich Village where he worked for a ‘racial integrated’ music world. At that time Negro musicians had to sell in different stores.
‘I heard no colour line in the music.. To bring recognition to the negro’s supremacy in jazz, was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.
Jazz. Hammond was involved with supporting civil rights and back in the thirties black and white musicians rarely played together. In 1935 musicians started to record in mixed race groups - e.g. The Goodman Trio. He also encouraged jazz musicians to ‘swing’ in the style of New Orleans jazz. In 1934 he introduced Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson and brought black musicians into the band. He brought the Count Basie band to New York. In 1938 he organised the first ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ at Carnegie hall concerts.