[Marxism] John Hammond

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Oct 1 08:13:57 MDT 2005

For background on an article on jazz and the left, I am reading John 
Hammond’s memoir “On Record” that was written in 1977. Hammond, a scion of 
the Vanderbilt family who was born in 1910 and died in 1987, was a Columbia 
Records executive with sympathies for the left who “discovered” Billie 
Holiday, Bob Dylan and many other major talents of the 20th century. He 
wrote for the Nation Magazine in the 1930s and was on the board of the 
NAACP for decades. He was sympathetic to the CPUSA, but­according to the 
memoir­never a member. In fact he made sure that when the New Masses (the 
CP journal) sponsored the legendary “Spirituals to Swing” Carnegie Hall 
concerts in 1938-1939, he made sure that the concert would not look like it 
had any connections to the party. He also apparently was alienated by some 
typical moves of the party, like turning on a dime around certain Stalin 
initiatives like the peace treaty with Hitler, etc.

While the book is replete with fascinating information about the cultural 
scene of the 1930s, the main thing that comes across is Hammond’s 
insensitive personality. To start with, “On Record” consistently refers to 
Black people as “Negroes”. This is 1977 we are talking about, not 1957. 
This is obviously connected to a certain paternalism that Hammond expressed 
from an early age. His hatred of racism, while commendable, was always bred 
from a certain kind of “do-goodism” found in wealthy white circles. This 
often leads to some really striking “wrong notes” that are odds with his 
finely honed musical tastes. For example, in explaining how the Spirituals 
to Swing concert was conceived, he says that he wanted to present the 
entire gamut of “Negro music” from the sophisticated arrangements of Count 
Basie to the most “primitive” blues singers. If I ever had the opportunity 
to speak with John Hammond after reading this, I would have tried to 
explain that there was nothing “primitive” about the blues. As somebody who 
was bent on including Robert Johnson in the Carnegie Hall concert (the 
musician had been murdered a few months earlier) and who introduced 
Johnson’s recordings to the young Bob Dylan, he probably knew this. It was 
just a poor choice of words and reflected a certain class bias.

More alarming, however, was Hammond’s decision to allow class loyalties to 
get in the way of his relationship with Billie Holiday:

“I couldn't wait to bring Billie Holiday to Cafe Society. It was the 
perfect place for her to sing to a new audience with the kind of jazz 
players who brought out her best. Unfortunately, her appearances were not 
the success they could have been, and they proved to be the end of my 
association with Billie’s career. She was heavily involved with narcotics, 
and she had hired as her manager a woman from a distinguished family I knew 
well. I was concerned that she and her family might be hurt by unsavory 
gossip, or even blackmailed by the gangsters and dope pushers Billie knew.

“It was one of the few times in my life when I felt compelled to interfere 
in a personal relationship which was none of my business. I told the 
manager's family what I knew and what I feared. Soon afterward the manager 
and Billie broke up, and Billie never worked at Cafe Society again. I think 
she never forgave me for what she suspected was my part in the breakup, but 
the woman who managed her is still my friend and I think she realizes now 
the complications which could have arisen.”

The idea of sacrificing Holiday’s career at the altar of a “distinguished 
family” stinks, to put it mildly. One supposes that this was the Vanderbilt 
in him at work. Oddly enough, his mother and father looked benignly on his 
civil rights activism, but neither they nor he could ever descend from 
their Olympian heights to actually become part of the social milieu that 
they were championing.

If one visits East 91st street in Manhattan, the street where I live 
actually, you can see visible evidence of how the Hammond family lived. On 
9 East 91st Street, you will find the Russian Embassy. That building was 
where John Hammond was born. It has a formal ballroom that can seat 250 
people! In 1935, Hammond held a concert party where Benny Goodman played 
Mozart with a string quartet. You can get an idea of the size of this joint 
and how the invited Black musicians might have felt from this anecdote 
whose bitter irony I suspect Hammond did not fully appreciate:

“After the concert the audience was invited to a reception on the fifth 
floor. The front elevator of the house held only half a dozen passengers; I 
rode up with Fletcher [Henderson], Benny [Goodman], and three other guests. 
Benny, relieved to have the performance over, appointed Fletcher the 
elevator operator, a common occupation for Negroes in New York department 
stores in those days. As Fletcher opened the elevator doors at each floor, 
Goodman would announce, ‘Fourth floor, men's and boy's clothes. Fifth 
floor, women's ready-to-wear.’”

As students of jazz history probably know, Henderson was Goodman’s arranger 
and responsible for the distinctive sound that propelled Goodman into 
stardom. But Henderson himself felt cheated. He felt that racism interfered 
with his ability to fully exploit his talents. Indeed, the classic 
anthology of Henderson recordings is titled “Studies in Frustration”, 
produced by John Hammond himself.

Some of Hammond’s memoir is unintentionally funny. For example, here’s how 
he describes the family move from East 91st Street in 1949. “Mother and 
father had sold the 91st Street house and moved into a modest, sixteen-room 
apartment which occupied an entire floor of 778 Park Avenue. Mother had 
never lived in an apartment, but she managed.” This reminds me of the 
famous but apocryphal exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest 
Hemingway. Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than you and me.” Hemingway: 
“Yes, they have more money.”

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