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John Hammond--music Was His First Master

July 19, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

There are in all the arts non-performers who, in the final analysis, are at least as important historically as the artists they discovered and the events they precipitated. John Hammond, who died July 10 in his New York apartment, was just such a catalyst.

Hammond was one of nature's rebels. A member of a wealthy, socially prominent family (Vanderbilts and Sloanes on his mother's side, racial prejudice on both sides), he was motivated from an early age by twin drives: racial justice for blacks and the propagation of jazz.

In the early 1930s, these goals were all but impossible in America. John went to Alabama in 1933 to cover, for the Nation, the sensational Scottsboro trial of nine black youths accused of raping two white women. Not long after, he became involved with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

At that time, the record business had hit a Depression rock bottom. Many of Hammond's early experiences involved sessions he produced specially for release in England; by the same token, there were so few outlets for jazz criticism in the United States that Hammond wrote mainly for British publications.

It was in London that we met: I was a teen-age fan just about to become a part of the music scene. John impressed me with his sincerity, and with an enthusiasm that never abated.

His prescience was uncanny. How could the ear that detected potential in Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson and Aretha Franklin also hear the voice of the future in Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen?

Of course, anyone as opinionated as John was bound to make enemies. Because of his racial attitudes, he was called a Communist, though he believed staunchly in integration while the American Communist Party at that time wanted a separate 49th state for blacks to be gerrymandered out of Deep South territory. Still, when all else failed he would work with the party: When he could not find a sponsor for a black music-history program he wanted to present at Carnegie Hall, he accepted the underwriting of the Marxist publication New Masses. The result was "From Spirituals to Swing," one of the most memorable concerts of this century.

Some white musicians resented his championship of equality. John once told me, with a touch of pride, that the white cornetist Red Nichols had dismissed him as a "nigger lover." Yet it was Hammond who played a central role in putting together the Benny Goodman Orchestra, which at first was all-white, and he recorded Mildred Bailey, Bunny Berigan and many other white artists.

The Goodman venture changed the course of history. Without John's help, Goodman might have given up and returned to the 'studio' life, leaving the Swing Era stillborn.

John was a compulsive listener and a compulsive reader. On the day of my first arrival from England as a visitor to these shores, he was at the dock to meet me, with a stack of magazines and newspapers under his arms, and within hours had taken me to the Apollo Theatre, where we met a failing Bessie Smith (whose final record session he had produced) and went on to the Savoy Ballroom.

Over the years, after many such evenings together, the evidence mounted not only of his love for the music, but of his generosity. There were innumerable unreported instances of his helping out musicians who were down on their luck.

His interest in social, political, racial and musical matters never left him, even though the past few years had dealt him a series of literally crippling blows. He suffered several heart attacks or strokes. Last year, came the deaths of Esme Sarnoff Hammond, his wife since 1949; Benny Goodman, who had been his brother-in-law since 1942, followed soon by Teddy Wilson.

A visit with John three weeks ago found him haggard, confined to a wheelchair, his once-robust voice reduced almost to a whisper; yet the conversation revealed that he was still involved, helping his associate Mikie Harris to produce an album with a new group, the Mark Kirkostis Quintet.

Harris was there, holding his hand, along with Hammond's stepdaughter, Rosita Sarnoff, on that last day. "He was playing Billie Holiday's record of 'All of Me,' " said Sarnoff. "He went comfortably and gracefully--the record stopped at the exact moment he died."

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