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John Hammond: Jazz-Record Producer

by John Cobley

Wednesday Jun 9th, 2021



Some of the best musicians of the period owe their professional existence to his efforts.  Barry Ulanov


Although best known for his discoveries of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, John Hammond is also celebrated for his contributions to jazz. As a record-label executive and record producer, he produced many historically important jazz recordings, including those by Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Count Basie and Charlie Christian. From 1931 to 1942 he recorded on six record labels: Okeh, Columbia, Brunswick, Victor, Decca and Vocalion. Working as writer, radio host, talent spotter, advisor, promoter and record producer, he was ubiquitous on the pre-war jazz scene. 


John Hammond possessed many of the qualities needed for success as a jazz-record producer. From an early age he showed a strong love of music that became almost an obsession.. He developed an ear for good music that enabled him to discover new talent. Ambitious and hard-working, he had an innate desire to help others that led to him constantly mentoring, cultivating, promoting musicians. He had charm, inter-personal skills and incredible energy.


Early Days

Born in 1910 into very wealthy family, the Vanderbilts, Hammond was exposed to music very early, starting piano at four and the violin at eight. Clearly precocious, he once wrote to the famous jazz violinist Joe Venuti to request lessons. At home he listened to classical music upstairs and popular music downstairs with the servants. He heard jazz for the first time on a trip to London when 12. As soon as he returned home, he started collecting records: “All music fascinated me, but the simple honesty and convincing lyrics of the early blues singers, the rhythm and ingenuity of the jazz players, excited me most.” (p. 30) Soon he was sneaking off to vaudeville shows. And although boarding school curtailed some of this activity, he soon found a way to see such performers as Bessie Smith and Henry Red Allen: he invented a mythical string quartet so that his parents would let him out in the evenings for “rehearsals.”


A young John Hammond, already ubiquitous on the New York jazz scene.



After graduation and a summer job as a journalist in Portland, Hammond attended Yale. However he soon quit: “I fervently wanted to enter the record business.” (p. 59) That didn’t take long. He had already befriended a lot of New York musicians and made many contacts. Just before his 21st birthday, he found a good New York pianist, Garland Wilson, and signed a deal for him to record four 78rpm sides. Soon Hammond became a well-known figure in the New York music world; he knew all the leading jazz musicians. When still 21 he organized a band for a society party at Mt. Kisco. It included Fats Waller, Benny Carter, Frankie Newton, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Artie Bernstein.


As well as writing jazz criticism and disc-jockeying a radio show, Hammond also worked as an impresario. He was a partner in a venture to show “Negro variety and stage bands.” The venture opened with the famous Fletcher Henderson band that included Coleman Hawkins, Red Allen and Rex Stewart. The next year he brought the Henderson band into the Columbia studios to record for their English label.  He also got contracts to record with Benny Carter, Joe Venuti and Benny Goodman. 


Breakthrough Year

In 1933 Hammond developed a close relationship with Goodman. His interpersonal skills were needed to deal with this difficult man. When he told Goodman that he had a contract to record him, Goodman called him a liar. After dealing with that insult, Hammond then had to tell Goodman, while maintaining goodwill, that his band wasn’t nearly good enough to record. Eventually in October, Hammond finally recorded his first two sessions with Goodman.


Billie Holiday was his next venture. He had first heard her in Monette Moore’s speakeasy: “She struck me with an impact rivaled only by Bessie Smith.” (Billie Holiday: The Golden Years, sleeve notes) Of course, he wanted to record her. After he had introduced Goodman to her singing, a perfect scenario arose: “Goodman wanted to record using Billie Holiday. Columbia wanted to record Benny Goodman. My chance had come at last to put her on records.” (p. 119) Thus on November 27, 1933, with John Hammond producing, Billie Holiday recorded for the first time with the Benny Goodman orchestra: “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.”


1933 was a hectic year. As well as the Fletcher Henderson band, Hammond recorded the orchestras of Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman and Chick Webb. He also finally managed to record Bessie Smith. Hammond had had his eyes on Bessie since first hearing her as a 19-year-old in 1927. He finally managed to persuade Columbia to record her on the Okeh label. In 1933 she was working as a hostess in Philadelphia. He persuaded her to record for free, paying only expenses and assembled a fine supporting group for her, including Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry and Sid Catlett. Dan Morgenstern was one of many critics to acknowledge this recording of Bessie Smith as one of Hammond’s greatest contributions to jazz: “And [I] thank John Hammond, who made possible Bessie’s last session, for also making possible this monument to her artistry, which, on the evidence of such an auspicious beginning, will stand as a model for creative, intelligent revitalization of the jazz legacy.” (Dan Morgenstern, Living with Jazz, p. 409)


Hammond’s activity during 1933 attracted a lot of attention and he was offered a job by Irving Mills, whom Hammond has called a “song plugger” (p. 124) Mills wanted him to record as much music as possible from the material he was publishing. This arrangement enabled Hammond much more access to recording studios.


Hammond’s next big names were Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo. He recorded seminal material with both of them, Bailey accompanied often by Benny Goodman and Norvo emerging from the Paul Whiteman band to become the first major vibraphonist in jazz.


Goodman and Basie


John Hammond (2nd left) with Earl Hines (4th left), Count Basie (2nd right) and Benny Goodman (1st right)


 At this time, Benny Goodman, was trying to form a big band, and Hammond offered to help. He found two musicians who would become crucial members of the famed Goodman band: Gene Krupa and Jess Stacy. Hammond had to travel to Chicago to persuade Krupa to join Goodman. Later, Hammond was in Chicago again for a recording when he discovered pianist Jess Stacy Throughout 1934 Hammond continued to record the Goodman band, making “Some of the records I am most proud of.” (p. 145)


In 1936 Hammond first heard Count Basie’s Kansas City band on the radio. He soon began writing about the nine-piece band and made a trip to Kansas City to hear them. The band, with such musicians as Jo Jones, Lips Page, Buster Smith and of course Lester Young, impressed him. Hammond returned to New York and managed to talk Brunswick records into getting Basie under contract, only to find he had signed with Decca. Basie didn’t stay long there and soon moved to Columbia to work with Hammond. 


By this time Hammond had been working with Teddy Wilson for two years. He had heard Wilson on a radio program deputizing for Earl Hines and had immediately seen his potential, sending Benny Goodman to Chicago to enlist him. Hammond felt a kinship with this academically trained pianist, and later wrote that he regarded him as “perhaps the first man I met in jazz whom I thought I could really help.” (p. 116) Between 1935 and 1938 Wilson recorded with Hammond 35 times. Many of these sessions became classic recordings, especially his eleven sessions with Billie Holiday and his 13 Sessions with the Benny Goodman Quartet. A superb accompanist to singers, Wilson also did two sessions for Hammond with Mildred Bailey and one with a young Ella Fitzgerald. 


Carnegie Hall Concerts

Hammond wasn’t involved in Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, but he did help by recruiting some leading musicians to augment the line-up: “I…participated only to the extent of helping Benny to get musicians from the Basie and Ellington bands to complete the cast.” These additions were crucial to the great success of the first jazz concert in the prestigious Carnegie Hall.


But Hammond did however organize the next two big non-classical Carnegie Hall concerts, From Spirituals to Swing. His initial aim was to bring together three “fabulous boogie-woogie pianists” (p. 164): Meade Lux, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. The concert expanded and was a huge success, thanks to the incredible line-up that Hammond assembled: Big Joe Turner, Rosetta Tharpe, Sidney Bechet, the Kansas City Six, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes and the Count Basie Band. Hammond organized a second From Spirituals to Swing concert a year later. It’s interesting to note that Alfred Lion, after attending the first of these concerts, was inspired to found his own record label—Blue Note Records. He later said, in reference to this concert, “John Hammond is really responsible for my getting started--without him even knowing it.” (Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression, p. 42)


Peak of Success

At the end of the 1930s, with the Goodman and Basie bands constantly topping the charts for Columbia Records, Hammond was riding high: “Nothing I had accomplished in jazz meant more than the success of these two bands.” (p. 192) Columbia Records, under new ownership, offered him a job as associate director of popular music. In that role he managed to bring the enormously popular Goodman back into the Columbia fold from Victor. 


In March of 1939, Hammond made yet another great discovery—with a little help from Mary Lou Williams. She told him about a young guitar player down in Oklahoma. Soon Hammond was there to listen to Charlie Christian. “I knew immediately that Charlie Christian belonged in the Goodman small group.” (p. 224). A lot of Hammond’s persistence was needed to achieve that. Goodman’s first reaction was “Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player?” (p. 224) Undeterred, Hammond brought Christian to a Goodman recording session in New York. At the end of the session Hammond managed to persuade him to listen to the guitarist. Goodman wouldn’t give him time to set up his amplifier and merely listened to a few chords before leaving unimpressed. Hammond still didn’t give up. He went to the restaurant where the Goodman quintet was playing that evening and set up Christian’s amplifier during the interval. When Goodman returned he had no option but to let Christian play. The group played “Rose Room.” Christian lifted the musicians to the extent that they played the number for 45 minutes. Goodman was sold; Hammond’s determination was rewarded again as Christian went on to play with Goodman the rest of his short life.


Word War Two

While Europe was at war, Hammond was extremely busy recording for Columbia. His main focus was still on two bands, Benny Goodman’s and Count Basie’s. From August 1939 to July 1942, he recorded Goodman 39 times and Basie 20 times (pp. 413-5) This run of recordings, many of which were more commercial than he was used to, was finally stopped by Hammond’s call-up papers. Once in the army he managed to organize a couple of Billy Eckstine concerts at Camp Rucker, where he was stationed. Then as a private he was sent to New York to make a jazz-related film for the Office of War Information. But most of his war was spent away from the music scene in the Ozarks and at Fort Benning.


On returning to his family, Hammond experienced a breakdown and spent months in analysis. On returning to the jazz world, he found that much had changed in three years. He found the Swing scene had all but disappeared: “Many of the Swing bands had disappeared. Even Benny Goodman no longer had a band. Instead bebop was ascendant. For Hammond the shift in jazz was  “a wrong turning.” (p. 326) Except for one session with Tristano, he never recorded bop musicians: “Bop lacked the swing I believe essential to great jazz playing, lacked the humor and free-flowing invention of the best jazz creators. In their place it offered a new self-consciousness, an excessive emphasis on harmonic and rhythmic revolt, a concentration on technique at the expense of musical emotion.” (p. 326)


He returned to his job at Columbia with the hope of avoiding the more commercial aspect of recording so that he could record authentic jazz and classical music. But he was soon resigned from Columbia Records who were upset after he had accepted a position on the board of Keynote Records.


Hammond then began a long association with Vanguard Records, first recording classical music and then recording a lot of jazz that ignored the bebop movement: Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing and Ellis Larkins. He continued working with musicians from the Swing decade of the thirties until the 1960, when Columbia Records hired him yet again.


Columbia Records

It was a smart move by Columbia. Hammond’s first five acquisitions were Ray Bryant, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, Carolyn Hester and Bob Dylan. That were was only one jazz  musician in this stellar quintet indicates further Hammond’s lack of interest in post-bop jazz. He did however record such jazz artists as Illinois Jacquet, Herb Ellis, Denny Zeitlin, Don Ellis, John Handy and Bill Watrous. His recordings of Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan did well, but didn’t really take off. Perhaps at 52 he was losing his drive. It took a younger man at Columbia, Clive Davis, to jump-start their careers.


Yet another major contribution to jazz by Hammond was the series of reissues he supervised in his later years with Columbia. These consolidated the historical significance of major jazz musicians from James P Johnson and Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson. Another seminal reissue was the four-LP Thesaurus of Classic Jazz, which collected jazz from the 1920s.


Hammond gradually slowed down during the 1960s, going from 9 sessions in 1961 and 19 in 1963 to 6 in 1968 and 5 in 1969. His very last recording, when he was 65, was with Helen Humes, Ellis Larkins and George Benson.



That year a celebration of his great career was organized and recorded for PBS television. It was a three-our show entitled The World of John Hammond. No one was invited for this celebratory concert; all attendees had to volunteer to make the trip to Chicago. Among the many musicians who chose to attend were Benny Carter, Benny Goodman,  Jo Jones, Teddy Wilson, Red Norvo, Benny Morton, Bob Dylan, Sonny Terry, George Benson,  Helen Humes, Milt Hinton and Red Norvo.


Hammond’s huge contribution to jazz spread over so many areas. His lifelong work on racial integration in jazz is of major importance, as is his fight against discrimination towards blacks and Jews. However the focus here is the production of jazz recordings, and perhaps the best way to judge a jazz-record producer is by the number of recordings that now have historical value.  The discography in his autobiography On Record does indicate which of Hammond’s approximately 342 recordings he himself regards as “historically significant.” I don’t think many would disagree with his assessment. These recordings were made by the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and Count Basie; by singers Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey and Billie Holiday; and by Red Norvo and Teddy Wilson.



Integral to Hammond’s success as jazz-record producer was his total involvement in the jazz scene, especially in the 1930s. Not only did he frequent the New York nightclubs but he also travelled regularly to other jazz centers, especially when he heard of new talent. Buck Clayton called him “the greatest talent scout in the history of jazz.”  (Buck Clayton’s Jazz World, p. 215) As a critic Hammond also had a strong influence on the jazz world; his articles in many magazines including Down Beat earned him respect from musicians. This respect facilitated his dealings with musicians when he wanted to record them. 


Overall Hammond was the perfect jazz-record producer. He had a wonderful ear for good jazz and had the skills to bring the makers of good jazz to the recording studio. He was able to get along with almost everyone—his smile has been mentioned often by contemporaries—and he worked determinedly to achieve his goals. Gunther Schuller, for example, notes Hammond’s “indefatigable efforts on behalf of [Teddy] Wilson.” (p. 507)


Nevertheless, Hammond was not universally appreciated. Barry Ulanov, in his book on Duke Ellington, made this judgment: “His articulation of his feeling about jazz musicians was always provocative, generally musicianly, but sometimes based on personal feeling so strong that musical reasoning seemed to give way before emotional impression and political conviction.” (Duke Ellington, p. 102) A few musicians like Mary Lou Williams found him invasive. According to her biographer, “she didn’t appreciate his interference, though well-intentioned it might be, in the music.” (Linda Dahl, Morning Glory, p. 112)


John Hammond will long be remembered for his achievements as a record-producer. In his autobiography he has described the problematic environment of the recording studio: “Musicians perform in a closed universe, under observation from a glass wall, their sound being heard, with amplification, by the producers and engineers. Communication is by microphone through huge speakers. The atmosphere is Orwellian.” Hammond  then continues with the tasks faced by a record producer: “To put musicians at their ease, to coax them to play better than the ever have before (or sometimes just better than the last time), to push them to produce their best within the several hours allotted for the session all are parts of the job. The producer must detect every mistake, stop and start the performance, ask for innumerable takes until he thinks he has what he wants, all without upsetting egos and often at ungodly hours of the day or night when the musicians are in no mood to play well.” (pp. 377-8)


All unattributed quotations are from John Hammond on Record: An Autobiography. Penguin Book, 1977.


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