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John Hammond - Part 1 (Alberta Hunter)

One day in the late Sixties, when I was working on Bessie Smith reissues and writing her biography, Alberta Hunter and I decided to meet for lunch in Midtown Manhattan. I suggested hooking up at Columbia Records' Studio B, where she could say hello to John Hammond, who was there to make an audition tape of Ruby Walker (pictured at right) and pianist Dill Jones. John had promised Ruby that he would groom her to replace Bessie Smith, but that was in 1938, when Ruby took her place at the "From Spirituals to Swing" concert. Now, over 30 years later, John finally made a move to fulfill his promise. Nothing came out of it and I have no idea what might have happened to the audition tape, but the years have long since claimed both of them, as well as Alberta and Dill.

On the day in question, Alberta was a nurse at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, with no intention of returning to music, so this meeting was not a subtle attempt to resurrect a career, but rather an opportunity to affect a reunion. The working jazz community being a relatively intimate one, I took it for granted that Alberta and John had at least crossed paths at some point. She began singing in Chicago clubs before WWI, became a main attraction at the famous Dreamland, and initiated a long recording career on the Paramount label. A long-time admirer, I first met Alberta in 1961, when she graciously agreed to break her absence from the music business and participate in a couple of my recording sessions for the Prestige and Riverside labels. John had not been on the jazz scene quite as long as Alberta, but he had been hitting Harlem clubs and theaters since the Twenties and he supervised the first of many memorable recording sessions in 1931. Given all that, it was reasonable to assume that their paths had crossed—I expected a little reunion, of sorts.
Front row: Willie "The Lion" Smith, Victoria Spivey, J. C. Higginbotham, Alberta Hunter, Jimmy Rushing, Lucille Hegamin and Zutty Singleton. Back row: Gene Brooks, Sidney DeParis, Henry Goodwin, Buster Bailey and Cecil Scott. Picture taken by Don Schlitten, August 16, 1961 outside of Rudy Van Gelder's studio during the making of "Songs We TaughtYour Mother" (Prestige).
Ruby and Dill were between selections when Alberta walked into the control room, dressed in her comfortable, not-so-stylish woolen overcoat and knitted hat. She carried in each hand a well-worn shopping bag—in fact there were two or three, one inside the other. This was typical of Alberta Hunter, a woman unaffected by the fame and attention she once had enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic. She felt blessed, in a secular sort of way, and was secure enough to not at all mind if people took her for a "bag lady," which they often did.

John had his back to us when I called his attention to Alberta's presence. "Look who is here," I said, expecting him to be delighted, but he gave neither a sign of delight nor recognition when he turned around to face Alberta. "John," I said, thinking that they might not have seen each other in many years, "this is Alberta Hunter."

"Oh, glad to meet you." John said, stretching out his hand and flashing his stock smile. Then he rudely turned his attention back to the engineer. Stepping out of the spotlight can take you over the threshold to the has-been zone.

I guess it was a couple of years later that John and I were among the speakers at Pastor Gensel's memorial service for Alberta. By the time of her death, the hospital had retired her and she had made her remarkable comeback, singing from Rio and Berlin to the White House and nightly capacity crowds in the Village. John no longer ignored Alberta, In fact, he recorded her for Columbia and spoke as if she had been among his many talent discoveries. What wonderful fables he spun. When Pastor Gensel called to request "a few words" from me at the service, I declined the invitation, mainly because I have never been comfortable speaking in public, but then I started thinking about it and picturing how it would go—it would be a charade, and Alberta deserved better. So, I called the Rev back and asked be the last speaker.

It went as I had predicted. There were sincere sentiments expressed and stories told by people who had genuinely valued Alberta's friendship, but there was also a lot of showbiz posturing and downright fantasy. Barney Josephson (pictured at right with Alberta) whose Greenwich Village club, The Cookery, was kept alive by Alberta's drawing power wanted us to understand that he had never stopped believing in her talent, which was why he gave her a chance. That, of course was a lot of bull, for Barney volunteered to act as her manager, which put him in a position to turn down offers that would have taken Alberta elsewhere. It worked for awhile, but I started receiving calls from bookers who smelled a rat. It was not easy for me to convince Alberta that her old friend, the lovable Barney Josephson, was using her, but she eventually caught on. Then there was John who—as I knew he would—gushed all over the microphone as he  spoke in glowing terms of Alberta's artistry and importance. If one didn't know better—which could be said of the attendees—one was easily left with the impression that John was sending to her great reward a close friend of very long standing. My presence was now fully justified.

Church or no church, the devil made me do it. Following the self congratulatory, delusional speeches of John and his old friend, Barney, I took the podium, noting as I did so, that Alberta was most likely hovering somewhere above us, carefully listening to all the good words, and perceptively separating the wheat from the tare. That produced subtle snickering from the audience, which continued and became more pronounced when I observed that Alberta had turned The Cookery into a goldmine for Barney—they all knew that was true. Then pausing briefly to let the devil come closer, I addressed John directly. "John," I said somewhat snidely, "do you recall that day in Studio B, just a couple of years ago, when I introduced you to Alberta? I was surprised that you two hadn't met."

The audience got the message and when it was all over, Jon Hendriks placed his arm over my shoulder and thanked me. Pastor Gensel shook my hand and chimed in, "It needed to be said," he whispered. Lurking around, somewhere in the background, was Alberta's accompanist, Gerald Cook, and I bet he was relieved that my remarks hadn't included him. More about that some other time.

As I recount the events of that day, I am reminded of something Hank O'Neal told me that happened several years later, when a memorial service for John Hammond was held at the very same place, St. Peter's on Lexington Avenue. The attendees were filing out into the street after sitting through an endless recitation of John's actual accomplishments and a lifetime of spins. John's last secretary caught up with Hank and walked by his side. "They bought the story," he heard her say, almost under her breath. So did many, including PBS:

I had bought the story, too, back in the postwar years when I was a teenager in Copenhagen and suffered the joys of being severely bitten by the jazz bug. I read everything pertaining to jazz that I could get my hands on and John Hammond's name kept popping up. He was the "discoverer," a man with an extraordinary ear for talent, and he was responsible for some of the finest jazz known to man. In fact, black musicians had been known to refer to John as "the great white father." I had read this somewhere and in 1957, when I came to the U.S. as an immigrant, I was thoroughly convinced that here was a man who had done more for jazz and black performers than any other white man.

When I continue this recollection, you will see how I met John Hammond and how the Hammond myth unraveled for me as I got to know him better. That said, you will also see that most, if not all, of the stories that made him bigger than life—stories that he himself either sowed or fertilized—were unnecessary. The truth is that John had no need to exaggerate his own accomplishments—there was enough real stuff to secure him the place he sought to occupy. That remains an enigma to me. If John had done nothing more than put together the legendary 1937 "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, he would have earned a permanent place in the history of American music. But John did so much more, and his love for the music—albeit Wyntonian in scope—was genuine.

Stay tuned.


  1. Chris, I think you have missed out a name for the picture outside Rudy's.

    Could you check?


  2. Sure have, thanks.

    The missing person is Buster Bailey, standing right behind Jimmy Rushing.

  3. Chris,

    I truly appreciate these great memories you share. It seems once reading your post I am always moved to know more about the individuals you speak of. I can truly give google a work out... just so you know I always do my homework after your "Class in Music History".

    In the years I have been happily getting sucked into the Music, stories, & individual participants of the past... John Hammond had been one of many that I have come across in my studies that seemed to created a sense of importance about themselves, often leaving the gifted people whom brought them into the limelight in the background.

    Its never too late to correct the History books and shine the light on the often overlooked talent of the past.

  4. Thank you for the flattering comments, David. Your last line is something I truly agree with.

  5. To be honest Chris, as a young boy from Iran, with no access to everything related to jazz, and just from hearsay and myths, I had the same impression of Hammond, he was my idol. Now, again like you in 50 years ago, as an Émigré, I see how history is undependable in every imaginable aspect.

  6. Sad to say, that is often the case, Ehsan, but truth will out, and there are also times when we see things clearer and find that they are actually more appealing than we were led to believe. :)