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John Hammond - Part 2 (Meeting the "Great White Father")

This continues my recollections and observations of John Hammond. If you wish to read it from the beginning, click here for Part I. It ends with a link that brings you back here.

As I noted in the previous piece, many of John Hammond's accomplishments were genuine and important enough to earn him the place he occupies in jazz history, which is why I found it so puzzling that he was making things up. John apparently felt a need to embellish his public persona beyond the high regard in which it was already held. In so doing, he sometimes detracted from the work of others, but what I find most troubling is that—often in subtle ways—the "Great White Father" did not live up to his reputation as a colorblind rich guy. The more I think about it, the more I am inclined to believe that John's seeming touch of racism was perhaps more elitism. It is not uncommon for young people of wealthy parentage to cross to the other side of the tracks as an act of rebellion. Privileged kids blew up town houses during the Vietnam era, newspaper heiress Patti Hearst parked her teacup and became "Tania," a Symbionese Liberation Army moll. John grew up in a different era, on in which it took far less to shock a "proper" family. So, he neither joined a Hell's Kitchen gang nor ran off to fight a poor man's war or atone for his country's colonialism. He befriended his family's black servants and watched with fascination as they danced to jazz records. He genuinely fell in love with the music, which is not difficult to understand, and while he pleased his parents by taking up the violin and fiddling some Mozart or Brahms with a string quartet, his ears really perked up north of Central Park. John Hammond loved black music and John Hammond contributed mightily to it, but—as I said, his real accomplishments were not enough for John. It was as if another reality needed to be compensated for: the reality of a Vanderbilt mother and a childhood spent in an Upper East Side mansion with sixteen servants, a ballroom, and a squash court.

I first met John in 1959, when I was a disc jockey at WHAT-FM, a 24/7 Philadelphia jazz station. While my colleagues played only the latest "sounds," My daily program ran the gamut from Ma Rainey and Keppard to Coltrane and the emerging Ornette. On Sundays I actually played 78 rpm discs—not vinyl reissues, the real thing, surface noise and all.  I had just played a Lonnie Johnson side when I wondered aloud what might have happened to him. That brought a call from a parking lot attendant who said he had recently seen Lonnie in a local supermarket. The caller himself was no less legendary, Elmer Snowden, the man whose pianist was a young Duke Ellington. I felt I'd hit the jackpot and when I mentioned on the air that Elmer had seen Lonnie in Philadelphia, a listener called with a tip. He worked at the Benjamin Franklin, a Center City hotel where there was a janitor named Lonnie Johnson. Could it be that this pivotal jazz figure, a man who had inspired Charlie Christian and recorded with Ellington and Armstrong in the 1920s, held a menial hotel job? The caller was not sure, but he had noticed that Mr. Johnson was very protective of his hands, so he just might be a guitarist. A stretch, perhaps, but worth looking into. I went to the Benjamin Franklin and, sure enough.

Sometimes, ignorance makes one take steps that wisdom would advise against. The result can be disastrous, but it ain't necessarily so. Ignorance stood me in good stead when I took my tape recorder to London in 1953 and returned to Copenhagen with two Scotch Tape reels of Humphrey Lyttleton. That launched my radio career. Now ignorance made me pick up the phone and make two New York calls to men I had never met, but whose very names commanded respect in the jazz world, Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, and the legendary "Great White Father," John Hammond. I boldly asked them if they would come to my apartment the following Saturday and listen to Lonnie Johnson and Elmer Snowden. I think my friends were more amazed than I was when both men accepted the invitation.

That's Lonnie on my right, John and Elmer on my left. Photo taken in my Chester Ave. apartment, Philadelphia, 1959. Orrin Keepnews had not yet arrived.

With my tape recorder running, John and Orrin listened to Lonnie and Elmer's first musical meeting. They seemed to like what they heard, but the recording offers I had hoped to hear were not made. A few days later, I took the tapes to Bob Weinstock's office in Bergenfield, NJ, and that led to several Prestige sessions.

In October of the following year, I had really had my fill of my boss, Dolly Banks, and the racist atmosphere at WHAT, so I quit. Nat Hentoff, whom I had yet to meet, recommended me to Bill Grauer for a job at Riverside Records, so I moved to New York. Now I was working for Orrin and getting to know the Big Apple bigwigs. John and I struck up a friendship when our paths continually intersected, and as I enjoyed six degrees of separation from vital moments and people in jazz history, I always looked forward to hearing John recount his experiences. He was delightful company and our taste in music was similar, although my horizon was somewhat broader. Bessie Smith having been the artist whose voice first attracted me to jazz, I felt privileged to be with a man who had produced one of her memorable sessions. The thought of writing a book about Bessie—or anything else, for that matter—never occurred to me, but I strongly felt that Columbia, owning all the material, ought to reissue her entire output. John concurred and promised to bring such a project up at the next a&r meeting. I don't know if he did, but there followed about two years during which I nagged him with reminders and he assured me that he was working on it. Finally, just as I had all but given up on the idea, John called to inform me that Clive Davis and Goddard Lieberson had given their approval. That was great news to me, but it became even sweeter when John told me that, upon his insistence, I would be the reissue producer.

I was assigned an engineer, Larry Hiller, and given the authority to book an editing room. Even though it would amount to ten LPs, John made sure that I was given as much time for the project as I needed. That was unusual and John deserves much credit for getting that through. Larry and I did take our time, we worked from 6 PM to 1 AM five days a week, only leaving the Bessie project to squeeze in the occasional unrelated album, such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Christian sets, as well as a 2-LP compendium I named Stars of the Apollo.

As usual, John had no hand in the actual production, but he paid us a few visits to listen to Bessie and some of the Goodman sides with Christian. His first wife, he told us, had thrown away most of his record collection, and it had been years since her heard some of these sides, even ones he had produced.

Rex Stewart
We had separate visits from Janis Joplin and Laura Nyro, who smoked purple joints and sometimes dropped by to listen to Bessie during breaks from her upstairs sessions. Larry and I got used to visitors, but it could be disruptive. When Jimmy Rushing came by one evening during the early stages of the project, he asked me, out of the blue, what I thought of John Hammond. I told him that I had admired John since I first began reading about him, back in Copenhagen, but what did Jimmy think? After all, he had known John since the early Basie days.

 The big man just looked at me and almost mumbled, "Yeah, he's a nice guy," but not convincingly. I was prepared to hear great stories, but he took it no further.

I had sensed a similar lack of enthusiasm from other musicians, but not given it much thought. Then I had lunch with Rex Stewart, who regaled me with memorable recollections of his time with Elmer Snowden, including how Elmer threatened to fire him if he did not accept an offer to join Fletcher Henderson's band. I told Rex that Columbia was working on a Henderson reissue and remarked that it probably would include sides on which he played. "Who's doing it, Hammond?," Rex asked. "'Cause if he's involved, I won't be on the album. John and I don't get along."

I asked why that was. "John likes to play the boss man when it comes to niggers," Rex said, using that very word. "If you're black and don't kowtow to him, he won't have anything to do with you. As a matter of fact, he'll even try to keep you from getting work." Rex wasn't just pulling my leg, he seemed angry. I was astonished.

After lunch, I stopped by John's office. Frank Driggs was there to show John a proposed album cover. "I just had lunch with Rex Stewart," I said, "I guess some of his Henderson sides will be included."

"As few as possible," John snapped. Rex had obviously not been exaggerating.

This ends Part II of my John Hammond de-mythification series. If you haven't read the first installment, this will take you there. Part III can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, as always, Chris! You've tantalized us before with Lonnie Johnson bits. I'd love to get an entire post (or more) devoted to your relationship with him (do you still have the tapes of the Johnson-Snowden jam session; would make a nice companion to the "Blues and Ballads" discs!). Just reading that brief story about discovering Johnson gave me the chills before I left work today. Needless to say, I spent my entire commute listening to Johnson's Prestige recordings...great stuff.

    Keep up the indispensable work!

    Ricky Riccardi