John H. Hammond

born on 15/12/1910 in New York City, NY, United States

died on 10/7/1987

John H. Hammond

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
John Hammond
Born John Henry Hammond II
New York City
Died July 10 1987 (aged 76)
Nationality American
Alma mater Yale University
Occupation music producer
Known for Columbia Records
Spouse(s) Esme Sarnoff
Parents John Henry Hammond
Emily Vanderbilt Sloane
Relatives William Henry Vanderbilt (great grandfather)

John Henry Hammond II (December 15, 1910 July 10, 1987) was an American record producer, Civil Rights activist and music critic from the 1930s to the early 1980s. In his service as a talent scout, Hammond became one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music.

Hammond was instrumental in sparking or furthering numerous musical careers, including those of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Babatunde Olatunji, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Freddie Green, Leonard Cohen, Arthur Russell, Asha Puthli and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He is also largely responsible for the revival of delta blues artist Robert Johnson's music.

Early years and family

Hammond was christened John Henry Hammond, Jr., although both his father and grandfather shared the same name. He was the youngest child and only son of John Henry Hammond. His father attended Yale University, graduating with a law degree from Columbia Law School. His grandfather was Civil War General John Henry Hammond, who married Sophia Vernon Wolfe. His father was a brother of Ogden H. Hammond, ambassador to Spain, and uncle to politician Millicent Fenwick. Despite the family fortune from his mother's side of the family, his father worked to provide for his family and maintain the family fortune. He worked in various jobs "as a banker, lawyer, and railroad executive".[1]

Hammond's mother was the former Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, one of three daughters of William Douglas Sloane and Emily Thorn Vanderbilt. John H. Hammond, Sr. and Emily Sloane were wed on April 5, 1899. They also had four daughters: Emily, Adele, Rachel, and Alice, who married musician Benny Goodman in 1942.

Born in New York to great wealth as the great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt, Hammond showed interest in music from an early age. At age four he began studying the piano, only to switch to the violin at age eight. He was steered toward classical music by his mother, but was more interested in the music sung and played by the servants, many of whom were black. He was known to go down to his basement to listen to the upbeat music in the servant's quarters. He loved Sir Harry Lauder's "Roamin' in the Gloamin'". While he was in the basement, the rest of his family in the greater part of the five-story mansion would listen to "the great opera tenor Enrico Caruso, as well as to standard classics by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart".[1]

Hammond became interested in social reform at a young age. His mother had a large interest in social reform as a means to give back some of her fortune to the community. She often found solace in Religion. Hammond shared her desire to help the community with his privilege.[1]

Ironically, Hammond notes that the first jazz music that he was exposed to was in London on a trip with his family around 1922. He heard a band called The Georgians, a Caucasian improvisational jazz group, and saw a Negro show called "From Dixie to Broadway", that featured Sidney Bechet. This trip changed the way that he saw music. Upon his return to the states, he searched for records by Negro musicians but could not find them in the greater Manhattan area. He learned the Negro musicians had to sell within different stores, so he began to search for this music in Harlem.[2]

In 1923, Hammond graduated from St. Bernard's School at the age of 14. He persuaded his family to allow him to attend Hotchkiss School due to its liberal curriculum. Hammond's love for music flourished. However, he felt limited within the confines of a boarding school. Hammond even succeeded in convincing the headmaster to allow him to go into the city every other weekend, a rare privilege, so that he could take lessons from Ronald Murat. However, the headmaster was not aware that outside of his formal lessons, he would sneak off to Harlem to hear the jazz music. During this time, he states that he heard the music of Bessie Smith at the The Harlem Alhambra, although this claim has been disputed by Smith's biographer.[1]

In the fall of 1929, Hammond entered Yale University as a member of the class of 1933, where he studied the violin and, later, viola. He felt a disconnect with his fellow students at Yale and saw himself as a man already well acquainted with the professional world. He made frequent trips into New York and wrote regularly for trade magazines. In the fall semester of 1930, Hammond had to withdraw due to a re-occurring case of jaundice. Hammond had no desire to a repeat a semester, which contributed to his dissatisfaction with the University lifestyle. Much to the disappointment of his father, a Yale alum, in 1931, he dropped out of school, for a career in the music industry, first becoming the U.S. correspondent for Melody Maker.[1]


In 1931, he funded the recording of pianist Garland Wilson, marking the beginning of a long string of artistic successes as record producer. He moved to Greenwich Village, where he claimed to have engaged in bohemian life and worked for an integrated music world. He set up one of the first regular live jazz programs, and wrote regularly about the racial divide. As he wrote in his memoirs,[3] "I heard no color line in the music.... To bring recognition to the negro's supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of." This pre-occupation with social issues was to continue, and in 1941 he was one of the founders of the Council on African Affairs. Hammond was given to exaggeration when speaking of his own achievements, but he had much to be acclaimed for.

In 1932, Hammond acquired a nonpaying job on the WEVD radio station as a disc jockey. Hammond did not discriminate when choosing which musicians to air; in fact, the station allowed Hammond complete freedom on the station as long as he paid for his time slot. Through this position, Hammond gained a reputation as a well-educated jazz fan. Various musicians were guests on his show, including, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, and Art Tatum. When the station transferred from the Broadway Central Hotel to the Claridge Hotel, the new venue would not allow the black musicians to use the main elevator. For this reason, Hammond quit his work with WEVD.[1]

By 1932-1933, through his involvement in the UK music paper Melody Maker, Hammond arranged for the faltering US Columbia label to provide recordings for the UK Columbia label, mostly using the specially created Columbia W-265000 matrix series. Hammond recorded Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Joe Venuti, and other jazz performers during a time when the economy was bad enough that many of them would not have had the opportunity to enter a studio and play real jazz (a handful of these in this special series were issued in the US).

In 1934, Hammond is known to have introduced Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson. It is said that Hammond convinced the musicians to 'swing' the current jazz hits, so that they could play in a free manner like the original New Orleans Jazz.[4]

Hammond always strived for racial integration within the musical scene. For this purpose, he frequently visited musicians in Harlem as to connect with musicians in their own area. While initially his race proved a problem in connecting with this community, he formed relationships with various musicians that allowed him to surpass this barrier. His friendship with Benny Carter gave him a status in this area that allowed him to enter this musical community.[1]

He played a role in organizing Benny Goodman's band, and in persuading him to hire black musicians such as Charlie Christian, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. In 1933 he heard the seventeen-year-old Billie Holiday perform in Harlem and arranged for her recording debut, on a Benny Goodman session. Four years later, he heard the Count Basie orchestra broadcasting from Kansas City and brought it to New York, where it began to receive national attention.[5]

In 1938, he organized the first From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, presenting a broad program of blues, jazz and gospel artists, including Ida Cox, Big Joe Turner, Albert Ammons, Meade "Lux" Lewis, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Count Basie orchestra, Sidney Bechet, Sonny Terry, James P. Johnson, and Big Bill Broonzy (who took the place of the murdered Robert Johnson). He coordinated a second From Spirituals to Swing concert in 1939.[6]

After serving in the military during World War II, Hammond felt unmoved by the bebop jazz scene of the mid-1940s. Rejoining Columbia Records in the late 1950s, he signed Pete Seeger and Babatunde Olatunji to the label, and discovered Aretha Franklin,[7] then an eighteen-year-old gospel singer. In 1961, he heard folk singer Bob Dylan playing harmonica on a session for Carolyn Hester and signed him to Columbia and kept him on the label despite the protests of executives, who referred to Dylan as "Hammond's folly".[8] He produced Dylan's early recordings, "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall".

Hammond oversaw the highly influential posthumous reissues of Robert Johnson's recorded work (produced by Frank Driggs), convincing Columbia Records to issue the album King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961.[9] Musicians Hammond signed to the label included Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen.[10]

Hammond retired from Columbia in 1975, but continued to scout for talent. In 1983, he brought guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan to Columbia and was credited as executive producer on his debut album.

Personal Accounts

Hammond believed jazz music to have originated as an African-American musical genre. For this reason, he generally preferred African-American musicians to Caucasian musicians. Hammond even writes that whites, such as the members of the Original Dixieland Jass Band, stole this musical form from Negro musicians when they released the first jazz records.[2]

When Hammond entered the jazz community, integration had not yet begun. Black and white musicians rarely played together and often the prestigious locations only permitted white audiences. Hammond remembers that before the 1920s, black musicians could always find jobs, even if they were low paying. After the instatement of Local 802, a union of professional musicians within New York City, Hammond saw more whites receiving jobs than blacks. However, this did not stop the African-American musicians. Through burlesque and record making, these musicians continued to be a presence.[2]

1933 was a defining year for Hammond. He remembers this year being extraordinary due to his establishment of relationships with British record companies. Hammond was able to secure contracts for various musicians. He was an attractive producer to these companies because he did not desire a profit for himself. In 1933, he helped Benny Goodman receive a record deal with Columbia Records, which at the time was only known as English Columbia. During this time, Goodman was in need of a big break, as he had been receiving a reputation as being difficult to work with. Hammond proposed that Goodman produce a multiracial record; however, Goodman believed this route would hurt his musical reputation.[1]

Furthermore, in this year, he broke out of the traditional role of a producer and became a talent scout, after hearing Billie Holiday. He remarks that he was astounded to discover that she was the daughter of Clarence Holiday from Fletcher Henderson's band. That same year, he was able to get her involved in the Benny Goodman Orchestra.[2] Hammond attributes fate to his finding of Holiday. After hearing her sing for the first time, he wrote, "She weighs over 200 pounds, is incredibly beautiful, and sings as well as anybody I have ever heard."[1]

Later in 1933, he heard Teddy Wilson, a jazz pianist, on the Chicago radio. While he did not discover him, he was able to provide significant opportunities for him, even some collaboration with Billie Holiday.[2]

Hammond's work with civil rights came from multiple angles. In 1933, he traveled South to attend a trial regarding the Scottsboro case, a case in which two white girls accused nine black boys of raping them. The testimonies of the two girls did not align with the story. While the all nine boys were convicted, Hammond viewed this trial as a "catalyst for black activism".[1]

Record integration became an important component of jazz music. Starting in 1935, musicians began to record in mixed-race groups. While some of this integration had already taken place, Hammond remembers it as being hidden. However, in 1935, the Goodman Trio began recording. In 1936, the group appeared in a live concert at the Chicago Hot Jazz Society. Hammond fondly remembers this as an innovative moment in jazz history.[2]

FBI Investigation

J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, investigated Hammond's link to the Communist Party. Due to the various benefits and fund-raisers that Hammond hosted for the popular front, his name was often listed in The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper. Furthermore, his name often appeared on the letterheads of left-wing organizations for which he was a donor or member. However, Hammond was not a communist.[1]

Personal Life

John had four sisters: Alice, Rachel, Adele, and Emily.

Early in his career, Hammond focused more on his work than his love life. While he was seen publicly with various women, the relationships were never substantial. However, in 1940 at a Manhattan party, Hammond met Jemison "Jemy" McBride. On March 8th, 1941, Hammond married Jemy in New Haven, Connecticut. The couple had a small, non-denominational wedding with only about ten guests. Although both sets of parents approved of the couple, neither set attended the wedding.[1]

In 1942, Hammond took his wife on a road trip to Los Angeles. Shortly after this trip, Jemy realized that she was pregnant. In November of 1942, Jemy gave birth to their first son, John P. Hammond.[1]

On March 21, 1942, Hammond's sister, Alice married Benny Goodman. She had previously been married to George Duckworth. Hammond did not look kindly upon this marriage. Hammond and Goodman had a falling out, some of which has been attributed to their differing backgrounds.[1]

In November of 1943, Hammond began military training. He underwent his basic training at Fort Belvoir. Hammond was much older than the majority of the other men, and he had a rough time adjusting to the military life. While he was still in basic training, Jemy gave birth to their second child, Douglas, early in 1944. Douglas came down with a serious illness. While Jemy sent Hammond a telegram to alert him of his newborn's condition, Hammond stated that he never received it. Jemy speculated that Hammond was in a concert and disregarded the letter; however, that claim has been proven unlikely due to Hammond's strict schedule in basic training. Douglas died shortly after birth from his illness, and Jemy had to undergo the family tragedy without her husband. Hammond returned after basic training on a three-day pass, but he and his wife were distant.[1]

After basic training, Hammond reported to Camp Plauche, where he was placed to organize activities for the black soldiers. During this time period, African American soldiers were given little to do within the military. There was still a large amount of racism in the military at this time. Hammond began his efforts by organizing concerts for the soldiers featuring African American musicians. Hammond noted that shortly after this these concerts began, an integrated sports team formed. Toward the end of World War II, Hammond was transferred to Fort Benning, known for its intense racism. Hammond was not the only jazz affiliate irritated with racism. During this time period, bebop music grew out of late night jam sessions of black musicians. Hammond was not much a part of the bebop movement, but he shared the sentiment against racism.[1]

In 1946, Hammond was discharged from the military. His family moved Greenwich Village, where Jemy gave birth to their third son, Jason. Hammond threw himself back into his work, which greatly upset his wife. In 1948, Jemy asked Hammond for a divorce. While he was originally reluctant, Hammond agreed to the divorce. Jemy never remarried.[1]

Just a year later, in 1949, Hammond met Esme Sarnoff, originally Esme O'Brien, the former wife of NBC chairman Robert W. Sarnoff and a daughter of Mary and Esmond O'Brien. Esme shared Hammond's musical passion and was planning to divorce her husband. That year, Hammond married Esme Sarnoff. By this marriage Hammond had one stepdaughter, (Esme) Rosita Sarnoff (born 1943). During this time, Hammond's father passed away on a golf course. Left a widow, Emily Hammond became infatuated with Frank Buchman.[1]

In 1985, Hammond had his first stroke. Although this impaired him physically, his wife's death truly affected his mentality. Esme Hammond was diagnosed with breast cancer. While treatments worked for sometime, she died May 19, 1986[11] of complications of AIDS, which had been contracted from a blood transfusion. Hammond died on July 10th, 1987 after a series of strokes. It is said that he died listening to the music of Billie Holiday.[1]


John's Idea, originally titled "I May Be Wrong It's John's Idea", is a tribute to John Hammond written by Count Basie.[12]

Hammond received a Grammy Trustees Award for being credited with co-producing a Bessie Smith reissue in 1971, and in 1986 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hammond's son, John P. Hammond, became an American Blues musician.

Hammond was one of the original men to racially integrate the music industry. Before the Civil Rights Act passed, Tom Wilson, an African American, replaced Hammond as Bob Dylan's record producer. There was no uproar in regards to this replacement.[1]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 Dunstan Prial (2006) The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-11304-1
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 John Hammond, "An Experience in Jazz History", in Dominique-René de Lerma, ed., Black Music in Our Culture: Curricular Ideas on the Subjects, Materials, and Problems (Kent State University Press, 1970), pp. 4253.
  3. John Hammond On Record: An Autobiography, ISBN 0-671-40003-7
  4. "Swing". The Subject Is Jazz. WNBC. New York, New York, 1958. Television.
  5. John McDonough (December 15,2010). John Hammond: The Ear Of An Oracle. NPR. Retrieved on 2010-12-16.
  6. Berger, Edward. "Hammond, John (Henry, Jr.)". The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Web.
  7. Show 31 - Ballad in Plain D: An introduction to the Bob Dylan era. [Part 1] : UNT Digital Library
  9. Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years, 1st, London: Reed International Books Ltd. CN 5585.
  10. "Esme Hammond, 66, A Prominent Socialite"; The New York Times (May 22, 1986); Retrieved October 16, 2011. [1]

External links


  • Berger, Edward. "Hammond, John (Henry, Jr.)". The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Web.
  • Dunstan Prial (2006) The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-11304-1
  • John Hammond, "An Experience in Jazz History", in Dominique-René de Lerma, ed., Black Music in Our Culture: Curricular Ideas on the Subjects, Materials, and Problems (Kent State University Press, 1970), pp. 42-53.
  • John Hammond with Irving Townsend (1977) John Hammond On Record: An Autobiography, Ridge Press - Summit Books, ISBN 0-671-40003-7
  • "Swing". The Subject Is Jazz. WNBC. New York, New York, 1958. Television.
This page was last modified 13.03.2013 03:17:37

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