John Hammond, Jazz Promoter

For forty years, producer and critic John Hammond left an indelible mark on American music. Like his contemporary Norman Granz, he saw jazz, and music generally, as an instrument of racial justice, a political tool. Jazz critic Ferguson captures Hammond's autocratic and self-righteous manner in this lively piece.

 

 

Drop into almost any night club, uptown, downtown, or across, any recording date or broadcast or audition or rehearsal, and if you stick around long enough, you are almost sure to see John Henry Hammond, Jr., in the flesh, if briefly. You can tell him by the crew haircut, which bobs approximately in time to the music, and also by a habit of standing with his legs crossed, and also by the fresh copies of various trade, intellectual, and left-wing papers under his arm. Or just find the youngish chap with the crew haircut who is in the most earnest conversation with whoever is running whatever show it is, and that will be John. Go forward to meet him and his head juts forward at you, slightly lowered as if to charge, but belying any seeming truculence by the open heartiness of his greeting. He is either spilling over with enthusiasm (Isn't it swell?) or only partly concealing his disgust (It's a crime, it stinks).

 

He is a little better than average height, under thirty, dark complexion, no fat, soberly dressed, hatless and coatless. Fairly voluble, socially at ease but with none of this greaseball heel-clicking. His enthusiasms, for or against, are gusty. He slaps his knee, he clasps his head in his hands, he strides out of places or sits with his head too far back and claps too heavily. In theaters he groans, snorts, slaps his knee again, explains to a movie critic the difference between a camera and Sergei Eisenstein (great director; stayed with him in Russia, you know), or holds a newspaper up high enough to read it in the dim light with pointed absorption. His laugh is somewhat like Joe Penner's and often a trial to the nerves, especially when used to stress a point not very funny. He is right and right with bells on; but if you happen to have the habit of stepping up and being right, too, he can take it.

 

John Henry Hammond (Junior) is known to practically everyone who ever mounted a bandstand, or plugged a song, or got on the free list for records and wrote articles using such phrases as gutbucket and out of this world and dig that stomp-box. He is known as the Critic, the Little Father, the Guardian Angel, and the Big Bringdown, of dance music. But the point is, he is known.

 

There are reasons for this, as there are reasons for everything. John has developed an inclusive set of interests which keep him abreast of developments in all of the arts and in the class struggle, here and abroad (Oh yes, he has money to go abroad, and introductions to the head guys there, and money to take them out to dinner). But his biggest kick has always been the dance music of this country: in the field of "race," or jazz, or swing, he has acquired a breadth of scholarship which is more astonishing than that of the Shakespeare student in that most of it is firsthand. That is his interest and the major part of his life.

 

With the exception of all but an absurdly limited few, people just can't afford to make their hobby coincide with their means of livelihood. John Hammond is different. He has no job - or say he has twenty in the course of a year, some of them existing mainly in his anticipation, some going into an actual matter of weeks. Probably his longest continuous job was as second-string music critic on the Brooklyn Eagle, but there of course he was working practically for marbles and didn't have to be around the office. Every place he goes he presently spies the taint of commercialism in art or the sordid hand of capitalism clutching workers. He burns. He speaks out. And then he is out. From Irving Mills to English Parlophone to the Esty advertising people to Columbia records - the circumstances may vary but the pattern is the same. Partly he gets bored with the outfit, partly the outfit gets bored with John, but mostly he smells some kind of smell and won't compromise about it. There is a keynote in that for keynote hunters: John won't compromise on anything because he never learned to and he never learned to because he never had to.

 

He has an income, John has. He was born in the kind of family and educated at the kind of school and given the kind of accomplishments, accent (slightly Hahvud), and clothes that mean the future is assured and just cushy. He didn't choose to be an expensive lawyer like his father, or anything else respectable and gilt-edged that his Westchester family might have wanted. But he got an amount settled on him. He lives very modestly on Sullivan Street below Washington Square, but his telephone-answering service costs more than the majority of our population pays for rent. He keeps a car and turns it in so fast you barely have time to put a cigarette burn on the upholstery. I never saw any holes in his shoes. I've seen him settle for a slew of top-heavy checks in those spots about town that I can make say once a month and still not wash the dishes. He is three or five hundred in this band or that show, but I think the tip-off is that John is the kind of guy who just goes out and buys the magazines instead of waiting for somebody else to get through with them.

 

That is the financial setup, velvet over a box-spring mattress. But if you think it is a soft life, you're crazy - it could be soft, but then it wouldn't be John Hammond. You can say of whatever he does that he doesn't have to do it, but there's where you stop. Not having to be in any one place, he is in all places; not having to do one thing a day, he does a hundred. I've tailed him for just one day and I estimate that five days in a row would drop anyone's arches. And I remember still the horrible fascination with which we watched John bounce in one morning this spring, the rest of us were doing pretty badly trying to get our eyes open with a lot of coffee, having had them shut all night. John apologized for not getting in until the fourth cup. Had some things to do in town this morning; had some things to do in Memphis yesterday; didn't get in till late; awfully sorry. Well, he'd driven up from Memphis, solo, nonstop, because it seemed there was some little thing he wanted to ask Benny before Benny left for Atlantic City, and presumably before John got started on the day proper. At that difficult low-tide time of the morning, honestly, couldn't you loathe a guy like that?

 

The one day I was talking about, John was doing a little talent-scouting at the U. of P., and would I want to drop down? So we dropped down to Philadelphia, having, as I recall, a little breakfast coffee on the way, and then waited around hours for the stuffy little nance who had the university glee club, and then did a penny arcade in the colored section. Then we did a show where Pigmeat Mason was playing, and then we did another show somewhere else where Fats Waller was playing and stood around backstage afterward, and somewhere along the line John had bought him all the Philly papers, to find out the state of social wrong and Negro entertainment. Then we drove back to New York for dinner, which we had at a joint where John was interested in fixing up the bass player for a job with Fats Waller, only the bass player was out and there was some talking about that, and also a floor show, and then wouldn't we now go over and play a few records, which we did, and some people came in to horse-trade for rare copies, and it came twelve o'clock and John thought we'd drive uptown and horsetrade at the other fellow's place, and all I had left was enough to stay on my feet and say firmly that they could drop me at my home on the way up, thank you very much. I had only been conditioned to bear up under a routine of doing ship's work from five to five and standing four hours' watch six nights out of eight, but was probably going soft into the bargain. Anyway, I was no match for John.

 

John spends practically a third of his life in his car, a good driver, fast but cautious and never letting go. He drives until he is sleepy and then takes off his shoes. With his feet cold he can't go to sleep, and he keeps on driving. He changes cars but not the car radio, which he has going full blast every minute that there is any station within range putting anything on the air. He favors that preselective trick shift where you have a button under the wheel. He suffers slow and dangerous road-fools with seasoned patience. He can go anywhere but east out of New York for hundreds of miles without looking at road signs. Chicago and Kansas City he takes off for in the same way you would propose going up to the Savoy because there is a good band in. All of which feats I regard with awe, and some with envy.

 

Even while he is in town, he is running up a lot of mileage. There's a picture here, a recording there, a band in some Jamaica hideout, a music publisher or magazine office where something is to be wangled, there's an opening, a closing, an audition, a conference, a rehearsal, a chap to see or fix or help or tell off, a class-conscious flea-circus. Stay away from public places and you won't know he's alive for days. Then there's a phone call: A swell guy has just done a swell article on etc., know anyone interested? There's a terrific music critic who wants to get fixed up to etc. There's a magnificent film on etc. made by etc. and will you etc.? Then in the music business there are even more angles: this arranger, that recording, these working conditions, those royalties; and there is this song, that guitar player, whosie's band and can you etc. Night and Day.

 

But all the time he is being known to everyone, everyone is asking what's behind it all, where does he get off, where did he get on? John Hammond has none of the vices by which men are accustomed to knowing their fellows. He eats food when he's hungry or when he's in a place where that's the thing to do, but he doesn't really lick his chops and wallow in the thought of some barbecue ribs at a rare joint uptown somewhere. If he is in a night spot where that sort of thing is expected, he will be prevailed on to have from one to three brandies, and I have even seen him drink beer; but you wouldn't suspect him of ever knocking the top off a bottle in his haste to be at what was inside. He smokes mainly out of courtesy, his fingers aren't yellow. As for girls, he never seems to be cluttered up with them unless they are music critics, in which case it doesn't count. And you somehow just don't get palsy with a fellow (especially in the fast life of the music business) if the best you can do with him is split a stick of gum.

 

But mainly what makes him a figure of mystery to working musicians is his insistence on the intellectual purity of the thing (to intellectuals, on the other hand, he becomes inscrutable by virtue of talking like a jitterbug). He'll rush up to a well-meaning bird who never heard of the War against Fascism in his life and cut him clear to the floor because the bird went to see Schmeling fight. He'll quote John Strachey to someone who learned how to write so he could sign checks. He'll urge a demonstration for Loyalist Spain on trumpet men who think that is just another tango job.

 

As a working critic, John Hammond suffers mainly from a complete lack of temperance and caution. He hasn't established for himself the intervening marks on the scale of achievement between "it's terrific" and "it stinks." (Even when you say "It's quite fair," you can of course put an accent on that will demolish it anyway.) Consequently he gets himself out on a limb when some young and hitherto undiscovered genius develops presently into a turkey; and he gets other people out on limbs when he prints the signal, for all jitteroos to see, identifying this or that one as a stalk of corn that ought to be hoed under.

 

As Dean of the Swing Critics, accustomed to deference and not having his word disputed, he has developed a habit of knowing the answers and what's more giving them to you - it doesn't matter whether you asked. For a while he had a trick in writing of referring to himself in the third person, like royalty and God. Not I thought, or We thought, but Hammond thought. Hammond, he would say, is pained. His friends laughed: So, they said, are we.

 

In most ways people don't find these traits hard to take, because John has a genuine feeling for good music, a generosity that includes going down the line for the other fellow (and a pile of cases could be cited for this), a quick ear for new talent no matter what it's hiding under. However, when he gets onto the horse of one of his many prejudices, the I-John-Hammond complex takes him clear off out of sight hell for leather.

 

He is all for the working class. Fine. He's dedicated to the cause of the Negro. Fine. But he is too apt to shut his ear to the music of someone who didn't pay off on a date or said nuts to the lettuce pickers, and call it criticism. And when he goes around saying "white musician" the way you'd use the term "greaseball," he not only confuses his readers and upsets his own standards but starts the Jim Crow car all over again, in reverse. Some will tell you that you're not doing much to eliminate a color line by drawing it all over the place yourself, and certainly something ought to be done among those of Mother Hammond's Chickens who have been led into believing that criticism consists in saying: Which is better, black or white? and raising all that hell. Some who practice in other fields will tell you something else: Critics, as Bessie Smith might have said it, critics ought to learn how to take their time.

 

Every now and then someone is combing around through the bars looking for Hammond to punch him on the nose. Why? For one thing, there's no tradition of criticism for the boys to get used to, and they take a poor report card as an insult to their mother. But mainly - and, monkey-see-monkey-do, it has a depressing national effect - it's the way John will come belting down like God off a mountain with the Word, the one and only. He never seemed to pick up from his reading that there are so many tastes, in all things, that no one can be sure his is the only one, and must accordingly proceed with caution. Indeed there are more ways of comparing two things than saying one stinks, and the less comparing a critic does the better, anyway. And when he does say he doesn't like a thing, he's got to make the grounds for divorce very clear; and if he only dislikes it a little, he's got to mind his words, for they are going out in public where they'll do a lot of damage. And they're going to have a boomerang kick, too, because the guy who's stomped on is going to turn critic himself a little - it was an education, while Hammond's brood of critics were digesting Hammond on Krupa, to hear Krupa on Hammond.

 

And the good lord knows that when John's got a new favorite, the N.F. can be off the beat and off the chord half the night and you'll still see that crew haircut bobbing along and it's still aces, every inch. I could curl your hair with the kind of language you'll hear on this subject, and I don't mean among second-rate musicians. In addition, of course, there are some mild and funny variations on known themes-- "How can you sit there and call yourself a swing musician, you never washed no cars," "It may swing for you, but wait till you read about Count Basie," "Why, you no-good motheree, you just ain't integrated," etc. And the phrase "Uh-oh, the Bringdown's here" is as familiar in some quarters as "Soup's on," with different effect.

 

John Hammond has got behind a lot of good men and helped put them over, and in more cases than you can count he has thrown his weight on the brake handle when they got skidding. The famous funny skit where John kept saying "I personally was in the studio at the time" was right both ways, because John always is in the studio (personally) and doesn't omit the fact from mention. He's had the money, energy, and leisure to do more work on Count Basie's orchestra than the Count himself, and he was carrying the banner for Henderson and Goodman in the rocky days when not very many others were (that's just to mention three out of dozens). And that certainly is the best work a critic can do; it should be an ideal. In the same way, he's talked himself out of one thing after another hitting at abuses through the music industry at large - and that's even better. His play has been more work than most people get done, and if he's the most important name in his field, it isn't by chance or position.

 

But this leads up to the big BUT. He has his ideas and his fancy steps and he won't take telling. He must rush off and write about it. It isn't that as a technician he's so bad a writer as he boasts: he simply won't even try to work like a critic, and his idea of giving a musician a hint is to hit him in the face with a shovel. The revenge is cruel but at least in kind (for his caprice and thoughtlessness have pushed down just as many men as he's helped up). He has as many enemies as friends, and what the enemies say is (among various things of course unprintable) "What are you telling me, John Hammond said this or that? You know a thing? That guy really doesn't like music, I mean he doesn't get knocked out that way." And that's a statement just as sweeping, just as true-and-false, as the ones he has pinned up for everybody to read.

 

Somewhere a long way back, probably - somewhere it wasn't done because he had the inside rail and the silver spoon and the velvet cushion - John Hammond should have been taken in hand and his ears beaten down a little, and he should have been made to write out five thousand times over, for his own eventual good, the sentence: CRITICS OUGHT TO LEARN HOW TO TAKE THEIR TIME.

 

 

Society Rag, September 1938

reprinted in: The Otis Ferguson Reader. Dorothy Chamberlain and Robert Wilson (eds.) Dato, IL: December Press, 1982