REVIEW By Willard Manus
jazz and rock fans will know the name of John Hammond, who was responsible
for discovering (and recording) such stars as Teddy Wilson, Aretha Franklin,
Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among
Hammond published an autobiography in 1977, John Hammond on Record, but it barely touched on the controversial things about his life; e.g., his battles with Franklin, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, whom he accused of being "indifferent to the abuses being heaped upon his race and his original social class." Hammond also didn't 'fess up to his many conflicts of interest, such as reviewing in Downbeat and Melody Maker the work of artists he was recording at the time.
Now Picador has published a biography, THE PRODUCER--JOHN HAMMOND AND THE SOUL OF AMERICAN MUSIC, by Dunstan Prial, which gives a more complete portrait of the man one critic called "an odd duck who could invest emotion in music that he couldn't find for intimate relationships." Some of that can be explained away by his upper-class WASP background and "preppy" image--crew-cut, tweed jackets and toothy grin--but Prial mostly attributes Hammond's flawed personal life to the fact that "he could be extremely selfish and stubborn at times, characteristics that frequently led him to put his causes and career ahead of his family."
Hammond also wielded an acid tongue as a reviewer--in 1957 he tore into the Count Basie band, saying "it stunk"--but he is most remembered for his courageous battles against racism and segregation and for his warm, generous friendships with jazz, folk and gospel musicians. As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said at his funeral, "What one remembers most about him is his sense of expectation. Every day was a new adventure for him. He began each morning with anticipatory delight...He experienced his share of grief and tragedy, but his capacity for wonder and hope and possibility remained... He communicated this divine expectancy to all who knew him and he was therefore a life-saver and a life-giver."