Louis Proyect <lnp3@...
2005-10-01 14:13:57 GMT
For background on an article on jazz and the left, I am reading John
Hammonds memoir On Record that was written in 1977. Hammond, a scion of
the Vanderbilt family who was born in 1910 and died in 1987, was a Columbia
Records executive with sympathies for the left who discovered Billie
Holiday, Bob Dylan and many other major talents of the 20th century. He
wrote for the Nation Magazine in the 1930s and was on the board of the
NAACP for decades. He was sympathetic to the CPUSA, butaccording to the
memoirnever a member. In fact he made sure that when the New Masses (the
CP journal) sponsored the legendary Spirituals to Swing Carnegie Hall
concerts in 1938-1939, he made sure that the concert would not look like it
had any connections to the party. He also apparently was alienated by some
typical moves of the party, like turning on a dime around certain Stalin
initiatives like the peace treaty with Hitler, etc.
While the book is replete with fascinating information about the cultural
scene of the 1930s, the main thing that comes across is Hammonds
insensitive personality. To start with, On Record consistently refers to
Black people as Negroes. This is 1977 we are talking about, not 1957.
This is obviously connected to a certain paternalism that Hammond expressed
from an early age. His hatred of racism, while commendable, was always bred
from a certain kind of do-goodism found in wealthy white circles. This
often leads to some really striking wrong notes that are odds with his
finely honed musical tastes. For example, in explaining how the Spirituals
to Swing concert was conceived, he says that he wanted to present the
entire gamut of Negro music from the sophisticated arrangements of Count
Basie to the most primitive blues singers. If I ever had the opportunity
to speak with John Hammond after reading this, I would have tried to
explain that there was nothing primitive about the blues. As somebody who
was bent on including Robert Johnson in the Carnegie Hall concert (the
musician had been murdered a few months earlier) and who introduced
Johnsons recordings to the young Bob Dylan, he probably knew this. It was
just a poor choice of words and reflected a certain class bias.
More alarming, however, was Hammonds decision to allow class loyalties to
get in the way of his relationship with Billie Holiday:
I couldn't wait to bring Billie Holiday to Cafe Society. It was the
perfect place for her to sing to a new audience with the kind of jazz
players who brought out her best. Unfortunately, her appearances were not
the success they could have been, and they proved to be the end of my
association with Billies career. She was heavily involved with narcotics,
and she had hired as her manager a woman from a distinguished family I knew
well. I was concerned that she and her family might be hurt by unsavory
gossip, or even blackmailed by the gangsters and dope pushers Billie knew.
It was one of the few times in my life when I felt compelled to interfere
in a personal relationship which was none of my business. I told the
manager's family what I knew and what I feared. Soon afterward the manager
and Billie broke up, and Billie never worked at Cafe Society again. I think
she never forgave me for what she suspected was my part in the breakup, but
the woman who managed her is still my friend and I think she realizes now
the complications which could have arisen.
The idea of sacrificing Holidays career at the altar of a distinguished
family stinks, to put it mildly. One supposes that this was the Vanderbilt
in him at work. Oddly enough, his mother and father looked benignly on his
civil rights activism, but neither they nor he could ever descend from
their Olympian heights to actually become part of the social milieu that
they were championing.
If one visits East 91st street in Manhattan, the street where I live
actually, you can see visible evidence of how the Hammond family lived. On
9 East 91st Street, you will find the Russian Embassy. That building was
where John Hammond was born. It has a formal ballroom that can seat 250
people! In 1935, Hammond held a concert party where Benny Goodman played
Mozart with a string quartet. You can get an idea of the size of this joint
and how the invited Black musicians might have felt from this anecdote
whose bitter irony I suspect Hammond did not fully appreciate:
After the concert the audience was invited to a reception on the fifth
floor. The front elevator of the house held only half a dozen passengers; I
rode up with Fletcher [Henderson], Benny [Goodman], and three other guests.
Benny, relieved to have the performance over, appointed Fletcher the
elevator operator, a common occupation for Negroes in New York department
stores in those days. As Fletcher opened the elevator doors at each floor,
Goodman would announce, Fourth floor, men's and boy's clothes. Fifth
floor, women's ready-to-wear.
As students of jazz history probably know, Henderson was Goodmans arranger
and responsible for the distinctive sound that propelled Goodman into
stardom. But Henderson himself felt cheated. He felt that racism interfered
with his ability to fully exploit his talents. Indeed, the classic
anthology of Henderson recordings is titled Studies in Frustration,
produced by John Hammond himself.
Some of Hammonds memoir is unintentionally funny. For example, heres how
he describes the family move from East 91st Street in 1949. Mother and
father had sold the 91st Street house and moved into a modest, sixteen-room
apartment which occupied an entire floor of 778 Park Avenue. Mother had
never lived in an apartment, but she managed. This reminds me of the
famous but apocryphal exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest
Hemingway. Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me. Hemingway:
Yes, they have more money.