on the musical map—not to mention Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha—and a host of others. Beyond his crew cut, his toothy grin and his Ivy League wardrobe, John Hammond was committed to social reform long before it was a pastime for music industry professionals to latch on to good causes.
Born into Manhattan’s Upper East Side aristocracy, Hammond was the great-grandson of shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. When he dropped out of Yale in 1932, John decided that he would do something with his personal wealth to make a difference. Jazz became his great cause. Through it, he believed he could help right the wrongs of a deeply segregated society.
In the early 1930s, Hammond charted a course in music that he would follow for the next 55 years. He funded recording sessions out of his own pocket, handed over cash for train and plane tickets, and was rarely, if ever, paid back. Musicians felt their music was “safe” with John Hammond.
Hammond’s huge appetite for jazz led him to a basement club in Harlem where he discovered the seventeen-year-old Billie Holiday. And it took him on a fifteen-hour ‘detour,’ hopping from town to town in a small plane on his way to the West Coast. His destination was Oklahoma City, where he found guitar wizard Charlie Christian
John Hammond was more than a “hot talent spotter” and savvy promoter. He also had the ability to bring musicians together in collaborations that resulted in some of the most acclaimed recordings in jazz history. He said he wanted to “see what musical sparks he could ignite.” In July 1935, he organized a landmark recording session in jazz, with Teddy Wilson
on clarinet—for the first recording by The Benny Goodman Trio.
Within days of this session, John Hammond brought Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman together in the studio for the first time in what has been called one of the most “inspired pairings in jazz history.”
Prowling the late-night airwaves—tuning in distant radio signals with his custom-made, high-powered car radio, John Hammond heard a faint signal from Kansas City that caught his attention. It was the Count Basie
Orchestra, swinging out at the Reno Club, in a live transmission. Hammond personally brought the Basie band to the East Coast and national attention.
In 1938, John Hammond crowned the first decade of his career by assembling a once-in-a-lifetime cast of black jazz, blues and gospel artists under one roof—Carnegie Hall. It was his historic Spirituals to Swing concert. Billed as the “Music Nobody Knows,” the concert offered performances by bluesman Big Bill Broonzy