John Hammond’s ‘From Spirituals to Swing’
Most of his biographers mention that he found some very talented performers and brought them to the attention of wide and appreciative audiences. Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are just some that get named as being amongst his ‘discoveries’. That he was a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, therefore heir to part of the Vanderbilt fortune, and a tireless fighter for the rights of African Americans are also items his biographers are quick to bring to their readers’ attention. That he was a record producer, a Yale drop-out, that one of his sisters married Benny Goodman, ‘The King of Swing’, having been first married to an English Conservative Member of Parliament, that he was born in 1910 in a house near New York’s Central Park that had sixteen servants and its own ballroom are other items that might find their way into the biographical mix.
Deeper research might reveal that his first and life-directing experiences of jazz were not in his native city, but during a trip to London with his parents in the early 1920s, where he heard both Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy’s brother, playing with a group in a Lyon’s Corner House, and the New Orleans powerhouse, Sidney Bechet, playing in a West End theatre. Yet, what some biographers of John Hammond fail to mention is that in the late 1930s, when the Swing Era was in full flow and Swing was seen as something new, Hammond was committed to showing that Swing had roots, particularly African American roots, and he was determined to bring jazz history and jazz’s diversity to what he called “a musically sophisticated audience”. And you would be hard pressed to find an audience more musically sophisticated than at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Following the success of Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert in January 1938 when, to borrow from the music press of the time, swing invaded “the sanctum of the long-hairs”, John Hammond decided that the same venue would suit his purposes. But the cost of putting together the cast he had in mind, meant that he needed sponsorship. (I take it his family were not interested in helping its errant offspring’s wild venture.) The NAACP, The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, might have seemed an obvious sponsor, but, as Hammond wrote later, “Jazz and, particularly, primitive black music were not too familiar to the middle-class leaders of the NAACP to be anything they could take pride in.” Eventually Eric Bernay, business manager for New Masses, a weekly writers’ and arts publication financed by the Communist Party of America, agreed to sponsor Hammond’s dream. The concert would be called ‘From Spirituals to Swing’, it would be held on Friday, 23rd December, 1938, and it would be dedicated to Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, who had died one year earlier. All of the performers would be African Americans or, to use the term that was employed in those days, Negroes. Hammond’s wish that the Carnegie evening was not to be used for propaganda purposes seems to have been well respected, though inside the cover of the concert’s programme is an appeal that reflects the stance of New Masses in those troubled times: it is for donations to help ease the suffering of nearly four million children “in Loyalist Spain” who are “the victims of Fascist aggression”.
According to the programme for the December evening, the first section of the concert would be devoted to Spirituals and Holy Roller Hymns. Having heard great reports about a vocal group in Kinston, North Carolina, Hammond went to check it out. The Mitchell Christian Singers were a vocal quartet that took its name from one of its original singers, William Mitchell, but he was no longer a member of the group. Hammond visited Kinston and, as he would later write, found the quartet “in a backwoods shack with no running water and no electricity” and was sure that no white person had ever set foot in their house. Having heard the quartet Hammond insisted “there could not be a concert without the Mitchell Christian Singers.” Twenty-three year-old Sister Rosetta, who had spent most of her life singing and playing guitar in churches, was also recruited for the Spirituals section. Later and better known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she would cross over into blues and jazz and be viewed as ‘the original soul sister’ and ‘the godmother of rock and roll’.
In the Blues section of the concert Hammond wanted to feature Blind Boy Fuller, but it turned out that Fuller was in jail for trying to shoot his wife. (“Blind Boy had managed by standing in the centre of a room, rotating slowly, and firing intermittently – fortunately missing” was how Hammond described the failed attempt.) Luckily, while trying to track down Fuller, Hammond came across a blind harmonica player and vocalist with his own unique talents, Sonny Terry, who later in life would form an immensely popular duo with Brownie McGhee. Blues singer Robert Johnson, whose recordings would have such an influence on rock and blues performers in the 1960s, was also wanted for the Blues section, but as Hammond noted in the concert’s programme, Johnson died at just about the time he heard “that he was booked to appear at Carnegie Hall on December 23. He was in his middle twenties and nobody seems to know what caused his death.”
Other singers recruited for their blues contributions included Ruby Smith, often thought to be related to Bessie Smith, Big Joe Turner, who dispensed with a microphone and still filled every nook and cranny of the Carnegie auditorium, and Big Bill Broonzy, rightly described as “one of the most important figures in the history of recorded blues.” To this impressive trio were added two vocalists from the Count Basie Orchestra, Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes. Clearly Hammond had covered many bases of the blues with outstanding performers.
Even more impressive were the pianists assembled for the Boogie-Woogie section of the concert. They were the three kings or the three masters of Boogie-Woogie: Albert Ammons, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis and Pete Johnson. James P. Johnson, often seen as the father of Harlem stride and a revered composer, was also amongst the piano stars Hammond assembled.
The legendary Sidney Bechet on soprano sax and clarinet and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, who, as recent research has shown was born not far from what is often viewed as jazz’s birthplace, were part of a front line for the concert’s Early New Orleans section.
For Swing there was Count Basie and His Orchestra. At that time Basie had outstanding soloists everywhere you looked: Buck Clayton and Harry Eddison frequently vied for solo space amongst the trumpeters; trombonists Dickie Wells, Dan Minor and Benny Morton all had their individual contributions to make; and in the reed section Herschel Evans and the revolutionary Lester Young were probably the best pair of tenor saxophonists that any band ever had. If the band’s horn players were outstanding, its rhythm section was simply off the scale. Later to be publicised as the All American Rhythm Section, Jo Jones, drums, Freddie Green, rhythm guitar, and Walter Page, bass, along with Count Basie, piano, could provide everything from a gently swinging cushion to fearsome propulsion. No band in the Swing Era had a rhythm section to match Bill Basie’s. To add to the excitement, for part of its performance the Basie orchestra would be accompanying a trumpet star who had played with the band in its Kansas City days, Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page.
The concert for December 1938 was sold out and three-hundred of the integrated audience had to be seated on stage. A photograph of the event shows Walter Page and Jo Jones flanked by members of the audience, as if they are waiting to take over from the Basie sidemen. The same photograph shows that most of the women, as in church services at the time, are in hats. Despite reports of chaos backstage, the music flowed for three and a half hours ending with the Basie band in full flow.
Hammond organized a second From Spirituals to Swing Concert on 24th December, 1939, and arranged for both concerts to be recorded. In the 1930s recording involved using acetate discs and in the 1950s the original recordings were transferred from the acetates to tape. In 1959 Vanguard issued a two LP set of the concerts and a double CD set followed in 1987, but later research discovered more material and in 1999 a 3 CD boxed set was issued (1). However, these recordings have to be treated with a certain degree of caution; noble though his intentions as a concert promoter might have been, Hammond was not above a bit of fakery when it came to ‘recordings’ from his famous promotions. Interspersed amongst the original tracks from the 1938 concert are several recordings made in a studio in June 1938 featuring Basie-led small groups complete with added applause. Also included on the LPs and CDs are some spoken introductions from Hammond that seem to come from the Carnegie Hall evenings. But these were actually recorded in the 1950s, with Hammond’s voice raised a tone or two by Vanguard’s engineer to make him sound younger, and seamlessly added. To his credit, though a little belatedly, in an interview in 1971 Hammond came clean about some 1938 studio recordings being made to sound like concert performances and about the late addition of his spoken contributions.
Nevertheless, the genuine recordings from the 1938 concert are mightily impressive, with only the Bechet-Ladnier group appearing overawed by the occasion as they rush through their numbers. The contribution by Mitchell’s Christian Singers makes one realise why Hammond saw them as essential to the evening. Later, when two grand pianos and an upright were pushed on stage, the audience must have wondered what it was about to receive. Ammons, Lewis and Pete Johnson soon let them know. ‘Cavalcade of Boogie’ which features the three pianists plus Walter Page and Jo Jones would make any audience rock, even a long-haired one. The original recordings of Basie from December 1938 show a band at its peak. On ‘Swinging the Blues’ the section work is precise perfection and soloists Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans and Harry Eddison respond accordingly. When ‘Lips’ Page takes his solo spot, the Basie sidemen riff their mighty encouragement behind him’ and on the frantic ‘Every Tub’ the band simply takes off., and, in the words of one commentator, Basie’s musicians left “the audience gasping at the spectacle of powerful talent let loose.”
The review of the 1938 concert that appeared in New Masses in January 1939 detailed not only the evening’s achievements, but spoke of the oppressive and much darker times on which the concert’s music shed light and over which it triumphed:
It is difficult enough to draw an attendance of three thousand, to achieve exciting and
commendatory comment from the daily and weekly press, to hold an audience spell-
bound – all of which the concert did; but to top this it gave a lesson in the history of
American music; to use a dread word, it educated. It marked the close alliance
between the music made in the everyday life of the Negro and the music which has
come to be called swing ; it maintained an authenticity which served as a crushing
indictment of commercial jazz with all its attendant chicanery and lack of sincerity;
and finally, it proved that an instinctive love of music will break through the thickest
fog of oppression, and with lightning speed and irrefutable argument, record that
If John Hammond’s 1938 concert had achieved half of this, it would have been a resounding success. And it most certainly was.
I am grateful to Steve Marshall, from Marshall McGurk, Crosby, Maryport, Cumbria, and Sam Gregory, Dawkes’ woodwind specialist.
(1) Vanguard, ‘From Spirituals to Swing’, 3 CD Set, 169/71-2, originally issued in 1999.
Some sources used
John Hammond with Irving Townsend, John Hammond on Record (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1977).
Bo Lindstrom and Dan Vernhettes, Traveling Blues: The Life and Music of Tommy Ladnier (Jazz Edit, Paris, 2009).
Robert Walser, Ed., Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999).
Vanguard, ‘From Spirituals to Swing’, 3 CD Set, 169/71-2, 1999.John Hammond’s ‘From Spirituals to Swing’
…and finally ‘Lotus Blossom’
I travelled with a young saxophonist who had never seen the great man before. The journey was uneventful and we arrived on time at Preston railway station. Then we made our way to Preston’s Guild Hall for the second concert of the evening. In a foyer we came across a large crowd of people facing closed doors that led into the auditorium. The doors were manned by a number of ushers and security staff. Word quickly spread that the start of the first of the evening’s concerts had been delayed and that the first concert would end in about thirty or forty minutes. As a result, the second house would be starting late. The ushers and security staff, more than willing to try to explain what had caused the delay, went through the foyer chatting to groups and answering our questions.
As part of his British tour in November 1973, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra had played in Dublin on Thursday 29th November and the next day had flown to Liverpool in plenty of time for their two evening concerts in Preston. Unfortunately, one of the ushers told us, the musicians and their instruments had somehow got separated. One of the rumours in the foyer was that at the time the musicians were flying eastwards, the plane carrying their instruments was on its way to America. Eventually the band and instruments were reunited at Preston’s Guild Hall, though by now they were unable to start the first concert on time. Rather than cancel a performance, Ellington decided to start the first concert late and play straight through, without an intermission. The second concert would then start late and again there would be no intermission. But, the ushers were keen to stress, Ellington would be playing two full concerts; nothing would be cut.
Next day Preston’s local paper, The Lancashire Evening Post, told a different, but more complex story. The band, as arranged, had flown from Dublin to Liverpool, which I took to be Liverpool’s Speke Airport, later to be named the John Lennon Airport. However, “because of payload restrictions” the band’s instruments “had to go on a different plane” and this plane was going, not to Liverpool, but to Manchester, “where”, the Post informed us, “a truck was waiting to bring them (the instruments) to Preston. But this plane could not get into Manchester for fog and was diverted to land at Liverpool.” The truck that had been waiting at Manchester’s Ringway Airport then set off for Liverpool only to be “involved in an accident” which prevented it continuing with its journey.
Meanwhile back at the Guild Hall, “entertainments manager Vin Sumner and his staff managed to hire a van and, even harder in the early evening, to find a driver to speed to Liverpool and pick up the instruments. They finally reached Preston an hour after the first house was due to begin.” Nevertheless, despite the delay, “fans of both houses got their full quota of Ellington’s music.”
I had not been terribly optimistic about the concert for some time and the delayed starts on that Friday evening in Preston did nothing to change my mood. A little over a month earlier, on 24th October to be precise, Ellington and His Orchestra had performed the third of Ellington’s Sacred Concerts on behalf of the United Nations at Westminster Abbey. The reviews for that concert were not encouraging and seventy-four-year-old Ellington, it was suggested, was in poor health. Tenor saxophone star, Paul Gonsalves, had also been taken ill and although a photo of Gonsalves in full flow appeared in the programme that was produced for the British tour, he was no longer with the band. Saxophonist and flautist, Norris Turney, had also departed after a musical disagreement, and there were other omissions.
Over the years I had seen Ellington trumpet sections that featured ‘Cat’ Anderson, Clark Terry, ‘Cootie’ Williams and Ray Nance, but by 1973 all of these stars had gone or, at least, were not part of the Ellington band we were about to hear. There seemed to be a change of drummer as well. On the three previous occasions I had seen Ellington, Sam Woodyard had sat behind his two bass drums and booted the band along with a primitive urgency. Rufus ‘Speedy’ Jones had then appeared with the Duke on an Ellington tour that I missed, though ‘Speedy’ Jones was another who by now was a former sideman. The new drummer, and some reports said he was only twenty-one, was Quentin H. White, Jr., making him, by far, the youngest Ellingtonian I had ever seen. And while it was pleasing to read in the programme that Chuck Connors, who had been with the Duke since 1961, was one of the trombonists, those with some knowledge of great Ellington line-ups must have been saddened that Lawrence Brown was no longer in the trombone section or available for solos that evoked the Blanton-Webster days and beyond.
But, given my preferences, the major absentees would be in the reed section. Gonsalves was no longer available to create either frenzied Newport moments or deliciously sinewy ballads. The pristine clarinet playing and the robust in-your-face tenor sound of Jimmy Hamilton wouldn’t be heard either. After more than twenty-five years with the Duke, Hamilton, according to some reports, had opted for the slower-paced life of the Virgin Islands. Yet, the major loss amongst the reeds was the irreplaceable Johnny Hodges, whose sublime tone and eloquent minimalism had made him the Duke’s supreme soloist for most of their careers. As Ellington said, “Never the world’s greatest showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes – this was Johnny Hodges…Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same again.” Hodges had died in May, 1970, aged sixty-two.
The first concert ended and a little later we took our seats. The orchestra entered from the back of the stage and veteran baritone saxophonist Harry Carney counted the band in. The piano stool remained empty. I recall the band playing ‘Perdido’ before the Duke’s entrance, though one account says it played both ‘C-Jam Blues’ and ‘Perdido’ before Ellington took to the stage. In those days audiences rarely stood to show their appreciation of their heroes and heroines, and the audience at the Guild Hall contented itself with applauding mightily as the Duke made his way through his musicians to the piano. Looking back, I’m certain we should have got to our feet.
Some of the highlights, as I remember them, were Russell Procope’s clarinet playing and Carney’s majestic baritone. Procope had what I always regarded as one of the great New Orleans sounds on clarinet; it was full, round, warm and woody, and his attack was a throwback to earlier Crescent City clarinet legends. A little research, however, shows that he hailed from New York. (A reminder that tones are personal, not geographical?) As for the band’s baritone player, Gerry Mulligan once observed that Duke Ellington has two sax sections and one of them is called ‘Harry Carney’. Now that the band was without Gonsalves, Hamilton and Hodges, their replacements being Harold Ashby, Percy Marion and Harold Minerve, Carney’s rich baritone seemed more prominent than ever. On bass Ellington had Joe Benjamin, a musician who had worked with just about everyone. I remember that he played superbly at the Guild Hall. Many years earlier Ellington used “Mr. J. B.” to refer to the astounding Jimmy Blanton. Apparently he was now reusing the title to refer to Joe Benjamin. Praise indeed.
There was also a low point. Trumpeter Harold ‘Money’ Johnson gave us an Armstrong-like version of ‘Hello Dolly’, which wasn’t terribly good. It was part of the concert where a jocular Ellington predicted what music would be around in the coming centuries. I have never fathomed why the Duke himself or anyone who played with him needed to move outside the Ellington-Strayhorn songbook for inspirational material. And predicting what future generations would be listening to seemed an ideal opportunity to be optimistic and play something Ellingtonian.
The finale was wonderfully moving. All the musicians had played what appeared to be their final piece and left the stage and we applauded for an encore. After a while Ellington returned on his own. He played Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lotus Blossom’. Strayhorn had worked with the Duke for over twenty-five years, and, as Robert Palmer has noted, he “was capable of interacting so seamlessly with Ellington that even the two of them had trouble pinpointing where one man’s contribution ended and the other’s began.” Strayhorn’s death in 1967 had affected Ellington deeply and the album ‘…and His Mother Called Him Bill’ (1), Ellington’s tribute to Strayhorn, was recorded just a few months after Strayhorn’s death. The album has many emotionally charged moments, but perhaps the most touching was when, with the noise of musicians chatting, packing their instruments and getting ready to leave the studio, Ellington played ‘Lotus Blossom’. That spontaneous studio performance has a few slips, but to close his November Guild Hall concert Ellington, alone at the piano, played it perfectly to an audience that I felt was well aware of its significance.
Ellington bowed graciously and left the stage. The delays with the instruments and two concerts without intermissions, would have made it a demanding day for a healthy man half his age. We applauded long and hard, but we knew in our hearts that no one would return to play. The tribute to Strayhorn was a fitting closure.
The next day the Ellington Orchestra continued its tour. As Patricia Willard would later write, “By December 1, when the band was to perform a pair of concerts at the Congress Theatre at Eastbourne on the south-east of England, it had performed in sixteen nations in five weeks.” In those five weeks the band had “only two ‘off’ days” and they “were spent travelling.” On 2nd and 3rd December the band had engagements in London and on Friday, 7th December, one week after appearing at Preston’s Guild Hall, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra gave a concert at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia. That was the Ellington way: day after day, week after week, year after year, and, in his case, decade after decade.
The concerts at Eastbourne’s Congress Theatre were recorded and eleven pieces from the concerts were later issued on an LP called ‘Eastbourne Performance’ (2). One of the most prominent soloists on these tracks is Ellington himself, who, despite everything, sounds on fine form. Other soloists on the Eastbourne album include tenor saxophonist, Harold Ashby, on ‘I Can’t Get Started’, trumpeter, Johnny Coles, on ‘How High the Moon’ and ‘Money’ Johnson on ‘Basin Street Blues’. At least altoist Harold Minerve found something suitable in the Ellington-Strayhorn songbook; he soloed on the Duke’s ‘Don’t You Know I Care?’.
Many years later I realised that life for Ellington during that British tour was even more fraught than I had imagined. On 25th November the Duke’s dearest friend, long-term confidant and personal physician, Dr. Arthur Logan, died in New York. Fearing that the news of Dr. Logan’s death would have a shattering effect on his father, the Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington, who was a member of the band’s trumpet section, kept the news to himself for a few days. But, according to David Bradbury, it was on 29th November that Mercer finally told his father of Dr. Logan’s death. Mercer recalled, “For the next two or three days he (his father) unashamedly went through moments of mental hysteria…It was the first real breakdown I ever saw him get into.” This account means that Ellington, already very ill, would have heard of Dr. Logan’s death the day before the Preston concerts.
The following year was desperately sad for Ellington’s numerous followers. Joe Benjamin died on 26th January, 1974, after a car crash. Paul Gonsalves died in London on 15th May. Some reports say he died of an overdose. News of Gonsalves’ death was kept from Ellington. On 24th May Ellington himself died. A bandleader for fifty years and a monumental contributor to the great music of the twentieth century, he gave his final performances in late March. Harry Carney, who had been with the Duke since 1927, said he had nothing more to live for after Ellington had gone. He died on 8th October, 1974.
At the end of the second concert at the Guild Hall on that Friday evening, we made our way back to Preston station. It was now well after eleven o’clock. The night was bitterly cold and foggy. The station was quiet and our train had long gone. Over seven hours in a waiting room lay ahead of us. I arrived home at about nine on the Saturday morning. I had seen the great man for the last time.
I am particularly grateful to Liza Rivia, Library Assistant at the Harris Library, Preston, Lancashire. I also wish to thank Steve Marshall from Marshall McGurk, Maryport, Cumbria and Dawkes’ woodwind specialist, Sam Gregory, who has helped me with this, my twentieth blog for Dawkes, and all the previous ones.
(1) LPs LPM -3906 (mono) and LSP-3906 (stereo) of ‘…and His Mother Called Him Bill’ were released in May 1968. The CD ‘ Duke Ellington…and His Mother Called Him Bill’, ND 86287, has all the original tracks plus some previously unreleased material amounting to 16 tracks in all. A 19 track version of ‘…and His Mother Called Him Bill’ appears in the 24 CD set mentioned below..
(2) The LP APL1 – 1023 ‘The Eastbourne Performance’ was originally issued in November 1974. It has 11 tracks. A 12 track version of ‘The Eastbourne Performance’ appears in the 24 CD Set ‘The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition’ The Complete RCA/Victor Recordings (1927-1973).
Some Sources Used
David Bradbury, Duke Ellington (Haus Publishing, London,2005).
Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress: An Autobiography (W. H. Allen, London, 1974).
Mercer Ellington with Stanley Dance, Duke Ellington in Person (Hutchinson, London, 1978).
Richard Palmer, notes for ‘…and His Mother Called Him Bill’, ND 86287.
Programme for Duke Ellington’s British Tour, November 1973.
Patricia Willard, ‘The Last Recordings’ in booklet for ‘The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition’ The Complete RCA/Victor Recordings (1927-1973), pp. 109-116.…and finally ‘Lotus Blossom’