21st Century History

John Hammond’s Best and Brightest

The new production is exemplary in every way. Producer Steve Buckingham sequenced the material, for the first time, so that we can hear what the 1938 and 1939 concerts were really like. Doug Pomeroy worked with tapes of Hammond's discs made before Vanguard engineers in the 1950s began splicing pops out of them, and has superbly enhanced the sound. The three-disc box comes with two booklets, one with commentaries old and new (one mistake: Spencer Williams's "I Ain't Got Nobody" is credited to Bert Williams), the other a facsimile of the concert program: "The New Masses Presents an Evening of American Negro Music." It includes a plea for the children of Loyalist Spain, several fascinating ads, and the single paragraph of Hammond's that started the Robert Johnson legend (he was booked, but died before the concert).

The reason Vanguard, the folk label, got From Spirituals to Swing is that the company saved Hammond in the darkest days of his career, hiring him to record jazz sessions in the mid '50s. Those albums are among his least remembered, but shouldn't be and won't be now that Vanguard is putting them out again. Buckingham, presumably for contrast and to muddy the business of which sessions were best, is editing anthologies from the original albums, which is fine with me, as long as all the material gets out. The discs—beautifully mastered and well annotated by Sam Charters—capture several swing epiphanies. The two Jimmy Rushings, Oh Love and Every Day (the latter has an amazing "Evenin' "), are great. The best of the Basie Bunch CDs is Cool Two. The two volumes of Duets by Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins are neglected classics of Armstrongian jazz romanticism. The arranged ensembles on the Mel Powell discs, The Best Things in Life and It's Been So Long, are commonplace, but the piano pieces are cunning and stately. Sir Charles Thompson, a much underrated pianist, shares honors with the leader on Vic Dickenson's Nice Work and with Coleman Hawkins (check Hawk's entrance on the aptly titled "Fore!") on his own For the Ears.

When Hammond left Vanguard to return to Columbia, his long exile at an end, he signed artists who added to his 1930s legend as talent scout and producer—Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan. But he recorded only Aretha and Dylan, briefly, before they were taken away from him, as he used to say. He was involved in many memorable projects, including the 1967 Spirituals to Swing concert and LP; he launched George Benson and relaunched Helen Humes. But looking over his discography, I wonder if he had a happier or more sustained burst of postwar creativity than in the years 1953-56, when he reunited his old swing pals at Vanguard. He didn't, after all, call the 1967 concert Spirituals to Jazz or Spirituals to Rock. The last time I saw him, a few weeks before he died in 1987, he was in a wheelchair, chain-smoking (his left side was partly paralyzed, so he asked me to hold his ashtray) and reminiscing about Bessie Smith, Basie, and the '30s. His heart belonged to swing, and it must have astonished and infuriated him when the magic got older and turned into something else.

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