21st Century History

John Hammond’s Best and Brightest

Some 20 years ago, Columbia Records, then operating under the benevolent jazzcentric hand of Bruce Lundvall, threw a party at Broadway and 52nd Street, the site of the original Birdland. Many great musicians from the bop era performed in a jam session, but the music usually had to vie with conversation. At the end of the night, though, a few swing musicians took the stage, fronted by Helen Humes and Buddy Tate. They wrapped the room in a sling and twirled it above their heads. Helen's piping, girlish voice and Tate's stark riffs locked into a beat so rigorous it silenced everyone. The place went crazy; no one wanted to follow them onto the bandstand. I turned to the veteran critic Stanley Dance, the last of the Charlie Parker haters, and said something brilliant like, "Jesusfuckingchristalmighty." With typical British noblesse oblige, Stanley replied, "Well, you know, I always thought bebop was rather corny."

Corny? I had never heard that one before. But for those few minutes I was willing to raise the white flag. We had just heard something unlikely to be repeated, no matter how many times we would see Buddy and Helen or musicians like them. Rhythm is a mysterious thing, and the most mysterious rhythm is the one for which the Swing Era was named. Compared to the jazz rhythms that followed, it is elemental, a ready thumping of all four beats. Compared to what came before in jazz and followed in r&b or r&r, it is plush and elegant. It was made for dancing, of course, but when it goes into overdrive you realize it was also made for over-the-top, death-defying exhilaration.

Don't take my word. Vanguard has restored From Spirituals to Swing, the classic 1959 album compiled from two concerts that John Hammond produced at Carnegie Hall in the late 1930s. Nearly two dozen previously unreleased selections—about an hour of new music—have been added, including the opening number at the 1938 concert, Count Basie's "Swingin' the Blues." Basie's original Decca record is a killer, but it is staid compared to this version.

You can hear Basie stomp the tempo—a tempo so fast that in a ballroom it would have cleared the floor of all but the professional jitterbuggers. The big climaxes are tossed off with a kind of knowing hilarity, because the whole thing is a climax. Hammond probably rejected this performance because the soloists are off-mike. That's a good thing, however; you get to hear the workings of the ensemble like never before. Forget Lester Young for a moment, and listen to the audacity of the punctuating brasses, attacking as one—as if the sections had a mind of their own. The reeds come up with a swirling, kibitzing riff that rolls under and over Buck Clayton. The studio version builds, closing with a Jo Jones drum solo. This performance, a minute longer, is a Jo Jones concerto. He is omnipresent, stoking the engine, the soloists, the sections, messing with the minds and metabolisms of the audience.

This "Swingin' the Blues" reminds us that before swing became an idiom, it was the music of the young, competitive guys who invented it, hailing themselves and vanquishing all comers. It underscores as well the diversity of swing. No one ever swung harder than Louis Armstrong, and the Swing Era has been called orchestrated Armstrong. But he didn't swing in the manner of Basie, any more than did Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, or Wynton Marsalis. Moreover, the Basie of 1960 did not swing like the Basie of 1938. What makes From Spirituals to Swing so enthralling is its near-arrogant freshness. "Swingin' the Blues" pushes one style of swing as far as it can go, into the realm of head music, because at this velocity few people's feet will do their stuff. It's a fairly short hop, at least in retrospect, from Basie in extremis to the full-bore head rhythms of Charlie Parker's "Koko."

There are other examples. Joe Turner and Pete Johnson were never more euphoric, and now, in addition to "It's All Right Baby," we get a second world-beating number, "Low Down Dog." Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons were always on a tear, but you may need a Valium after the former's "Honky Tonk Train Blues" and the latter's "Boogie Woogie," both previously unreleased. And there are softer, no less riveting discoveries, including Lester Young's clarinet on "I Never Knew," James P. Johnson's exquisite "Blueberry Rhyme," and Helen Humes's future signature song (written by James P.) "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight." Standouts among the unearthed blues and gospel numbers are two by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Bill Broonzy's "It Was Just a Dream," accompanied by Ammons and the fully involved laughter of the audience, for whom the words were brand-new.

The Vanguard CDs resolve John Hammond's titillating comment in the notes to the 1959 records: "And there is still enough good material left for another three sides." They also illuminate his 1971 admission that not all the music on the records was recorded at Carnegie; he added a few selections—among them Humes's "Blues for Helen" and Hot Lips Page's "Blues With Lips"—that were made in a studio six months before the first concert, and recorded his spoken introductions in 1958 (the tape was sped up and drenched in echo to make him sound younger). No one remembered the concerts well enough to dispute him.

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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