Profession: Columbia Records executive and civil rights activist
Although John Hammond '29 received Hotchkiss' highest honor, the Alumni Award, in 1978, it would be difficult to do justice entirely to the life and work of this alumnus. John remained a force in music through five decades of the 20th century, discovering and promoting an amazing array of musicians. Of greater import was his lifelong commitment to issues of civil rights and equal justice for all Americans.
A man of extraordinary social consciousness, he questioned the very code of behavior he was born into as an heir to one of America's wealthiest families. From a very early age, John Hammond fought segregation, anti-Semitism, discrimination, and the exploitation of the musicians whom he would come to love.
John Henry Hammond, Jr., was born in December 1910 in his parents' eight-story mansion on 91st Street in New York. He was immediately entered at St. Paul's, Groton, and St. Mark's schools. John's mother was Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, daughter of Emily Thorne Vanderbilt and William Douglas Sloane. His father, John Henry Hammond, who married into the Vanderbilt fortune, became a successful man in his own right, a director of ten corporations and the senior member of the law firm of Hines, Rearick, Dorr & Hammond.
John began piano lessons at the age of four, but the piano was not the instrument for a double-jointed young man, and John gave the violin a try. John already knew that his talents would know limitations; but he had a good ear, and he loved music. It was in these early years that John convinced his governess to take him to his first Negro revue, an experience that left a lasting impression.
At home, John discovered the world of music by winding the handle of a phonograph. In the front of the house was a Victrola with some Red Seal Victor records, mostly opera. But it was in the rear of the house in the servants quarters that he found his first favorite record, Sir Harry Lauder's "Roamin' in the Gloamin," which he learned by heart. He would then hop on a bus and head for a record store on 37th Street where he listened to early Negro artists, blues singers, and jazz players. While other sons of high society enjoyed their positions of wealth, John was sneaking off to vaudeville shows. By the time he turned 15, he had discovered just about every jazz joint and nightspot in Harlem.
In the comfortable suburbs of Mt. Kisco, NY, John encountered anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, even in the Episcopal Church the family attended. There the black servants sat in the back and were not allowed to take communion. When his mother chose to become a Christian Scientist, John remained the only one in the family who had not been baptized at birth. This troubled him; so he chose to be baptized by his mother's first cousin, Henry Sloane Coffin, (later president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and a great friend of Hotchkiss and in particular of George van Santvoord '08). He joined Mr. Coffin's Presbyterian Church, though he occasionally still attended church with his mother.
When John turned 14, it became time to think about schools; at this point perhaps fate intervened. John's father wanted him to go to his alma mater, Exeter, and there were of course, those otherschools suitable for a Vanderbilt-Hammond. But Exeter was far away and it was cold there. John had two cousins, Fred '22 and Osgood Field '22, who told him about a school two hours away in Connecticut. One of the reasons the boys loved Hotchkiss was the revered master, John McChesney. Since Henry Sloane Coffin had just moved to Lakeville and was known occasionally to preach a sermon in the Hotchkiss Chapel, John convinced his parents to let him go to Hotchkiss.
Enter George Van Santvoord. In his autobiography, John Hammond on Record, John wrote:
"Van Santvoord was one of the most remarkable scholars and educators ever to run a private school, and my admiration for him began to change my life. One of his first acts on arriving in Lakeville was to become chairman of the local Democratic party, a remarkably undiplomatic beginning in that strongly conservative Connecticut town. But George Van Santvoord, sandy haired and with hooded blue eyes which seemed to challenge disagreement, was no man to fear the opinions of others, including faculty, parents, and townspeople. His long tenure as Hotchkiss' headmaster placed the school at the top level of the academic hierarchy of New England preparatory schools, and he managed either to persuade or frighten all dissenters."
Van Santvoord and McChesney were wonderful mentors for John, but the School was not known for its music program. Van Santvoord allowed John the unheard-of privilege of travelling to New York every other weekend for violin lessons. On his way to his very first lesson, John passed the Alhambra Theater and saw Bessie Smith's name on the marquee. While his parents thought he was playing in a string quartet that evening, he was in fact at the Alhambra, listening to the woman he later described as the greatest blues singer he had ever heard. As his violin lessons increased, so did his attendance at jazz joints and speakeasies; often his was the only white face in the crowd.
At about this time, John's interest in journalism also was kindled. In 1923 he wrote a letter to Time Magazine, protesting the exclusion of the record column. Little did he know that the founder and publisher of Time was Hotchkiss' own Henry Luce '16; the letter appeared in the magazine two weeks later. Then, feeling inspired by an article in the New Republic about a struggling newspaper in Maine, John wrote to the editor of the Portland Evening News, one Ernest Gruening '03, another Hotchkiss man.
A journalist during the summers, John went on to Yale. On the weekends, he headed to the city, where he frequented Small's Paradise, an after-hours speakeasy. Performing there were a pianist by the name of Basie and a band called Elmer Snowden's; they eventually became Duke Ellington's band. All this was far more interesting to him than Yale's biology course. After contracting hepatitis, John had to drop out of Yale.
Back in New York he saw American jazz growing in popularity, and with it came the need for American jazz writers familiar with Negro jazz players. John began working for Melody Maker, a British music publication; British readers were anxious to read about black musicians. A series of events, including John's association with different artists and his access to money, led to his producing his first record for Columbia. It was around this time that John first heard of a clarinetist named Benny Goodman. John was the first to record Goodman, and it was he who put together the trio of Goodman, drummer Gene Krupa, and pianist Teddy Wilson. Goodman later married one of John's sisters.
Over the next decade, John became involved with a variety of music projects as well as efforts to fight discrimination in its many different forms. While working as a disc jockey for a radio station owned by the Jewish Daily Forward, he noticed that black musicians were expected to use the freight elevator; John reported these injustices in Melody Maker. At a fund-raising party to help striking Kentucky coal miners, he learned more about the intense situation between the miners and mine owners. He joined a caravan of Northern sympathizers, including reporters, who wanted to help the starving miners. The caravan bought supplies and made its way to Pineville; there sheriff's deputies stopped the caravan, dumped the canned milk, and destroyed the supplies. But John had his own car, and it was his job to escape with the cameraman and the film; and escape they did. The film was shown all over the country, and John was asked to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; as a 21-year-old, he declined, but only temporarily.
In 1931, during the Depression, the now infamous Scottsboro trials were all over the news. The nine Negro boys caught aboard a freight train and accused of raping two white girls were quickly indicted by a Jackson County grand jury. John, along with much of America, was outraged. Negroes were not allowed to serve on juries; the defendants were grossly underrepresented; and between the environment at the courthouse and the bias of the all-white jury, the judgment of the Alabama Superior Court was reversed and a new trial declared. John was asked to raise funds for the defense; so he organized a benefit performance. The performers that day included Benny Carter's orchestra, Duke Ellington, and a young woman named Martha Raye.
Over the next few years, John traveled the country with stops at burlesque houses and jazz joints, always on the lookout for new talent. In 1933 at a club in Harlem, he first heard a youngster named Billie Holiday. She was only 17 and unknown outside of Harlem; John wrote about her and could not forget her. This same year, the second trial for the Scottsboro boys was held; John covered it for The Nation at the request of Ernest Gruening.
The 1930s validated John's credentials as one of the finest talent scouts ever, a visionary in the field. He had discovered tenor saxophonist Lester Young and guitarist Charlie Christian, was recording many talented musicians, and producing some of the best jazz records ever made. He joined Columbia in 1939; at that time Duke Ellington was the only Negro on the label.
In 1938, his landmark Spirituals to Swing Concert introduced Carnegie Hall white patrons to black music while reawakening boogie-woogie. Among the performers that day were the Goodman and Basie bands, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and James P. Johnson, pianists; and Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophonist.
His writing and commentary as a music critic provided a forum for him to speak his mind. He reported on many of the great ones, the Dorsey Brothers' band, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Fred Van Eps. He was responsible for assembling many of the great bands. In 1935, he joined the board of the NAACP. John founded the group's monthly bulletin, which established regular communication between the NAACP and its members. "Joining the NAACP board was the beginning of a thirty-year association in which I served actively and proudly, the largest and most influential effort to achieve integration in America. Next to jazz, the NAACP became the means to fight for the social change I sought."
The record industry was thriving owing to radio broadcasting, jukeboxes, and sales of record players. And though the record industry was booming, not one Negro was employed by a radio station. John continued to voice his opinion through his editorials.
In 1940, John married Jemison "Jemy" McBride. After one happy year of marriage, Pearl Harbor intervened. John knew that his days as a civilian were limited. In November 1942, John's first son, John (Jeep) Paul Hammond was born. Soon after, John learned he had been classified as 3-A and joined the Army. He left for the Army's indoctrination center at Fort Dix, leaving behind his young son and pregnant wife.
The Army tapped him for what he did best, organizing shows. Yet what he saw in the treatment of black troops in the Army further fed his loathing of discrimination. John's second son was born while he was away, but baby Douglas died a half-hour before he could get home.
On his discharge in January 1946 he returned to a family in trouble. A third Hammond son was eventually born, but Jason's birth did not save the doomed marriage; it ended in divorce. John married again, this time to Esmé Sarnoff; the happy marriage lasted until Esmé's death in 1986.
After the War, John focused on some smaller record labels, producing brilliant recordings that included Vic Dickenson, Mel Powell, Emmett Berry, and Count Basie. As high technical standards rose for classical recordings, the sound quality of jazz recordings suffered. But jazz lived on, and John had a hand in the establishment of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, a popular event that continues to this day.
John returned to Columbia in the 1960s, just in time to hear Bob Dylan, known at the time as "Hammond's folly," since no one recognized then just how big this young man would become. Dylan was signed by Columbia, and his albums transformed Columbia Records. John's "discoveries" continued; he signed a woman by the name of Aretha Franklin and a young man named Bruce Springsteen. John's son Jeep had learned to play the guitar and evolved into a fine blues performer, still touring today.
John Hammond died on July 10, 1987 while listening to a Billie Holiday record. At his memorial service in St. Peter's Church in New York, the legendary Pete Seeger (whom John had also signed to Columbia) played "We Shall Overcome." This was followed by Stevie Ray Vaughan performing an acoustic blues guitar tribute, and Bruce Springsteen on guitar and harmonica, singing "Forever Young."
John Hammond autographed a copy of his autobiography, John Hammond on Record, for Hotchkiss shortly after its publication in 1977. He wrote, "I owe Hotchkiss an awful lot, and I wish this book were better." The words speak volumes about the high aspirations John Hammond held for every aspect of his life. Hotchkiss was made forever proud by the accomplishments of this alumnus.