Michael Jarrett: John Hammond’s Golden Ears

Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums by Michael JarrettWe welcome a guest post today by Michael Jarrett, author of Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Diana Krall. In histories of music, producers tend to fall by the wayside–generally unknown and seldom acknowledged. But without them and their contributions to the art form, we’d have little on record of some of the most important music ever created. Discover the stories behind some of jazz’s best-selling and most influential albums in this collection of oral histories gathered by music scholar and writer Michael Jarrett. Drawing together interviews with over fifty producers, musicians, engineers, and label executives, Jarrett shines a light on the world of making jazz records by letting his subjects tell their own stories and share their experiences in creating the American jazz canon.

In the following post, Jarrett explores John Hammond’s contribution to the history of American music. 


John Hammond’s knack for discovering talent was so uncanny, so unparalleled in the history of American music, that it’s regularly celebrated. It is, however, rarely examined. Perhaps, that’s because scrutiny can come off as suspiciousness poisoned by ungratefulness. What, after all, is gained by slinging pebbles at giants? Does it matter that Hammond glided through life on a path described in his autobiography as “smoothed by inherited wealth”? His maternal grandmother was the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. And so, Hammond was touched by the trickle-down economics of an American Midas. From the day he was born in 1910, until his death in 1987, he never lacked for a source of money. Or furthermore, does it matter if Hammond’s demonstrations of magnanimity and humility were scarcely more than noblesse oblige? On balance, he gave us far more than we gave him. We inherit his legacy: the phenomenal recordings he produced. To Columbia Records, Hammond signed Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman (who ended up marrying Hammond’s sister Alice), Bob Dylan, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. As artist rosters go, it’s far from shabby.

Still, the question remains: What could explain a career of unerring judgments? Recalling the first time he heard swing guitarist Charlie Christian, Hammond wrote: “As with every other great musician I have ‘discovered,’ there was never a moment’s doubt. I could hear the singularity of the sound. Always this quality seems so obvious. Lights flash. Rockets go off. Where is everybody? Why don’t they hear it? This has always amazed me.” (John Hammond on Record, Ridge Press) In Hammond’s view the ability to spot talent depended on an unbeatable combination: big ears and supreme confidence. Hammond found musicians of greatness, and the public—sooner, or, usually later—merely ratified his discoveries. He was, accordingly, a prophet.

What Hammond seemed not to understand were the cultural origins of his aesthetic. He consistently took his tastes as received—an aesthetic that transcended history. Given sufficient brainpower and ample time, everyone, he figured, would concur with his views. They’d understand, for example, that Ruth Etting was merely the most popular singer of the 1930s. Nothing more. Billie Holiday was, by far, the better singer. Anyone who couldn’t acknowledge this basic fact was clearly a slave to commercialism.

For all of his leftist leanings and whether or not he realized it, Hammond saw himself through an ideology of exceptionalism. He was the one who got it when others didn’t. Years later, it’s easy to picture Hammond, not as some rara avis, but rather as an early expression of an emerging audience or, better, as someone who’s social privilege granted him the privilege to express his cultural leanings with impunity. His tastes, like everyone else’s, were shaped by the music of the time. But here’s the catch: While dominant culture tends to flatten out the innovations of minority cultures, dominant culture also engenders the formation of minority cultures—mutated tastes for non-mainstream cultures. Ruth Etting—like Guy Lombardo and Bing Crosby (Decca artists produced by Jack Kapp)—helped create ears anxious to accommodate her Other: Billie Holiday, and the many artists that Hammond produced at Columbia. Hammond’s tastes, then, were inversions of the mainstream, as were the tastes of audiences attracted to his work. Hammond’s enormous success resulted when mainstream music unintentionally readied an audience to discover the non-mainstream music that Hammond was to “discover.”

Essential Listening:

  1. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Columbia). The artist’s first audience is his producer, and, clearly, Dylan knew that left-leaning audience like a dog-eared book. Was Dylan actually tagged “Hammond’s Folly” or was that just a moniker Hammond seized upon, setting himself up for a vindictive triumph?
  1. Benny Goodman Sextet Featuring Charlie Christian (1939-1941) (Columbia). Hammond produced his share of classical recordings—the high-art stuff—but these sides, featuring a laconically swinging combo, are American chamber music of the highest order. They’re imbued with grace.
  1. Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday (Columbia Legacy). What if these recordings had defined the mainstream? What if, back in the ’30s, Holiday had sold as many records as Adele would one day sell? What would our world look like?

Michael Jarrett is professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, York. Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Diana Krall is now available.