If you ask to look at someone’s music collection today you are likely to see a vast array of artists of different styles, races, ages, eras, genders, etc. Music is a beautiful thing, made even more so by the fact that most of us just want to hear a good song, without really caring about who is singing it. These days, most don’t even give the skin color of the singer a second thought. Music is now one of America’s great melting pots. It is hard to imagine it being any other way, but it was. Music was very segregated business well into the 20th century. Clubs, even in the north, were often divided into black and white audiences, regardless of what those on the stage looked like. Managers and talent scouts were afraid to sign black artists. When African Americans were allowed to perform in a white club they were not allowed to eat on the premises. They nearly always had to spend their nights in different hotels than white artists, often many miles away. Black performers were often instructed to only make eye contact with the black audience in the balcony, not the whites on the floor. Even television shows which featured music, like “American Bandstand” were very reluctant to integrate.
Once again, it is important to note that this was not only in the American south, it was everywhere, and it was not all that long ago.
The world of segregated music is one that we all should be thankful we no longer live in. Think about the amount of incredible music and art you would have been robbed of if you only listened to the songs of the people who look like you. We owe many people gratitude for this, but none more than the legendary music talent scout John Hammond. Today, he is known by many as the man who signed legends like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but his contribution to our collective journey towards equality is so much more.
John Hammond was born in Manhattan on December 15, 1910 to a life of wealth and privilege. As a descendant of the Vanderbilt family, he could have gotten away with doing very little to make the world a better place. That is not the path he chose. He grew up in a mansion, but often found himself being pulled towards the servants quarters so he could listen to their music. He was enchanted with the spirit and soul of their gospel music, jazz, and rhythm and blues. He enrolled at Yale University, but dropped out to work full time in the music industry. He fell in love with the vibrant jazz clubs of Harlem, and realized that most white people had very little idea that such wonderful music even existed. He vowed to change that. In 1977, he wrote in his memoirs:
“I heard no color line in the music…To bring recognition to the Negro’s supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.”
He befriended Benny Goodman, and convinced him to work with black musicians for the first time, including the young and immensely talented Bille Holliday. He was also an investor in The Café Society, the country’s first integrated nightclub. Legendary troubadour Pete Seeger said, “Jazz became integrated ten years before baseball largely because of John Hammond.” In the late 1930’s produced two concerts at Carnegie Hall billed as : “From Spirituals to Swing”, which introduced large white audiences to black music. It was the first time that Count Basie ever played in front of a large white audience. Hammond was met with great resistance, as many could not stomach the idea of black and white musicians on stage together. This was the first time anyone had done this, and many still consider “From Spirituals to Swing” to be a seminole moment in introducing African American music to the masses.
Photo Credit: Indiana Public Media
Throughout his music career that spanned a half century, Hammond continued to fight for the integration of music. He signed Aretha Franklin, served on the board of the N.A.A.C.P., and wrote countless magazine articles promoting African American artists. He often stood alone against tremendous backlash for his support of black musicians. He called himself, the “Intolerant champion of intolerance.” By signing artists like Count Basie, Holliday, Franklin, and many others, he gave white audiences the great gift of opening their ears and world to the sweet sounds they might have never even known to exist.
John Hammond and young Aretha Franklin
Photo Credit: Asbury Park Press
John Hammond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, then died the next year. His physical presence may have now been gone over thirty years, but his legacy of helping to make music colorblind will forever live on. Those of us that love and appreciate music are much better off because of his life and his courage to stand strongly behind his belief that music had not only the ability to provide a unity in the pursuit of freedom and equality for all, but a responsibility to.
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