The New Masses Presents
AN EVENING OF AMERICAN NEGRO MUSIC
“From Spirituals to Swing”
(DEDICATED TO BESSIE SMITH)
FRIDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 23, 1938
John Hammond conceived of this concert as a political statement set to music: “...the Negro people have produced some of the most amazing musicians the world has ever known,” and they deserved better than the oppression and discrimination they were subjected to.
Hammond was born on December 15, 1910 in an eight-story mansion on New York’s upper east side, an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. As a child he discovered a Columbia Grafanola in the servant’s quarters, and by the age of 12 was collecting recordings of “early Negro and country artists.” His grandmother had a player piano and he also began collecting jazz rolls. At the age of 17 he snuck up to Harlem to hear Bessie Smith, telling his parents he had to go out to play string quartets. For the rest of his high school days he inhabited the Harlem clubs, frequently the only white face in the room.
While a student at Yale Hammond returned to New York on weekends and spent his nights in Harlem. During his sophomore year a recurrence of jaundice forced him to drop out, but by then Hammond had determined that he wanted a career in the music business.
His father sent him to “The Millionaire’s Club” in Georgia to recuperate. As Hammond says in his autobiography, “I returned to New York physically recovered and emotionally enraged. The habit of discrimination was so encrusted by centuries of acceptance that both black and white knew no other way to act. I had walked through my first southern Nigger town, the son of the president of a private club for millionaires, many of them Southern, all of them white and Protestant. To know better was no longer enough. I had to do something.”
For Hammond doing something meant promoting the artists and music he loved. As an independently wealthy man he was able to pursue his passion as he saw fit. As a young man he wrote about jazz for music magazines, invested in concerts, produced his first records, and hosted the first ever radio program devoted to jazz. He traveled the country by car, seeking out new talent.
At the center of his vision was a concert that would “bring together for the first time, before a musically sophisticated audience, Negro music from its raw beginnings to the latest jazz,” but it took years to find a sponsor that would underwrite the talent search and Carnegie Hall production. In early 1938, the Marxist publication, “New Masses,” agreed to sign on.
Hammond contacted a talent scout in North Carolina and set out to find his performers. Robert Johnson was at the top of Hammond’s list but had been killed by his girlfriend earlier in the year. “Big Bill” Broonzy was signed instead. Hammond also signed many of the performers he had discovered in New York, Chicago, and Kansas City.
In the printed program for the event Hammond laid out the show, not in the order of performances, but in the order by which the music evolved. There were eight parts:
Introduction During which recordings made by the H. E. Tracy expedition to the Africa were played.
I. Spirituals and Holy Roller Hymns
Mitchell’s Christian Singers were a group of laborers from North Carolina that sang a cappella on Sundays. Hammond went to their home, a back country shack without water or electricity, to sign them up.Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a forerunner to Mahalia Jackson, a singer and guitarist who played a “Holy Roller” style of hymns that straddled gospel and the blues. She played mostly in churches but had done one night at The Cotton Club, which brought her to Hammond’s attention.
II. Soft Swing
The Kansas City Six featured Lester Young (cl. tsax.), Buck Clayton (tr.), Eddie Durham (electric g.), Freddie Greene (g.), Walter Page (b.), and Joe Jones (dr.) Their music straddled swing and dixieland styles of jazz.
III. Harmonica Playing
Hammond went to North Carolina to sign Blind Boy Fuller, but Fuller was in jail. Living next door was blind harmonica player Sanford (Sonny) Terry, and upon hearing him Hammond signed him on the spot.
It had been Hammond’s dream to feature Bessie Smith, but she had passed on by the time the concert was in production, so he signed Ruby Smith – no relation to Bessie – accompanied by James P. Johnson, one of the originators of the “stride” style of piano that straddled the transition from ragtime to jazz.Hammond discovered blues shouter Joe Turner and his colleague boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson in Kansas City, and first brought them to New York to perform at The Famous Door in 1936. In 1938 he brought them back for a guest appearance on Benny Goodman’s “Camel Caravan,” and they stayed to perform in Carnegie Hall. Bill Broonzy had moved from Arkansas to Chicago in 1924, where he had become a major figure in the blues scene. The Carnegie Hall performance marked the first time he had played for a white audience. Jimmy Rushing was the vocalist in Count Basie’s band, and Helen Humes was a volcalist Hammond had discovered in Louisville, Kentucky and recommended to Basie. They both performed with small groups at Carnegie Hall before performing with the orchestra.
V. Boogie-Woogie Piano Playing
Pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis had shared a rooming house with Pinetop Smith in Chicago from 1927 to 1930. Smith had a hit with the recording of “Boogie Woogie” in 1928. After he passed away in 1929, Ammons and Lewis continued to develop the form. At Carnegie Hall they played solo, duo, and six-handed with Pete Johnson. The Spirituals to Swing concert began the boogie-woogie craze in this country. Ammons and Lewis were recorded together at the very first session for Blue Note Records in January of 1939.
VI. Early New Orleans Jazz
Sidney Bechet (cl. ssax.), Tommy Ladnier(tr.), James P. Johnson (p.), Dan Minor (trb.), Jo Jones (dr.)
Count Basie and His Orchestra
The concert was oversold to the extent that chairs for an additional 400 people had to be put on stage, and a second “From Spirituals to Swing” concert was staged on Christmas Day, 1939.