Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2005

More on John Hammond

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm
Not long after I posted some criticisms of John Hammond here, including his shabby treatment of Billie Holiday, a reader suggested that I should look into Frank Kofsky’s “Black Music–White Business”:
Louis — For a really scathing critique of Hammond’s relationship with Billie and his paternalism in general you might want to check out Frank Kofsky’s Black Music, White Business. The book is not the most brilliant example of Marxist jazz criticism, but if half of what he has to say about Hammond is true, Hammond’s legacy as a progressive integrationist should be re-examined. Kofsky wrote a couple of books on jazz that were published by Pathfinder in the 60s and 70s and may or may not have had a particular ax to grind with a CP fellow traveler.
Well, I finally ordered Kofsky’s book from Pathfinder, the publishing arm of the American SWP (unfortunately it was out of the Columbia University at the time–god I hate to send money in to them.) Some SWP veterans might be familiar with Kofsky’s “John Coltrane and The Jazz Revolution of The 1960s”, a book that tried to represent Coltrane as being more like Archie Shepp than he really was, in my opinion.
In any case, I went to the section in Kofsky’s “Black Music, White Business” that dealt with John Hammond. It turns out that he singled out the same offensive item about Holiday from Hammond’s memoir that I did. This certainly takes some of the gloss off of this guy’s over-inflated reputation.
There is no better way of illustrating this history of continuous victimization of the artist than by a consideration of the late John Hammond’s strenuous feats in the field of black music on behalf of himself and his long-time employer, Columbia Records. In most jazz circles, Hammond’s name is uttered in tones of utmost reverence — not surprising, when one notes how assiduously its possessor labored to assure himself of canonization as St. John the Second while still alive. Some excerpts from his correspondence with me will convey the tirelessness with which he sought to innate his reputation as, among other things, the protector of black people in general and black artists in particular: “I have been through a lot in trying to make for breakthroughs for Negro musicians.” “I feel so strongly about gradualism that after thirty years [!] on the Board and as Vice President of the NAACP, I resigned last Fall because of the fact that I feel Roy Wilkinsf’s] tie-up with the [Lyndon B. Johnson] administration is not the way to achieve progress and justice for minorities.” And so on, ad infinitum.
The overwhelming majority of those authors who write about jazz have shown little inclination to dispute the grandeur of Hammond’s achievements — as recounted, of course, by the master himself. And small wonder. As a descendant of the Vanderbilt family on the one hand and as an upper-echelon executive with Columbia Records for decades prior to his retirement on the other, Hammond was a man in whose person great wealth and power were combined. Few were so foolhardy as to risk incurring his displeasure; those who did quickly learned that one does not flout the wishes of The Great Man with impunity.
Take, as a representative instance, the case of Billie Holiday.. Relations between blacks and whites during the 1930s, by and large, were still marked by deference on the part of the former toward the latter, especially when the white person in question was as unmistakably affluent and influential as Hammond. Regardless of what they may have thought about him in private, therefore, almost all black (and many white) musicians of that period were reluctant to defy his wishes openly. Billie Holiday, however, was an exception. Ass-kissing, if I may put it bluntly, was never her strong suit — and it made little difference whether the ass in question belonged to John Hammond or John Doe.
Given Hammond’s expectations of deference as his due, a falling-out between the two was near-inevitable. The inevitable in fact occurred in 1938. Without providing all the pertinent details, Hammond recounts in his autobiography how he turned on Billie Holiday when she committed the sin of displeasing him. Holiday, it seems, had hired as her manager a woman from a distinguished family I knew well. I was concerned that she and her family might be hurt by unsavory gossip, or even blackmailed by the gangsters and dope pushers Billie knew.
“It was one of the few times in my life when I felt compelled to interfere in a personal relationship which was none of my business. I told the manager’s family what I knew and what I feared. Soon afterward the manager and Billie broke up, and Billie never worked at Cafe Society again. I think she never forgave me for what she suspected was my part in the breakup. . . .”
When the emperor can marshal power of that magnitude and does not scruple to use it to jeopardize a performer’s livelihood, few indeed will be eager to proclaim the true nature of his new clothes. And fewer still among black artists, whose fortunes in the best of cases are already sufficiently precarious. That fact goes a great distance toward explaining why there has been so little public discussion by musicians of the less savory aspects of the career of St. John the Second.
Nevertheless, here and there some of the dirty linen has found its way into daylight. None of it is more edifying, if we wish to understand the political economy of white domination of black music, than the tangled relationship of John Hammond and Columbia Records to Bessie Smith.
The first and most important point to emphasize is that, as author Chris Albertson reveals in his biography of Bessie Smith, Hammond signed the singer to a series of contracts with Columbia Records that gave her a small fixed fee for each performance she recorded and no royalties. Such contracts were apparently standard practice with the executive, for Billie Holiday unequivocally stated in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: “Later on John Hammond paired me up with Teddy Wilson and his band for another record session. This time I got thirty bucks for making half a dozen sides.” What is more, when she protested about this arrangement, it was, according to her, a Columbia executive named Bernie Hanighen — and not John Hammond — “who really went to bat for me” and “almost lost his job at Columbia fighting for me.” Subsequently, Holiday reiterated that although she “made over two hundred sides between 1933 and 1944” for John Hammond at Columbia, she didn’t “get a cent of royalties on any of them.” “The only royalties I get,” she explained, “are on my records made after I signed with Decca.”
In itself, the fact that Hammond, was, to put it mildly, a willing accomplice in signing both Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to no-royalty agreements is bad enough. What makes it one hundred times worse is that “company policy” at Columbia Records now designates Hammond “the sole recipient of royalties from sales of Bessie Smith’s recent [early 1970s] reissue albums.” So, incredible as it may seem, during his later years this descendant of the Vanderbilt line was further enriched by a black woman who came into this world in near-penniless circumstances and who lay, as we shall see, in an unmarked grave for more than thirty years. There, in a nutshell, one has the political economy of jazz stripped to its essence.

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