An excerpt from
Blowin’ Hot and Cool
Jazz and Its Critics
“Not Only a New Art Form but a New Reason for Living”
Needed: White Guys without Dates
In July 1935, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman named Leonard Feather set sail for New York for the first of two visits that year intended to spark his fledgling career as a jazz writer. Feather had cut his writing teeth apprenticing for German and French movie trade magazines, but for the previous eighteen months he had turned his focus to jazz, publishing articles in Britain’s Melody Maker, Gramophone, Tune Times, and Swing Music. Also a budding pianist and songwriter, Feather’s knowledge of jazz had come mainly through records. For European jazz cognoscenti of the 1930s, a pilgrimage to New York, the jazz recording capital, was de rigueur. As Feather relates in his 1987 autobiography, his first 1935 trip held especially great promise because of the person who was waiting for his ship to dock in New York harbor, ready to shepherd him around to the city’s jazz spots: John Hammond.
Hammond, then twenty-five, was well known in British jazz circles as a record producer, talent scout, journalist, and social critic. He had been commissioned by Columbia to produce a series of sessions from 1933 to 1935 for British release, and he had started his career as a jazz writer in the early 1930s in Melody Maker, Gramophone, and another British publication called Rhythm. It would still be a few years before Hammond established his dominion over the U.S. jazz scene, but the foundation had been firmly laid in 1933. In a feverish seventy-two-hour stretch in November of that year, Hammond supervised the last recordings of Bessie Smith and then the first recordings of Billie Holiday. These sessions employed a racially mixed group of sidemen, including the Jewish clarinetist Benny Goodman—an early example of the integrationist agenda that would become Hammond’s hallmark.
Before his first 1935 transatlantic journey, Feather, who came from a wealthy Jewish family in London, had met only one black person in his life—Louis Armstrong, whom he had contrived to meet at a bar near London’s Palladium the night of Armstrong’s first British concert in 1932. Feather encountered Armstrong—he says in the autobiography—as “a mature and greatly respected artist,” unconcerned about his racial identity and unaware of the history of American race relations. But mainly through reading Hammond’s dispatches in the British music press over the next few years, Feather learned about the existence of Jim Crow segregation and racial oppression. This knowledge did not dampen his enthusiasm for crossing the racial border in search of cultural riches.
This meant Harlem. Within hours of his arrival, Feather found himself at the Apollo Theater, the leading shrine of black vaudeville entertainment. In spite of the building’s “exotic, funky appeal,” Feather found the evening’s bill to be a let-down. While comedian Pigmeat Markham was “raw and raucously funny,” that week’s house orchestra, Erskine Hawkins and his Bama State Collegians, struck Feather as “not the equal of the black bands whose records I had been collecting.” Even more disappointing was Bessie Smith, whose performance Feather deemed “pathetically unrepresentative of her early grandeur.” Feather wondered what this meant to the reputation of a performer whom Hammond regarded as the greatest artist that his country had produced. Would she be remembered as the great blues empress of the 1920s, or as the woman he had seen on this night, who had drunk too much and had “proclaimed racy lyrics in a strange, throbbing voice”? Would she be remembered at all? What good was it that he and Hammond knew of her former glory when “to almost all whites she was unknown,” while “to most blacks she was an insignificant, half-forgotten vaudeville performer”?
Hammond guided him deeper into the Harlem night. Next it was fifteen blocks north to the Savoy Ballroom, the “Home of Happy Feet,” where swing, the stomping, dance-oriented music that originated in Harlem, captivated the bodies of hundreds of the young and the young at heart. Here things really came alive:
The impact of the moment I walked into the Savoy was immediate and too startling ever to be forgotten. The sensation was one of removal from any world I had known. During the first five minutes I felt I had absorbed more music than I had heard in all my years of listening to jazz impersonalized by the obstacle of the phonograph.
As the Teddy Hill Orchestra swung hard, Feather marveled at the cohesion of the rhythm section and the power of the soloists, especially Chu Berry on tenor sax, Roy Eldridge on trumpet, and Dickie Wells on trombone. Oddly, to Feather, the dancing “jitterbugs,” caught up in a stomping groove that literally shook the parquet floor, seemed little interested in the finer points of the music. “The music that made such a feverish emotional impact on my sensibilities,” he observed, “appealed to this audience mainly on utilitarian grounds.” Not until “John and I, joined soon by a few others who perhaps were encouraged by our initiative,” did anyone sidle up close to the bandstand, the better to scrutinize and appreciate the musicians at work.
Two young white men without dates, in a room full of good-timing cheer and ecstatic bodily release, position themselves between the musicians and the audience—here, in microcosm, was the Ur-stance of the jazz critic: poised on the seam between artistic creation and popular consumption, close to but also crucially distinct from the dancing mass body, caught up in an imagined sense of privileged intellectual and emotional communion with the music. Overlaying this subtle geography of inside/outside was both a self-consciousness about racial and class difference and a correspondingly self-justifying sense of exceptionalism, a conceit that the critic’s exalted purpose exempted him from the conventional patterns of cross-racial exchange. So, while surprised by the Savoy patrons’ seeming indifference to the music qua music, Feather was pleased by the crowd’s interracial composition and egalitarian dynamic. He made a point during this sojourn of not visiting the Cotton Club, offended by its policy of admitting blacks only as performers and uncomfortable with the thought of being confused with the rich whites whose “slumming” filled the coffers of the club’s mobster proprietors. Feather knew that Hammond came from great wealth, that his mother was a Vanderbilt and his father an heir to a Southern fortune and one of the high-powered corporate lawyers of the day. He was sure, however—or at least needed to believe—that Hammond went to Harlem not to service his own decadent pleasures, but to work earnestly and valiantly toward racial equality and recognition of black artistic excellence.
In Feather’s eyes, Hammond was “more at ease in Harlem than almost any other white American could feel.” Fancying a similar reputation for himself, Feather was pleased to discover that, paradoxically, his outsider status might help him become a privileged insider:
The Savoy engendered in me oddly mixed emotions of alienation (due to my British reserve rather than my whiteness) and of belonging, for it was at the ballroom, and at other retreats north of Central Park, that I would quickly learn to feel more at one with my surroundings than anywhere else either at home or abroad. There was an immediate sense of being welcome in a community where, as Hammond and others had warned, people from downtown might expect to find themselves regarded with acute suspicion. Not being an American, as I soon found out, fortified my credentials.
Through Hammond, Feather met and befriended a number of “accessible and hospitable” musicians, including trumpeter Red Allen and pianist Teddy Wilson, and made strategic contacts with other music and entertainment industry personnel. Clarence Williams, the early blues and jazz songwriter and pianist then operating as a music publisher, bought two of Feather’s songs, boosting his confidence to continue writing blues and jazz material. Romeo Dougherty, the entertainment editor of the New York Amsterdam News, made Feather the paper’s first white contributor, giving him a column as a London correspondent reporting on that city’s West Indian club scene. Metronome editor George Simon also retained Feather as a London correspondent reporting on British jazz recording and concert developments, including his own role in helping Benny Carter assemble the first interracial and international jazz orchestra.
Leonard Feather had found his calling. He would not be the dutiful Jewish son, joining his father’s business in clothing and real estate. In late 1939, he would move permanently to the United States, where, until his death in 1994, he was a ubiquitous presence on the jazz scene as a journalist, record and concert producer, publicist, radio programmer, encyclopedist, composer, lyricist, and educator. “Over the amazingly long, prolific, and frequently controversial run of his career,” Gary Giddins eulogized, Feather “decisively supplanted Hammond as jazz’s most important critic and chronicler.” Feather’s career would include several acrimonious public feuds with Hammond, the earliest coming over Duke Ellington’s creative direction when the composer and bandleader began to explore scored-through concert forms. While Feather became a herald of “progress” and “freedom” in jazz and supported most of its stylistic innovations until souring on certain strains of the post-1960 avant garde, Hammond—who carried his scouting, promotional, and production talents into the genres of gospel, blues, rhythm-and-blues, and rock into the 1980s—scorned bebop and other post–World War II modern jazz styles, sounds he regarded as “cerebral gymnastics” that emphasized “technique at the expense of musical emotion.” But no critic has ever wielded as much influence over the development and direction of jazz as Hammond did during the Swing Era. Feather, in 1964, attempted to summarize this influence:
Hammond’s importance [was] inestimable. It is worthwhile speculating what the course of jazz might have been without him. Benny Goodman, for whom jazz in 1934 was not a consuming passion, might have lived out his life as a house musician at NBC or CBS. The swing era, at least by that name or that figurehead, would never have arrived. Meade Lux Lewis would probably have spent the rest of his days as a cabdriver or janitor, and we critics who have written about it with such self-righteous knowledge might never have heard that boogie-woogie existed. Count Basie might have stayed in Midwestern obscurity. Teddy Wilson certainly would not have joined Goodman, and it might have been years before the color line was broken. As for Billie Holiday, it is chilling to contemplate what her fate could have been had Hammond not sponsored her. … The argument that talent will out—that if Hammond had not launched these artists, someone else would have—is glib and totally unconvincing.
Hammond, as Dan Morgenstern has said, needed to be needed. Duke Ellington clearly didn’t need him, nor did the beboppers and other modern jazz musicians whose ideas about jazz’s post–World War II future left Hammond behind. Did Billie Holiday need him in the desperate way that Feather suggests? Did Bessie Smith need him as badly as Hammond always thought she did? Did Hammond need them just as badly? These are thorny, probably unanswerable questions. But in 1935, when Leonard Feather needed a Virgil to guide him through swinging Harlem, John Hammond was his man.
Swinging Left with the “Great White Father”
… John Hammond and Leonard Feather were anticommunist liberals whose civil rights activism grew out of a tradition of Leftist politics in the jazz world that started in the early 1930s and intensified with the Popular Front initiative of the Communist Party after 1935. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Harlem CP-sponsored dances, Scottsboro benefits, Lincoln Brigade and Russian war relief events, union rallies, and other Left-oriented functions featured prominent jazz artists such as Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, and Bessie Smith. At the center of this activity was John Hammond. Hammond was never a card-carrying party member; as Feather later put it, he “regarded the Communists as opportunists who blew hot and cold on the race issue.” As an ardent integrationist, Hammond was especially at odds with the party’s Black Belt Thesis, which called for the establishment of a separate black state in the American South. He was also, along with Charles Edward Smith and other jazz proponents on the radical Left, in opposition to the Communist Party hierarchy’s doctrinaire view of jazz as a debased commercial mass culture and secular opiate of the masses. Smith, writing in the Daily Worker, argued that spirituals, the blues, and hot jazz were the authentic folk musical forms of the black working class and that the Marxist critique was more properly aimed at popular sweet music. Hammond was part of a group of young blacks and Jews associated with the Harlem branch of the CPUSA who, in tandem with radical student movements on college campuses across New York City, diverged from the party line in embracing jazz as an authentic, unadulterated popular art. While some on the Communist Left—including many at the New Masses—continued to regard jazz as irredeemably bourgeois, the Popular Front opened up a space for jazz as a politically expedient tool of interracial coalition-building. Hammond adroitly used this opportunity to publicize his interlocking campaigns on behalf of black jazz musicians, integration, and social justice. “The people at the New Masses just hated jazz,” Hammond said, “but, since it was the days of the United Front …they thought [it] would be good for their cultural image to have somebody write about jazz, particularly black jazz.”
Hailing from the opposite end of the class spectrum than many of the musicians in his orbit, and prone to an imperious style, Hammond generated plenty of criticism that labeled him a paternalist and a tyrant. Some saw a holier-than-thou edge to his political zeal and his solicitude for black musicians. Hammond helped Benny Goodman and other white musicians who had a strong swing and blues orientation, like Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey. But it was black musicians, particularly those he could take credit for discovering or rediscovering and those whose poverty and neglect he could publicize with muckraking fervor, that most fueled Hammond’s sense of self-righteousness. Otis Ferguson, who wrote on jazz and the popular arts in the New Republic, came from a working-class background and shared much of Hammond’s politics, but he thought Hammond—whom he depicted as a pampered rich boy—sacrificed his critical integrity to his ideological convictions:
He is all for the working class. Fine. He’s dedicated to the cause of the Negro. Fine. But he’s too apt to shut his ear to the music of someone who didn’t pay off on a date or said nuts to the lettuce pickers and call it criticism. And when he goes around saying “white musician” the way you’d use the term “greaseball,” he not only confuses his readers and upsets his own standards but starts the Jim Crow car all over again, in reverse.
The Nation’s classical music critic, B. H. Haggin, who had worked with Hammond at both WEVD and the Brooklyn Eagle in the early 1930s, thought Hammond’s political concerns had destroyed his talent as a critic. “Hammond,” he wrote, “began with his mind, his sharp ears, his fine musical sensitiveness fixed on the music,” but over time had allowed himself to be concerned with “innumerable extraneous and irrelevant considerations, such as whether a company’s plant was unionized or a player was a Negro.”
Hammond, Duke Ellington, and the “Lost Cause”
One of the strongest attacks on Hammond came from Duke Ellington, writing in Down Beat in 1939. Ellington acknowledged that Hammond had earned the gratitude of some musicians but charged that his judgment had become “slightly warped” and his “prejudices a little bit unwieldy” because of his work as “an ardent propagandist and champion of the ’lost cause,’” identifying himself with “the interests of the minorities, the Negro peoples, to a lesser degree, the Jew, and to the underdog, in the form of the Communist party.” Ellington soon retracted the red-baiting charge: “It was my intention to merely infer that the political affiliations of Mr. Hammond bordered on the ’left wing.’”
Squawking between creators and critics may be the background noise of the modern arts, perhaps especially so in jazz, but this particular battle deserves special scrutiny for what it reveals of two of the most powerful voices in the swing-era discourse on jazz aesthetics and racial politics. Each combatant is plenty fascinating in his own right, of course, but Ellington and Hammond are even more interesting in their relationship to each other, and in the ways that their overlapping and competing ambitions channeled larger currents of race, class, and culture. Both were audacious in their assault on social boundaries—Hammond, the WASP class traitor who defied his parents’ segregationist convictions; Ellington, the bourgeois race man whose black-tie symphonic concertizing typified the racial uplift strategy favored by Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the New Negro wing of the Harlem Renaissance, but who was also an urbane hipster, proud of what he called his “pool-hall education,” a quality that connected him to the emergence of a new urban folk sensibility championed by Langston Hughes and other younger members of the movement. Both were canny, even slippery operators: Hammond, who saw the fight for racial equality and labor rights as indistinguishable from the fight for recognition of the superiority of the Count Basie rhythm section; Ellington, whose constant morphings challenged and confounded static definitions of jazz and black artistry—now the “primitive” purveyor of “jungle” sounds, now the artist-intellectual writing both musical scores and critiques of jazz critics, now the media-savvy commercial entertainer. Such was the performative brilliance of the man who was fond of calling himself—in an upper-class British accent—a “primitive pedestrian minstrel.”
Ellington’s attack on Hammond in Down Beat in 1939 followed Hammond’s blistering 1935 assault on the extended work Reminiscing in Tempo. In an article titled “The Tragedy of Duke Ellington,” Hammond said the thirteen-minute piece was “formless and shallow” and signaled Ellington’s capitulation to European influences like Debussy and Delius. Calling the piece “un-Negroid,” Hammond brazenly argued that the “trouble with Duke’s music is that fact that he has purposely kept himself from any contact with the troubles of his people or mankind in general.” Ellington’s music “has become vapid and without the slightest resemblance of guts,” Hammond argued, because Ellington “keeps himself from thinking about such problems as those of the southern share croppers, the Scottsboro boys, [and] intolerable working and relief conditions.” Hammond concluded: “ It would probably take a Granville Hicks [the literary editor of the New Masses] or a Langston Hughes to describe the way he shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race.”
A monument to Hammond’s self-importance as an arbiter of both political virtue and racial authenticity, the review defined “black music” in narrow ideological and formal terms that Ellington and many other African American musicians have challenged in a number of ways. By implying that the vitality of jazz was necessarily connected to both a specific political program and an exacting definition of “negroid” aesthetics, Hammond’s review posited a standard of purity that not even Hammond’s favored musicians could attain. Count Basie’s band, with its freewheeling riff style and eschewal of written charts, best matched Hammond’s prescription for authentic black jazz. But not even Hammond ascribed the superiority of Basie’s rhythm section to its players’ concerns about the problems of southern sharecroppers. Ellington had his own ideas about what he called “Negro music,” and they were not limited to the three-minute swing dance tunes Hammond would have preferred that he play. Though unwilling to submit to Hammond’s litmus test, Ellington harbored his own ideas about racial authenticity. He asserted that his aim “has always been the development of an authentic Negro music, of which swing is only one element.” Whether performing for social dancers or concert listeners, reveling in syncopated rhythms or writing complex harmonies, Ellington maintained that his musical aesthetic was “definitely and purely racial.” Whether as a jazz composer and bandleader or as a public celebrity, Ellington felt he certainly didn’t need John Hammond to instruct him on how to represent his race.
The summa of Ellington’s explicitly race-conscious writing was the solemn and sweeping portrait of African American experience in his extended suite Black, Brown, and Beige, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in January 1943. Subtitled “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” the suite was a series of musical moods invoking the experiences of enslavement, whippings, escapes, emancipation, Jim Crow segregation, mass migration, urbanization, religious conviction, and patriotic loyalty. The performance was one of a number of World War II–era cultural productions that constructed an image of African Americans as hardworking, pious, diligent, courageous people who represented the best values of American culture. While pointing to the history of racial oppression and the exclusion of blacks from U.S. citizenship, the suite framed the African American story as a heroic struggle for freedom that crucially supported the nation’s own battle for independence and more recent emergence as a bulwark against international tyranny. Ellington’s narrative gave special attention to black military participation in previous U.S. wars, and the “Beige” movement culminated in a patriotic apotheosis, with Jimmy Britton singing the line: “We’re black, brown, and beige but we’re red, white, and blue.”
While such topical flourishes in Black, Brown, and Beige played to wartime ideological considerations—including the “Double V” campaign to couple the global battle against fascism with the domestic battle against anti-black racism—Ellington’s basic thinking about the piece predated the war and reflected his longstanding interest in racial memory as an artistic resource. The Carnegie concert program notes by Irving Kolodin noted that Black, Brown, and Beige grew out of an unproduced opera Ellington had started in the early 1930s under the working title “boola”—a term, the notes said, that “Negroes use to symbolize the perpetual spirit of the race through time.” Ellington’s invocation of a transhistorical racial spirit, as well as his use of racially inscribed folk materials such as work songs and spirituals in his formal compositions, made him the kind of figure Alain Locke envisioned when he called for jazz to develop into a scored-through concert music that transformed African American vernacular traditions into cosmopolitan art. With Symphony in Black; Black, Brown, and Beige; and other extended compositions such as New World a-Coming (1943), Harlem (1951), and My People (1963), and with his sacred concerts, Ellington devoted a substantial portion of his career to work that embodied the New Negro vision of symphonic jazz.
This was the Ellington that John Hammond regarded as a traitor to the purist values of hot jazz. Continuing the assault he had launched with his pan of Reminiscing in Tempo, Hammond ripped into Black, Brown, and Beige in a review article bearing the portentous title “Is the Duke Deserting Jazz?” Hammond deemed it “unfortunate that Duke saw fit to tamper with the blues form in order to produce music of greater ’significance’” than his swing tunes of the early 1930s. Ellington’s interest in complex harmonies, Hammond argued, “alienated a good part of his dancing public.” He concluded: “I hope that some day [Ellington] will be able to find himself once again and continue his contributions to the folk—or people’s—music of our time.” Hammond’s review appeared in Jazz magazine, whose young editor, Bob Thiele, agreed with Hammond’s view that the concert suite was a pretentious effort to reach beyond the inherent resources of the jazz idiom. Thiele found Ellington’s arrangements marred by “exaggerated coloring” and an “over rich layer cake of ideas and tones” that were “in direct opposition to the fundamentals of jazz.”
When Victor issued a recording of Black, Brown, and Beige, Roger Pryor Dodge condemned it as an unfortunate example of “arranged jazz” that rendered interpretations of moods and styles rather than unselfconscious musical expression unto itself. Instead of blues, for example, Ellington offered a movement called “The Blues,” leading Dodge to “wonder what use was served the whole era of Bessie Smith as a contribution to the blues in jazz.” Conspicuously absent throughout the composition was precisely the element that for Dodge constituted the real in composed music: passages that faithfully captured the creative origins of the music in the dance context, and that “stood on the same ground” as the improvisations performed in those originary moments. “This the Duke’s composition cannot do,” Dodge averred, “because he has not developed the jazz idiom but has borrowed from both the ’arrangement’ and the last echo of Debussy.” He concluded with characteristic acerbity: “This Duke composition should be listened to as a piece which exemplifies the path that jazz should not take.”