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The Producer

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The Producer
Dunstan Prial
Hardcover; 347 pages
ISBN: 9780312426002
Picador
2007

Dunstan Prial's book The Producer sheds a new light on the life of John Hammond—producer, A&R executive, writer/journalist, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People board member and all-round jazz enthusiast. Armed with solid and detailed research, Prial chronologically recounts the tale of the Vanderbilt scion's indefatigable passion for music, as he amateurishly strolled the scene in search of inspiring, new artistic collaborations—from guitarist Charlie Christian through rock singer Bruce Springsteen—all the while tending to his social reform preoccupations and giant network of friends and contacts.

Its title derived from the most debatable of Hammond's trade skills, The Producer fills out Hammond's musical biography as well as his social/political agenda and physical surroundings. Though the first half sets the scene with somewhat complacent, off-topic and descriptively redundant rhetoric—the characteristic hairdo, broad smile, expressions, conservative clothing, ever-present stack of newspapers et al are mentioned time and again—the author candidly and patiently uncovers Hammond's rather peculiar personality, through diverse accounts of professional and private events documented by carefully selected interview excerpts from relatives and business contacts. This "balanced" approach makes things more interesting, especially if one has read Hammond's autobiography John Hammond On Record (Ridge Press, 1977.) In fact, The Producer can be considered a companion to Hammond's book.

But how Hammond came to make such unusual life choices for a man of his upbringing and family history, and the manner in which he conducted himself, are only indirectly addressed by Prial. Was Hammond guided by a sense of social mission or by sheer musical passion? Maybe both. There, peeking through the abundantly detailed narrative on both private and professional accomplishments and blemishes, is the real treasure: the discovery of a man's fascinatingly laid-out life.

Interestingly, for a man reported to be "difficult," "kind of bossy" and an "opinionated meddler" by some interviewees, Hammond comes over as a lovable contrarian; the more so considering that, although he was always ready to help artists any ways possible, one learns to one's surprise that the Columbia executive was in fact quite often sidelined from the creative process by either an artist's entourage (Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen's respective managers, for example) or by the artists themselves.

Hammond's impact was as great outside the record business as it was within it. As forerunners in the fight for integration, he and brother-in-law Benny Goodman, as well as his young protege Charlie Christian, were quintessential in the evolving face of American society. Each was a key catalyst to the process of change, and Prial makes this the central argument of his chapter on Hammond's historically significant "From Spirituals To Swing" concert. Again recently, on the eve of Black History Month, Billboard magazine published a text mentioning Hammond's early, proactive involvement in fighting segregation.

As Prial notes, Hammond's position as Musical Director of Cafe Society, the left-wing, racially-integrated, Greenwich Village nightclub—advertising tagline "the Wrong Place for the Right People," where Billie Holiday created a media storm with her performances of "Strange Fruit"—and his providing racially-mixed talents for Communist-steered benefit concerts, established him as someone beyond the norm, with a foothold in the progressive intellectual forces driving change in the record business and in broader American society. Jazz writer John McDonough sums it up very clearly: "His ears respond to new music as soundings of social change."

This eerie prescience at foreseeing both social movements and the public's taste in music explains Hammond's success and the importance of his legacy. That, and a buoyant enthusiasm for the music and an ability to recognise talent in the raw. Perhaps the best words come from Bruce Springsteen; "I always felt that my music was safe with him." What more is there to say?

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