Creating a Legacy in Music and Social Justice

John Hammond was born into a family of privilege. At an early age, he became interested in music and played the piano at age 4 and the violin at age 8. While his family would listen to classical music, he was more interested in the music being played by the servants who were mostly African Americans.

John’s mother was a social reformer and used her personal wealth to advance social causes. His mother’s concern for helping others would have a great impact on his career.

John became acquainted with jazz when he was 13 while in England. When he returned to the U.S., he was dismayed that he couldn’t find jazz recordings in Manhattan. His search for jazz recordings took him to Harlem and set the course for his life.

After a failed attempt at college, he moved to Greenwich Village where music of all types was flourishing. He began to scout music talent and became an advocate for musicians to recording companies. He worked to integrate the music industry. Some of the African American artists he helped become established included Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Aretha Franklin.

John was also an advocate for white musicians who were outside of the mainstream at the time. These included Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. He produced Dylan’s recording of Blowin’ in the Wind, for which he was ridiculed by the music industry.

At the age of 33, John joined the military where he was assigned responsibility for working with African American troops. He helped organize concerts for soldiers featuring African American musicians. He also established integrated sports teams in deeply segregated Georgia.

When he returned from active duty, John resumed his music career working with such musical talents as Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn. John died at the age of 76 listening to Billie Holiday.

Hidden heroes often leave a legacy in more than one area of society. Certainly, John’s advocacy for bringing music talent to the forefront will be with us forever. But he will also be known for integrating the music world.

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“Mr. John Hammond with his pen in hand…Sayin’ sign your kingdom over to me and be known throughout the land.” – (Partial lyrics from the song Avalanche sung by Prince)

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