From More Intelligent Life:
JOHN HAMMOND WAS a boy of ten when he fell in love with the new music called jazz. Rather than heading home after school to his family’s mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he would jump on an uptown bus and deposit himself, 30 blocks away, in a different world. The world he left behind was monied, white, sedate; the one to which he travelled was poor, black and popping with energy. To John Hammond, it felt like real life. The shop-owners and doormen of Harlem got used to the sight of the skinny white kid in a blue blazer and peaked cap, riffling through records in music stores, flashing a toothy grin at every-one he encountered. This was the early 1920s. By 1930, Harlem had usurped the South Side of Chicago as the prime destination for America’s jazz and blues musicians. At venues like the Lafayette, Big John’s Gin Mill, Minton’s and the Cotton Club, players and fans would drink, flirt, smoke and play. Hammond was still making the trip uptown, only now they let him into the clubs. In his button-down shirt and tie, he cut an incongruous figure. But he was friendly with dozens of black musicians and club-owners who knew that this lemonade-sipping young white man loved the same music they did and knew all about it. Hammond was born to immense wealth (his mother was a Vanderbilt) but longed to fly the gilded cage. To his father’s dismay, he dropped out of Yale in 1931 to work in the fast-growing record business. To succeed, he needed to find and record new artists. So he crisscrossed New York, from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in search of undiscovered talent. “Drop into almost any nightclub…any recording date or broadcast or audition or rehearsal,” wrote a jazz critic, Otis Ferguson, “and if you stick around long enough, you are almost sure to see John Henry Hammond, Jr, in the flesh, if briefly.”
One February night in 1933, Hammond rapped on an anonymous door on 133rd St. One of his singer friends, Monette Moore, ran a new speakeasy, and he had come to see her perform. As it turned out, she couldn’t make it. Her replacement was a girl called Billie Holiday. Hammond hadn’t heard of her—which meant nobody had—but she took his breath away. Just 17, Holiday was tall, unconventionally beautiful, with an imperious bearing. Her artistry gave Hammond shivers. She sang just behind the beat, her voice wafting languidly over the accompaniment like smoke from a cigarette. She didn’t just sing the songs, she played them with her voice. “I was overwhelmed,” Hammond said.