There’s no better Christmas listen than “From Spirituals to Swing”—two jazzy Yuletide concerts from the late 1930s, brought to you by John Hammond and the wise men and women of rhythm.
The Jazz Magi of Carnegie Hall
As a massive fan of both Christmas and jazz, it was inevitable, upon learning of From Spirituals to Swing—John Hammond’s two Yuletide dream-roster gigs in 1938 and 1939—that they would lodge in my imagination like Saint Nick himself. I was in college at the time, newly into jazz, passions once unknown and dormant within me actuated by this form of music that held so many other forms within it.
That last notion grabbed me especially, the idea that an idiom requiring highly specific and specialized skills—does any musician need to think faster than a jazz musician?—was also ecumenical. I liked the idea of churches whose doors were open to all, whose prevailing idea of faith was the possession of a large and open heart, rather than adherence to a single doctrine. And it was the recordings of these two concerts, my version of jazz Christmas, that brought this particular sleigh ride home for me.
It’s easy to lose sight of how radical these two concerts were in their time. That each fell under the heading of From Spirituals to Swing offers a clue. That title was a tacit acknowledgment of how closely linked church music—which itself was closely linked to the music of the fields—was with the mighty chops of, say, a band like the Count Basie Orchestra. That’s what I experienced when I listened to Basie’s tenor man Herschel Evans tear into a solo: I felt the earthiness, the straining, the assertion of the indefatigable nature of the self present in field hollers—a human cry of freedom.
Jazz in the 1930s was the ultimate melting pot music. It stirred in the blues, the Baptist church service, strands of Ives and Dvorak, vaudeville, Sousa, and Creole funeral airs. Hammond was an artists and repertoire (A&R) man, the musical equivalent of a baseball scout who sits up in the stands with pencil and notebook trying to ascertain which players on the local unprofessional squad have the get-up-and-go—and the pluck—to go big time. These musicians gigged, and so did Hammond, in his way, a scout who beat feet on pavement. He “discovered” Count Basie and Billie Holiday, facilitating their journeys from the club to generations of record players in a manner for which we all ought to be grateful. But back in 1938, Hammond courted a line of fire.
Both Spirituals to Swing concerts were held at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. This was a largely black group of performers, but a big mixed crowd was expected, which was, disturbingly, a no-no at the time. Carnegie Hall was the place for European classical traditions, and that meant it was a place for whiteness. Hammond was not having it.
He had an ally of sorts in the American Communist Party. Though not a member himself, he found that his ethical train of thought overlapped with theirs, at least nominally, when it came to equal rights for all. Buoyed financially by the Marxist New Masses journal, Hammond was able to put enough pressure on the powers that be that a concert, a kind of away-in-a-manger celebration of jazz, would be held on December 23, 1938, with another to follow on Christmas Eve 1939. You might say that when it came to jazz and spreading its joyous gospel of inclusion, Hammond was akin to a boogie-woogie loving Good King Wenceslas. That benevolent fellow went out into the snow to give alms to those in need. I like to think that Hammond, who was all but going door to door, spreading the word, via the music, of jazz, would have dug that deeply. And who does not need music like this?
Both shows were recorded, and Hammond later dubbed in canned intros in the 1950s. This is about as early as it gets for live jazz recordings, which makes it all the more remarkable that both of these festal gigs slot on the shortlist for canonical field recordings. The first concert was dedicated to Bessie Smith, who died the summer before. A quick perusal of the dramatis personae attests to just how popular boogie-woogie was at the time. Pianists Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and Pete Johnson all do their rolling triplets, good-time thing, turning the old classical joint into a sweaty juke joint that probably lent some heat to the cold December streets outside. We get the blues, too, in Big Bill Broonzy, a man who did not leave us much other live material, plus Sonny Terry and a dream pairing of Joe Turner with Pete Johnson—big-barreled blues stretching out with the tidal push-and-pull engineered only by the most dexterous of the Woogie gods.
In another performance for the ages, Ammons jammed with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you didn’t yet understand how jazz fused the sacred with the secular to create its unique form of immersive inclusivity—for people with dreams in the sky and lives atop the soil—then this is the listening service station you needed to get to, and which you should carry yourself to posthaste in the present.
Still, there was no topping the Basie unit, which featured prime Herschel Evans and Lester Young (“Prez”), the greatest tenor frontline in music’s history. They were rivals, and there’s a thematic tension throughout the live recordings they left us, an element of sparring foils. But I love the kinship evident on this night. Both men knew what an important gig this was, that it not only symbolized making it in the music world, but the world at large, where injustice must be vanquished, and equality is the true criterion of having really made it. They knew they belonged on this stage, more than belonged, and together they jointly sermonized, secular-style, that here, a couple nights before Christmas 1938, Santa Claus had come to town. A month and a half later, Herschel Evans would be dead, aged 29.
When I hear Prez at the Christmas Eve 1939 concert, I imagine that Evans must have been on his mind. It was the same stage, almost the same date, during the season of reflection and giving. One great player was down another great player, who had competed with him to make him even greater. For all of the celebrated partnerships in jazz’s history—Trane and Dolphy, Miles and Trane, Bird and Diz, Evans and LaFaro, Ella and Louis—the Evans-Young match is my favorite, and easily the most competitive. In the 1939 concert, Young played his Christmas blues in a band dubbed the Kansas City Six, a sextet you’d love to awake and find under your garland-decked tree. The family may have been down a member, but it was still Christmas.
The big addition in 1939 was Charlie Christian, who was more shocking on the electric guitar in his time than Jimi Hendrix would be in his, almost 30 years later. As with Hendrix, guys on the scene wanted to hear Christian. The artists gathered in the wings to listen in as he played on the stage. He certainly had the right name for a gig like this, at a time like that. Freddie Green from the Basie band plays rhythm, leaving the lead work to Christian. He’s in dazzle-mode, and if the electric guitar sounded crude to some, sonically circumscribed, a gimmick, he might as well have played the roof off of that old hall, letting loose the possibilities he fashioned from his instrument with seemingly every chord.
Christian cascades, but he also pulls back, skips through ankle-deep rills, crests upon currents born from deep chest cavities of exclaimed human experience that just happen to utilize this guitar as all-communicative mouth, sounding board, both. Symbolism is at play. The amalgamated style of music, involving so many other forms of music—which these two gigs served as a veritable workshop to experiment with—has come home to roost in strings, machine heads, sound hole.
The symbolism is advanced a symbol further with Christian joining Lionel Hampton on vibes, Fletcher Henderson at the piano, and Benny Goodman on clarinet for an integrated—in so many ways, with skin color being just one of them—jam session. This was not a band you heard every day, and it wasn’t one you would hear again without the recordings made from this particular Christmas story. So, behold. This is jazz’s star in the night, and these wise men and women knew how to bear, share, and celebrate the best of gifts.