From Spirituals to Swing.

robert-johnsonin 1938, producer John Hammond decided to present an ambitious concert documenting the history of “American Negro music, from spirituals to Swing.” Hence the name, and hence the historic night at New York’s Carnegie Hall that December. Intended as a tribute to Bessie Smith, who had died the previous year, the concert ended up being a memorial to Robert Johnson as well, who died shortly before coming to New York to appear as one of the featured acts. Hammond used Count Basie, and his extremely progressive and influential orchestra of the time, as the host band. In spite of Basie’s edgy soloists, his material never strayed too far from its Kansas City blues roots, making him the ideal headliner. Sitting in, and also in separate performance, were a cross-section of blues, gospel and jazz acts, most of whom were unknown to the mostly white, and very uptown audience. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mitchell’s Christian Singers covered the “spirituals” part of the bill, while Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Bessie’s sister, Ruby Smith, filled out the blues side of things. Blues shouters Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes performed as well. Traditional, and by this time mostly forgotten, jazz styles were represented by the great Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier and James P. Johnson. One of the big draws was the chance to see the three top boogie-woogie pianists, Pete Johnson, Meade “Lux” Lewis and Albert Ammons. Boogie-woogie was at the beginning of a two or three year national craze, and a chance to see its originators was a treat for many. Basie introduced his Kansas City Six band-within-a-band, featuring Lester Young and Buck Clayton, and performed a set with the full big band, too. The concert was sponsored by the Marxist workers’ magazine, New Masses, and was popular enough to repeat the following year with a similar sort of lineup. Both concerts were recorded, so the audio is still available to hear, but one wonders what it might have been like if Robert Johnson (pictured here, at left) had survived long enough to perform. Can you imagine live, concert recordings of that greatest of all blues singers? What recordings we do have, including the 1939 concert’s inclusion of Benny Goodman’s brand new sextet with guitarist Charlie Christian, are dandies. Check out these, if you’re so inclined. And check out posters of the show at our sister site, Growling Hamster.

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