Swing Low, Sweet American Music
(FORTUNE Magazine) – From Spirituals to Swing (Vanguard)
In 1938 and 1939, the musical adventurer John Hammond set out, in his words, "to bring recognition to the Negro's supremacy" in American music. Which apparently meant to Hammond, who was Cornelius Vanderbilt's great-grandson, that you brought it into Carnegie Hall. And while you were at it, you cut an acetate recording of the proceedings for your own personal use.
God bless the very rich when their passions are worthy. The three-disk reissue of From Spirituals to Swing comes as close as anything you'll find to an authentic version of rural and western black music in the last moment before it became all of America's music--despite Hammond's introductions, in which he sounds like George Plimpton addressing the Harvard Club. Some of the cuts are simply astounding, like Sonny Terry and Bull City Red's nuclear collaboration on "The New John Henry," and Mitchell's Christian Singers' soul-shaking "What More Can My Jesus Do?" And some are cherishable for their historical power: Lester Young's clarinet work in a quintet drawn from the Basie Orchestra, or the surprise appearance of Benny Goodman's brilliant guitarist, Charlie Christian, with the Basie-ites. And then there's the sheer gift from heaven: Joe Turner and Pete Johnson together, live, at their peaks.
Audiophiles won't like this set; there are moments that sound as if some performers, like delightful Helen Humes, were performing in the bottom of a well. Let audiophiles listen to digitally enhanced quadrophonic rainstorms; these disks are for people who love great music.
DANIEL OKRENT is an editor-at-large at Time Inc.