By the time he was 8, John Hammond had been introduced to jazz in the servant quarters of the six story family mansion on East 91st Street in Manhattan.
"Music, especially music on records, entered my life early to become the catalyst for all that was to happen to me," he writes in his recently published autobiography, "John Hammond On Record."
Today, at 67, Hammond looks back on a career in which he introduced to the world a dazzling array of musical luminaries - Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen.
He was the first to record them; he promoted them tenaciously. And he fondly remembers his initial meetings with them.
It's been an incongrous role for a man born to wealth, a man whose mother was a Vanderbilt and whose father was a successful lawyer.
Hobnobbing with black musicians in the '30s, Hammond, a pre-school graduate and Yale drop-out, witnessed racial segregation - in hotels, restaurants and housing. And he found a new cause - fighting for social justice.
"Everything I was trying to do in the music business was connected to my attempt to rectify the wrongs that had been done to American jazz and black people," he once said.
In an interview yesterday, Hammond explained: "I became concerned because I got to know guys and I got to know things that bothered them. Personal pique.Maybe it was family arrogance. If a person couldn't go to barber shop or a restaurant, I wanted to make it so that he could."
As a young man, Hammond waded straight into the racial trench warfare of the '30s. In 1935, he covered the Scottsboro case, the trial of nine black youths accused of raping two women, for The Nation.
As an Army enlisted man in World War 11, he watchdogged racial discrimination at several military installations. He became a board member of the NAACP at age 25 ad served the organization until 1967, when he resigned in protest over executive director Roy Wilkins' support of the Vietnam war.
"Lots of people called me a "nigger lover," he grinned in his toothy fashion. "But I never let that bother me. I'm going to be accused of reverse racism by everyone. I started to call my book 'Nigger Lover' but the publisher wouldn't hear it."
In his book, Hammond wrote: "The strongest motivation for my dissent was jazz. The jazz I liked best was played by Negroes."
He explains: "Most people think I'm a fool, but I'm an honest one."
Although active in both politics and music, it was in the latter that most of his social action place.
Before hammond twisted his brother-in-law Benny Goodman's arm to hire blacks like Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian, blacks and whites didn't mix in the same musical groups.
He had already helped break racial barriers in the recording studios by integrating the sessions.
Hammond remembers arguing with Duke Ellington about his efforts to integrate bands. The producer wrote: "His (Ellington's) point was: Why help the white bands by filling them with black players, thereby threatening the survival of the Negro bands?"
Known for his reservations about Ellington's music, Hammond amplifies in the book by writing that "My biggest argument with him concerned his failure, certainly his inability, to get people up on a floor to dance."
He is also critical of Louis Armstrong. "Louis is the '20 was the most exciting force in jazz," recalls Hammond. "In 1933 Louis and I were on the same ship, the Homeric, going to Europe. We had long talks. But by the time he had become interested in money. His playing never developed after those great years.
"He was naturally gifted a musician as there was. He made a lot of money for himself - and for (manager) Joe Glaser.
"The guy who had been hero of my life had lost all his creative impulse. He just sold out. He was worse than Benny Goodman - and benny was bad enough."
Looking like a retired Marine with his ever present crew cut, Hammond has never been reticent to bite the hand that nourishes him - the record companies. Using the pseudonymn of Henry Johnson, he wrote a series of articles for New Masses in 1937 charging DeccaM RCA Victor and Columbia with unfair labor and recording practices.
Decca threatened to sue him for $100,000 but dropped the idea after he proved his charges. Columbia corrected 15 violations of the sanitary code in its Bridgeport plant.
Hammond still talks critically about the record business.
"Some of my book was expurgated by Simon and Schuster," he complains.
In his long career, Hammond, an amateur violist in his younger days, has long been a classical music devotee - and he has recorded many classical artists such as Joseph Szigetti and Ralph Kirkpatrick.
Hammond still considers himself a dissident. "I have not found any organization today that I could work with," he laments. "The Communists are completely out of it. The NAACP is in trouble - even with (new executive director) Ben Hooks. He can't save it. It's terrible for an upper-class guy to talk this way."
A bit feeble from a recent hernia operation, Hammond is still active with Snum music, the production company he and his wife Esmme had. (He retired from CBS in 1975.) His son, John Paul Hammond, the blues singer, has just recorded his 19th album since 1961. Last June the elder Hammond was recording his latest "find," Adam Mackwicz, a young Polish pianist.
He writes: "I still change the world if I could, convince a nonbeliver that my way is right, argue a cause and make friends out of enemies."