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Baltimore music 'giant' J. Spencer Hammond to be honored in concert

J. Spencer Hammond
J. Spencer Hammond (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

UPDATE: After two weather-caused delays, the concert has been rescheduled for 4 p.m. April 19

As J. Spencer Hammond is the first to tell you, he has "always preferred to be under the radar." But the 84-year-old choir director, organist and teacher, a fixture in Baltimore's church music scene since 1959, will be front and center on Sunday during a public concert in his honor.

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The event will be held at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill, with its radiant Tiffany windows. The Chancel Choir of that church will be featured and, in the finale, joined by about two dozen singers who sang with Hammond during his four-decade tenure as minister of music and organist at Douglas Memorial Community Church.

With his trimmed gray beard, Hammond cuts a distinguished figure, even when moving slowly and using a cane. Get him started on his favorite topic — "Music is a hot spot for me," he says — and he couldn't sound heartier.

In addition to his tenure at Douglas Memorial, he taught in Baltimore public schools for 31 years and also offered a course on African-American music at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for several years. He continues to give piano lessons.

But Hammond's principal passion has always been church music. "One of my teachers called it my 'lady on the side,'" he says with a sly smile.

Hammond recalls Sunday school mornings as a kid at First Baptist Church in St. Augustine, Fla., when he would rush up from the basement the moment he heard the organ motor cranking up 10 minutes before the 11 a.m. service. "I got a kick out of listening to that organ," he says.

Before long, Hammond was taking organ and piano lessons, learning hymns, getting his first experience leading a choir — "The organist said, 'I don't want no kid waving his fingers at me,'" he says, "but I stood on a chair and conducted."

Hammond's musical interest never waned. He recalls being enthralled hearing César Franck's "Psalm 150" on a radio broadcast from the 1939 World's Fair — the piece will be on Sunday's program — and catching Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts.

"It was a listening era," Hammond says. "Now it's a looking era — everybody is looking at everything, texting and all that stuff."

Hammond points to other differences with the past. Music education, for example. "We started in first grade," he says. "The worst music in schools back then was better than what is going on now."

And then there's the subject of today's clergy.

"It used to be that at seminary a minister took required courses in hymnology and worship music," he says. "This is no longer so. You can be appointed to a church without knowing a thing about music. These youngsters don't know the hymnbook."

But they might be well-versed on contemporary gospel music, which is very popular. Does Hammond embrace that genre?

"Done well, I can tolerate it," he says. "But I'm talking about high-class gospel music, the kind that was sung by Wings Over Jordan, the Deep River Boys and the Southernaires."

In the 1940s, before heading off to earn degrees from Florida A & M University and Northwestern University, Hammond met a pastor in St. Augustine, a fellow Florida native, the Rev. Marion C. Bascom. This minister knew the old anthems, and he recognized talent.

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"Marion told me, 'If I get a big church, I'm going to send for you,'" Hammond says. "People say that stuff to you when you're young, and it's nice to hear, but it doesn't always happen."

In this case, it did.

Bascom visited St. Petersburg in 1959, a decade after moving to Baltimore to join Douglas Memorial. Hammond, who was recently married and teaching in the area, went to hear Bascom preach. When the two men met afterward, Bascom asked Hammond to give the music post at Douglas Memorial a try.

"I found out there were people at that church who loved to sing and who were very receptive to me," says Hammond, who moved to Baltimore with his wife, Constance (she will be attending Sunday's concert, along with the couple's daughter, Kathe Hammond, director of administration for the Office of the Mayor).

Bascom, who retired from Douglas memorial in 1995 and died in 2012, is recognized not only for his pastoring, but also for his work as a prominent civil rights activist. One of his daughters will be among the speakers interspersed with the music during the Hammond concert.

Randy Williams, who was a teenager when he joined Hammond's choir at Douglas Memorial and, now middle-aged, helps out driving him, says it was easy to sing for him — "If you had high standards. His favorite line was, 'Let's go back and sing this like you're over 30,'" Williams says.

Hammond's choir did plenty of rehearsal. One night a week is typical for choirs; Hammond called for at least two.

"At Douglas Memorial, you had this incredible historic preacher and this amazing music program," says Baltimore Choral Arts Society music director Tom Hall, who will participate in Sunday's concert. "Spencer was one of a group of renowned black musicians in this town who flew under the radar of the audience that went to the symphony and opera. But if you knew the milieu of the black church community, you knew Spencer was a giant."

Marco Merrick knew it first-hand. Founder of the Community Concert Choir of Baltimore, which is devoted to preserving the kind of repertoire Hammond champions, Merrick worshipped at Douglas Memorial and was on its music staff for many years.

"One of my earliest recollections as a young boy was going to Douglas Memorial to hear Spencer's choir," Merrick says. "He always had such a high standard of excellence. And he is a walking history of music."

When Michael Britt, current minister of music at Brown Memorial, was getting interested in being a church organist, he started hearing about Hammond.

"I knew Spencer was an icon among so many musicians here," says Britt, who will take part in Sunday's program. "As a teenager, I went to a concert at Douglas Memorial. It was packed, and I finally was able to find a seat in the last row. Watching this man conduct was incredible."

Britt got the idea of a tribute to Hammond, who left his Douglas Memorial post in 2002 when the church underwent changes in leadership and musical directions. Brit and Shirley Parry, director of the Tiffany Series of concerts and other events at Brown Memorial, saw the project as a way to remind people of Hammond, as well as Bascom.

"I did not agree with this at first," Hammond says. "What sold me was that the program would be about my life with Marion. And I was told I could plan the program. I got on Michael's nerves by bringing him more and more music. I was pushing the pieces on my bucket list."

The program encapsulates the repertoire that Hammond regularly emphasized with his choir — traditional hymns and spirituals; sacred music by Handel, Mendelssohn, Brahms and others from the classical genre. And works written or arranged "by very fine black composers who are near and dear to me," Hammond says, among them Undine Moore, R. Nathaniel Dett and Robert L. Morris.

Hammond is no stranger to Brown Memorial, where his Douglas ensemble occasionally sang with the resident choir. Since his retirement from Douglas, he has attended services at Brown and was coaxed into joining the bass section of the choir.

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Sunday's tribute concert will neatly reflect Hammond's tastes and values, and offer an opportunity to see him in action. He'll conduct the final work, the stirring spiritual "My Lord, What a Mornin'," arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, another of Hammond's African-American musical heroes.

"I'm excited about it," he says.

Hammond's admirers sound pleased, too, that this concert was organized for him.

"He is most deserving of any and every honor," Merrick says. "He has been faithfully dedicated and committed to his craft for so long."

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