Remembering James Spencer Hammond, 1932-2019
From the obituary appearing in The Baltimore Sun by Fred Rasmussen and Jacques Kelly
Spencer Hammond, former longtime minister of music, organist and choir director at Douglas Memorial Community Church who also taught music in the city public schools for more than three decades, died Thursday, January 24, from complications from a fall. The Pikesville resident was 88.
“Spencer was a highly respected musician’s musician,” said Tom Hall, who had directed the Baltimore Choral Arts Society for 35 years, and is now host of WYPR’s “Midday.” “He was one of the greatest and significant musicians in our city and left his imprint on several generations of students and choir members.”
Michael T. Britt, who has been minister of music at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church since 2012, was a teenager when he first attended one of Mr. Hammond’s concerts at Douglas Memorial. “I grew up in Baltimore and he has been an icon in this town since 1959, and directed one of the largest choirs in the city. He was one of our premier musicians and was looked up to. He was a model for us,” Mr. Britt said. “And when you went to one of his concerts, you had to get there 45 minutes before they started because otherwise you couldn’t get a seat. They were always packed to the gills. Music remained a part of his life until the very end, and his death is really the end of an era in many ways. He was just an amazing man.”
xJames Spencer Hammond, who was born in St. Augustine, FL, and raised there, was the son of Spencer Hammond, a carpenter, and his wife, Catherine Holloway Hammond, a homemaker. As a youngster, he told Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith in a 2015 interview, he would rush up from the basement of the St. Augustine Baptist Church on Sunday mornings 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 said. Not long afterward, Mr. Hammond, who enjoyed listening to radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, began studying organ and piano, and conducting. “The organist said, ‘I don’t want no kid waving his fingers at me,’ but I stood on a chair and conducted,” Mr. Hammond said in the 2015 interview.
He was a 1946 graduate of Excelsior High School in St. Augustine, which at the time, was a segregated educational facility. Mr. Hammond received a bachelor’s degree in music in 1950 from Florida A&M University, where he was a member of the Marching 100 band, and a master’s in music from Northwestern University.
In the 1940s, he went to hear the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a fellow Floridian, who was preaching at a church in St. Augustine, out of which grew a lifelong personal and professional friendship. The two men shared a passion for classic gospel music. “I’m talking about high-class gospel music, the kind that was sung by Wings Over Jordan, the Deep River Boys and the Southernaires.” Mr. Bascom made a promise to his friend. “Marion told me, ‘If I get a big church, I’m going to send for you.’ People say that stuff to you when you’re young, and it’s nice to hear, but it doesn’t always happen.” Mr. Hammond was teaching music in St. Petersburg in 1959 when Mr. Bascom, who had moved to Baltimore to pastor Douglas Memorial Community Church, visited St. Petersburg, and offered him the job of minister of music, organist and choir director. “As a partnership, it was a powerhouse,” Mr. Hall said. Mr. Bascom, who was also venerated for his civil rights activism, retired from Douglas Memorial in 1995 and dies in 2012.
Mr. Hammond drew music for his choir from the classic hymn book and while most choirs rehearsed once a week, he insisted on at least two nights a week. “His knowledge of choral music and that genre was encyclopedic. He knew the history of spirituals. It was just amazing,” Mr. Britt said. “If you wanted to know something about a spiritual, all you had to do was ask him because he knew it.” When Mr. Britt came to Brown Memorial, Mr. Hammond, who had left his position at Douglas in 2002 and joined Brown Memorial, was a choir member. “Whenever we did a spiritual, Spencer gave me music notes on how it should be performed.”
“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,” Mr. Hall said in the 2015 news story. “But if you knew the milieu of the black church community, you knew Spencer was a giant.” “He was one of the deans of that movement,” Mr. Hall said in a telephone interview. “It was always about the music and art, it was never about him,” Mr. Britt said. “He was embarrassed if you ever complimented him.” Mr. Hammond’s lifework and Mr. Bascom’s were honored in a 2015 concert at Brown Memorial. “He didn’t want the concert until we told him he could select the music,” Mr. Britt recalled. “He was a very humble man and wanted it to be about the music.”
In addition to his work at Douglas Memorial, Mr. Hammond taught music in city public schools for 31 years until retiring in the early 1990s, also taught a course on African-American music at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for several years, and taught piano. For the past two years, Mr. Hammond had been a member of Brown Memorial’s hand bell choir.
Donations to the Baltimore AGO’s Organ Scholars program in memory of J. Spencer Hammond can be made at https://www.baltimoreago.org/donate