Can You Have a Talent For Talent-Spotting?
The Hunch vs The Data
Thanks to everyone who got in touch to say how much they enjoyed last week’s piece on Keir Starmer, or shared it on social media.
This week I’m sharing an article I wrote in 2015 for the Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine about talent-spotting: how it’s changing and whether that change is a good thing or not (tl;dr yes and no!). I’ve edited the original to shorten it and bring it up to date a little.
I have a special affection for this piece, it’s one of my favourites. In particular I adore the story of the extraordinary John Hammond, which tops and tails it (in fact this might be my favourite ending to any piece I’ve written).
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John Hammond was a boy of ten when he fell in love with the new music called jazz. Rather than heading home after school to his family’s mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he would jump on an uptown bus and deposit himself, thirty blocks away, in a different world. The one he left behind was monied, white, sedate; the one to which he travelled was poor, black and popping with energy. To Hammond, it felt like real life. The shop-owners and doormen of Harlem got used to the sight of the skinny white kid in a blue blazer and peaked cap riffling through records in music stores, flashing his toothy grin at everyone he encountered.
This was the early 1920s. By the end of the decade, Harlem had usurped the South Side of Chicago as the prime destination for America’s jazz and blues musicians. At venues like the Lafayette, Big John’s Gin Mill, Minton’s and the Cotton Club, musicians and fans would drink, flirt, smoke and play. Hammond was still making the trip uptown, only now they let him into the clubs. In his button-down shirt and tie, he cut an incongruous figure. But he was friendly with dozens of black musicians and club-owners who knew that this lemonade-sipping white man loved the music with the same passion they did.
Hammond was born to immense wealth (his mother was a Vanderbilt) but longed to fly the gilded cage. To his father’s dismay, he dropped out of Yale in 1931 to work in the fast-growing record business. To succeed, he needed to find and record new artists. So he crisscrossed New York, from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in search of undiscovered talent. “Drop into almost any nightclub…any recording date or broadcast or audition or rehearsal,” wrote a jazz critic, Otis Ferguson, “and if you stick around long enough, you are almost sure to see John Henry Hammond, Jr, in the flesh, if briefly.”
One February night in 1933, Hammond rapped on an anonymous door on 133rd St. One of his singer friends, Monette Moore, ran a new speakeasy, and he had come to see her perform. As it turned out, she couldn’t make it. Her replacement was a girl called Billie Holiday. Hammond hadn’t heard of her – which meant nobody had – but she took his breath away. Just 17, Holiday was tall, unconventionally beautiful, with an imperious bearing. Her artistry gave Hammond shivers. She sang just behind the beat, her voice wafting languidly over the accompaniment like the smoke from her cigarette. She didn’t just sing the songs, she played them with her voice. “I was overwhelmed,” Hammond said.
Billie Holiday became the first big find of John Hammond’s extraordinary career. Hammond’s early discoveries and protégés included several of the century’s greatest jazz artists: the “king of swing” Benny Goodman, the swing pianist Teddy Wilson, the vibes player and bandleader Lionel Hampton, the guitar wizard Charlie Christian. Hammond had exceptional antennae for talent. One night in 1936, restless after watching Goodman perform in Chicago, he went to his car, switched on the radio and span through the airwaves. Through the crackle at the end of the dial, he picked up the faint sound of a swing band with a driving rhythm section. It was a live transmission from the Reno club in Kansas City, and the band was the Count Basie Orchestra. It wouldn’t be long before Basie, sitting at his piano at the Reno, was presented with the open hand of an impeccably dressed man with an outsized grin. “Hi. I’m John Hammond.”
At the time, black musicians were not supposed to play with white ones. Hammond thought this was crazy. He hated segregation and pushed for racially integrated bands at every opportunity. He believed that virtually all popular music had its roots in black culture and thought it an outrage that as jazz became popular across America its origins were being obscured. So he decided to educate white people. In 1938 he organised a concert at Carnegie Hall called “From Spirituals to Swing”, tracing the lineage of popular music from African drumming to slave chants, Southern blues, gospel and jazz. It featured Basie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner and many others. It was a sellout.
Nobody had told Hammond to go and see Billie Holiday that night in Harlem. She had no fan base, no manager pressing her claims. Nobody wanted to record her. But the moment he saw Holiday, John Hammond just knew she was going to be a star. He had a feeling about this girl. A hunch.
The gift for talent-spotting is mysterious, prized and celebrated. We love to hear stories about the baseball coach who can spot the raw potential of an erratic young pitcher, the CEO who sees potential in the guy in the post room, the director who picks a soloist out of the chorus line. Talent shows are a staple of TV schedules. We like to believe that certain people – sometimes ourselves – can just sense when a person has something special.
But there is another method of spotting talent which doesn’t rely on hunches. In place of intuition, it offers data and analysis. Rather than relying on the gut, it invites us to use our heads. It tends not to make for such romantic stories, but it is effective – which is why, despite our affection, the hunch is everywhere in retreat.
After the jump - why the hunch is in decline, why it’s still valuable, and what Hammond’s incredible career teaches us about the kinds of hunches that work.
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