Dan Morgenstern - History of DownBeat
Dan Morgenstern Resigns at db
Dan Morgenstern began his association with Down Beat in the early fifties not long after his graduation from Brandeis where he was editor of the campus newspaper. He became N.Y. editor of db in 1964 and succeeded Don DeMicheal as editor in 1967. Dan resigned July 19, 1973.
· Dec 1, 2012
A History as Rich as Jazz Itself
There are many roads to jazz, as any collection of fans will demonstrate. But for many of those fans, whose age today can fall anywhere between 10 and 80, that road has been paved with issues of DownBeat magazine.
Over the decades it has instructed, recommended, criticized, praised, condemned, advocated and, in the aggregate, honored the most dynamic American music of the twentieth century. Millions have been led to records and artists on the strength of a DownBeat review, news tip, or profile. It has shaped young tastes in need of guidance and challenged older ones in need of a wake-up call. In the 1930s, before any important book on jazz had yet been written, DownBeat collected the first important body of pre-1935 jazz history. It became a monthly, then semi-monthly, a diary of the swing era as it happened, then tracked the progression of bop, pop, rock, freedom, fusion, and nineties neoclassicism, all from the perspective of the musician. Hard to believe it began by selling insurance.
“You Can’t Sell ‘em Both”
Albert J. Lipschultz was neither a full-time musician nor a professional journalist. He had no interest in leading a band, acquiring power, or editorializing on the affairs of the world.
Al Lipschultz had only one interest. That was selling insurance. After washing out as a saxophone player in Chicago during the years of World War I, he looked for better opportunities. Soon he found one that let him use his contacts in music. Starting in 1921, he began to cultivate an insurance clientele of working Chicago musicians. He took a special interest in savings plans and annuities that promised musicians a monthly retirement income.
Lipschultz was not the only Chicagoan to take an interest in the welfare and financial security of musicians, however. There was James C. Petrillo, president of Local 10 of the American Federation of Musicians and one of the most commanding and aggressive-some would say reckless-figures in the American labor movement. The fact that the thirties was to be labor’s moment at the moral center of American politics gave him even greater power. Anything that concerned musicians concerned Petrillo.
In the early thirties, as Lipschultz concentrated on building his insurance business, he began to see an opportunity that offered benefit to both himself and his customers. There was a need, he felt, for a musician’s newspaper beyond the house organ of the AFM local. So in the summer of 1934, as the Century of Progress Exposition swung into its second season along Chicago’s lakefront, Lipschultz took a small office on the eighth floor of the Woods Theater building on Clark and Dearborn, setting himself up as president of “Albert J. Lipschultz & Associates,” publisher. He called his new magazine DownBeat, and it went on sale, all eight pages, in July 1934 for 10 cents an issue.
Adolph Bessman, an insurance associate of Lipschultz’s, served as business manager. And three associate editors were hired to actually turn out the magazine. Of those three, only Glenn Burrs, a tall, balding ex-saxophone player, would stay with the publication.
By the second issue, DownBeat began listing band sidemen in orchestras playing around the Chicago area. Among the hundreds of forgotten names, a few surprises leap out: Gene Krupa and Jess Stacey [sic] were working for scale and still unknown to the world. In September, DownBeat began running a musicians’ directory. Among the 75 players listed, all within an easy ride of Chicago, was Woody Herman, then a sideman “at liberty,” living on Third Street in Milwaukee. Benny Goodman’s name appeared for the first time in DownBeat that issue; just a note that he was playing opposite Jerry Arlen at Rose’s Music Hall in New York.
Jazz had not yet moved center-stage in American popular music. It was still marginalized and underground, hiding in the rank and file of the various sweet bands that made most of the music to which the country danced. The mainstream media rarely probed jazz. When Fortune magazine ran a major jazz article on Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others in 1933, it was a rarity. Lipschultz held no brief for either form. He admitted to no partisanship, sweet or jazz. He was a salesman who felt arguments were bad for business. DownBeat’s raison d’etre was good will, not controversy. In 1934 the magazine ran no record reviews, no editorials, no music analysis, no criticism.
So, it must have taken Lipschultz by surprise when in the fall of 1934 he received a phone call from the formidable Petrillo. The union leader took a dim view of competition. He had seen the first issues of DownBeat and presumably had no particular argument with their content, which was thoroughly without provocation. What bothered Petrillo was Lipschultz himself, who seemed to be empire building. But in Chicago there was only one empire that counted, and that was Local 10. “You can sell my musicians insurance or you can sell them a magazine,” Petrillo was reported to have said. “But you can’t sell them both.”
Lipschultz understood the situation immediately. He and Bessman withdrew their names from the masthead with the November issue. On November 28th Burrs purchased the magazine for a mere $1,500 and Lipschultz never again played a role.
By January 1935, the original associate editors were gone and the first record reviews began appearing, leading with Warren Scholl’s enthusiastic praise for Duke Ellington’s “latest composition, ‘Solitude’,” from Brunswick Records. Burrs took the official title of publisher and editor and hired a young free spirit named Carl Lynn Cons as associate editor and business manager, the latter title being something of a fiction. Cons had no head for business details. Nevertheless, the two soon became partners and co-owners. Burrs, a tall, extremely slender man in his late forties, was a back-slapping fellow who had a knack for being everybody’s friend. His gregariousness made him a natural salesman, which inthe magazine business means advertising. Cons came from Kansas City, where he had played piano professionally and dreamed of writing the Great American Novel. One associate called him “an editorial Barnum.” He demanded bizarre headlines and lots of newspaper showmanship. Cons made the pages interesting, if not always entirely respectable.
During 1935 and 1936 DownBeat took a sharp turn from being a parochial little news and gossip sheet to becoming a credible national publication with a solid musician orientation and a particularly keen ear for jazz. Its timing couldn’t have been more superb.
There Was Such a Man
Fresh forces stirred in popular music in the mid thirties, and where they were heading was not at first clear. Black bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb and Bennie Moten may have been denied access to the prestige hotel venues and big money of the top commercial white bands. On the other hand, they were free of commercial constraints, too. The result was a kind of big band music that was the envy of the best, most creative musicians in America. It was only a matter of time before the music of musicians-jazz-mobilized for a vast breakout into the mainstream. What would be needed was someone who could put it into motion. Necessarily, he would have to be white, given the times. But he would also have to be a master virtuoso, a great jazz musician who understood the basic business structure of the music industry. He would have to be a man of iron discipline, enormous stamina, and ruthless determination to succeed.
In 1935 in New York there was such a man.
By the beginning of the year, DownBeat was getting behind Benny Goodman in a big way. “Benny Goodman on Air in Amazing Program” a headline shouted in January. The Goodman orchestra pushed west, sometimes in the face of discouraging indifference, to keep its date with fate at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, where lightning finally struck and Goodman became a national sensation. In November, the band was back in Chicago at the Congress Hotel, four blocks from DownBeat’s Dearborn Street offices. Goodman stories filled the issues as his stay was extended into the spring of 1936. The music quickly acquired a name: “What Is Swing?” shouted a banner headline in April. “Here’s the Answer.” One of the answers was musicality. It was musicians’ music, and DownBeat was a musician’s magazine. As swing swept across the country, DownBeat’s fortunes rose with the tide.
The bylines of many writers who would one day emerge as the most-noted authorities on jazz first appeared in DownBeat as early as 1935. John Hammond appeared in June, calling Ray Noble’s orchestra the “fizzle of the season.” Helen Oakley, who worked as a producer for Irving Mills, wrote about Jack Teagarden. Marshall Stearns, president of the Yale Hot Club, praised Ellington. Leonard Feather, still living in London and appearing as “London correspondent” in October, wrote: “I was in New York for the first time last month and came away with the impression that, however dumb your great U.S. public may be, ours is even dumber.” And Stanley Dance, another Londoner, received his first American byline in February 1936 when he took exception to a point in Stearns’ article that suggested Ellington’s “wah-wah” trumpets were old-fashioned.
Green With Envy
As DownBeat’s authority grew, the editors began to recognize the publicity value of a readers poll. Late in 1936, the first ballots were printed. DownBeat set up separate categories for swing and sweet bands, and asked readers, while they were at it, to nominate an “all-time corn band.” The category was replaced the next year by simply “the king of corn,” a crown that Spike Jones proceeded to win for the next 10 years, after which both his name and the category were retired. The “sweet” category ended after 1946, when Duke Ellington won in both sweet and swing, mocking the distinction and raising suspicions of ballot manipulations. As ad manager, however, Herrick recognized the poll’s potential to expand the magazine’s revenue base with “thank you” ads from musicians, agents, and other industry insiders. But there was one missed opportunity that left Burrs and Cons pounding their fists against the walls. “Metronome had also been running a readers poll,” Herrick said, “and when the editor, George Simon, went to Victor Records in 1939 with the idea of a recording session of Metronome All-Star poll winners, it was a real coup. We were green with envy.”
In 1938, Cons’ lax attitude toward editorial deadlines began to catch up with him and the magazine. After selling hundreds of dollars of New Year’s advertising, he took the page layouts home before Christmas to proof. Then he left town for a week and neglected to send them back to the office. Advertisers were not pleased when the special New Year’s issue didn’t come off the presses until mid January. The incident persuaded Cons and Burrs to hire experienced editorial help. The magazine had been receiving copy out of Kansas City from a 22-year-old unpaid stringer named David Dexter. He worked for the Kansas City Journal-Post, the smallest of the city’s papers. Cons knew the paper was in financial trouble and that Dexter was looking about for other opportunities, preferably out of Kansas City. In the summer of 1938, he offered him $27.50 a week to work for DownBeat. Dexter accepted. Cons brought the staff to full strength when he hired Ted Toll as features editor. Toll was a drummer from Ohio who had actually recorded a half dozen jazz sides in London for Parlophone in 1936 (including an early version of “Christopher Columbus”). As an editor, Toll had a habit of jotting down catchy lines as they occurred to him, whether they applied to a story or not. One he always wanted to use but facts never favored: BENNY KILLS THE CATS IN THE CATSKILLS. He finally bestowed it on altoist Pete Brown (July 1941) when he played the resort center.
By the late thirties, local Chicago bands had disappeared from DownBeat’s columns. The magazine concentrated on national names as records, radio, and movies forged a national culture. Nothing was important unless it had national potential. The swing bands were the biggest thing in music, and DownBeat had gotten in on the ground floor. It was not satisfied with being a “trade” magazine. There were millions of fans across the country who were as eager as anyone to know the inside stories of the music business. The more sensational, the better.
No one knew this better than Cons, who was to journalism what professional wrestling is to athletics. One day in 1939, he noticed Dexter working on a page layout. He walked into his office, looked over his shoulder, and eased him aside. “No, no,” he said, taking up a pencil. “This is what I want to see.” He outlined one-column pictures of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and scribbled a headline above: SHAW STABS GOODMAN WITH PARING KNIFE. “Or vice versa if you like,” he told Dexter. “We have to have something sensational in every issue.”
Cons’ journalistic ethics were understandable, considering his real interests. He spent much of his time trying to write plays, none of which were ever published or staged. His office hours were sometimes pro forma. As for Burrs, who was a generation older, he seemed a bit lost in the changed music scene. He pressed his editors to do stories on pre-swing era orchestras such as Wayne King or sweet bands of the Joe Sanders-Orrin Tucker stripe. Dexter and Toll were polite, but largely brushed them off. “[They] were the ideal bosses,” Dexter later wrote. “They left me alone.”
DownBeat’s location outside New York was no particular burden in the early years. Leonard Feather moved to America and began filing reports from New York by the end of the decade. In any case, all the important musicians came through Chicago. DownBeat’s people would be there, like everyone else, but with the valued privilege of access. When Harry James brought his new band into the Panther Room of the Sherman House, Dexter, Pease, and Toll showed up, pens in hand. Pease cornered Jack Gardner, James’ pianist, while Dexter and Toll chatted with James’ new singer, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was flattered to be sought out by no less than DownBeat. He told them he had done only one other interview in his life, with George Simon of Metronome. The Metronome piece beat DownBeat by a month, Dexter later wrote, but they were the first two raves Sinatra received in the national press.
With Toll and Dexter on staff, the magazine began hitting the stand on schedule for the first time since its founding. Circulation climbed, along with ad revenues. George Hoefer, who began seriously collecting jazz records after seeing a Bob Crosby concert in Chicago, was invited to do a regular column on collecting. Herrick reviewed stock orchestrations put out by publishers to promote songs, in addition to managing ad sales. Bandleaders, or more accurately, their PR agents, began contributing articles.
The music world was a remarkably small place then, often with surprisingly little money to spread around. So writers on the jazz beat often worked both sides of the fence with an guileless insouciance. John Hammond produced sessions for Brunswick and later Columbia Records as he wrote about its artists. Oakley worked for agent Irving Mills, wrote for his house organ, Melody News, and produced many of Ellington’s small-group sides, while contributing this and that to DownBeat. Feather was on Ellington’s payroll as publicist for a period in the forties, produced records, and even wrote songs. DownBeat editor Dexter was producing and annotating some of the first jazz reissues for Decca in 1941 for $35 a album. It was all quite open. Artists often would acknowledge a favor. Basie recorded an original Eddie Durham chart in 1941 that he named “Diggin’ for Dex.” And Jay McShann included “Dexter Blues” on his first Decca session.
The swing era was beginning. To the hip, the world was divided into us and them, meaning those who liked jazz and knew what was good, and everyone else. “An elect minority do really know what this jazz is all about,” Feather wrote with the smug sense of superiority one feels when one is among the “elect” and everyone else is in the dark. DownBeat had both feet planted in the future.
The Woods Theater office was promptly shut down in the winter of 1935, and by June of that year DownBeat was set up at 608 South Dearborn Street. In the mid thirties it was a wonderful place for an entertainment magazine. A block away was the Dearborn Street Station at Polk Street, a rail crossroads of the continent where a reporter could easily catch celebrities for interviews as they killed time between the Santa Fe Super Chief and the Twentieth Century Limited.
Late in 1936, Burrs, who ran the business side of things, decided to take on a full-time advertising manager. DownBeat’s new location along the south Loop was only a few blocks from Lyon & Healy on Wabash, one of the largest music retailers in the country and a meeting place for local musicians. Among them was a 24-year-old trumpet player named Tom Herrick, who held down a day job at Shaw-Walker selling office equipment and jobbed in various groups on weekends. On Friday afternoons he would often take a long lunch and sit in at the Lyon & Healy jam sessions, usually held in the guitar department. Les Paul was among the regulars. Another was Sharon Pease, a DownBeat writer who specialized in piano. He was the one who brought Herrick into the DownBeat orbit, when he asked him to write a promotional piece called “The Book of Licks.” Soon after, Burrs offered Herrick the ad manager’s job for about $21.50 a week.
Contempt that Jumped Off The Page
On the face of it, all this may flag conflict of interest. But it wasn’t so. Beneath the appearances of slack journalistic ethics beat the hearts of pure jazz fans to the core, as devoted as any reader. Like a gathering of witnesses, they became, through DownBeat, what Whitney Balliett would later call jazz’s first “cortege of critics.” They wrote for love, rarely money. Their copy was seldom prejudiced by anything but honest excitement over great music, or indignation over corrupt commercialism. One of the virtues of amateurism is its incorruptibility.
Part of the fun of DownBeat’s early years was that its critics’ opinions were rarely muddled with balance, nuance, or subtle elucidation. Typical was George Frazier, whose literary flair and arbitrary pot shots at the big shots won him a reputation for offbeat outrageousness. Frazier began writing for European music publications and for Mademoiselle while still at Harvard, where he also organized the Boston chapter of the United Hot Clubs, a network of local jazz fan clubs modeled on the organization of the United Hot Clubs of France. He became DownBeat’s ear in the Boston area in 1937 and wrote columns full of cranky, provocative copy the editors in Chicago loved.
Rather than play the booster, he blasted Boston’s talent with a peevish contempt that, according to Charles Fountain, his biographer, “jumped off the page.” To wit: “Any Boston band that plays in tune is a rarity.” He hated all girl singers, except for his madonna, Lee Wiley. When all the world was beating a path to Benny Goodman’s door, Frazier dismissed him as “world-weary and monotonous.”
Frazier took more than a few of his musical cues from Eddie Condon. He rebelled by reflex against anything fashionable, unless, of course, it was something he made fashionable through his writing. But that was rare. He enjoyed playing the outsider. Frazier later moved on to Life magazine and a place as one of jazz’s first men of letters.
The other great intellectual Lone Ranger riding regularly through the pages of DownBeat’s early years was John Hammond, famous now as the career godfather behind Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and others. In the thirties Hammond was a product of exceptional wealth. He was the son of a prominent New York attorney of the same name and Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, whose name spoke for itself.
Hammond’s passions regarding music and politics were equally fierce. He attacked racism at all levels of the music industry and beyond, anywhere he could, including the unofficial communist paper, The New Masses, where he wrote under the nom de plume Henry Johnson. DownBeat, on the other hand, while generally taking enlightened positions on such issues, was reluctant to jump on too many reform bandwagons. Nevertheless, Hammond often found ways to project ideology through his music pieces, sometimes ending up confusing art with propaganda and vice versa. In November 1935, he attacked Duke Ellington less for his music and more for shutting “his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race….He conscientiously keeps himself from thinking about such problems as those of the southern sharecroppers, the Scottsboro boys, intolerable working and relief conditions [sic] in the North and South….Consequently Ellington’s music has become vapid and without guts.” It was a curiously Stalinist view of the artist.
Among Hammond’s most famous and influential DownBeat pieces were the raves he filed from the Reno Club in Kansas City in July 1936 about a new band led by Count Basie (though he had given the first scoop to The New Masses in March). Hammond was so excited and so eager to spread the word, he neglected to sign him to Brunswick Records, where he might have produced his first records. Instead, his raves in DownBeat brought Dave Kapp of Decca Records to Kansas City with a bargain-basement deal of his own, which the naive Basie promptly and unwisely accepted.
Legends were born in Hammond’s DownBeat writings, none more enduring than the story he wrote in the fall of 1937 concerning the death of Bessie Smith in an auto crash. Hammond had heard through sources in the Chick Webb band that Smith had been refused admission to a nearby Memphis hospital and had died en route to another. He related the tale in a DownBeat article headlined “Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting for Medical Aid?” He properly noted to readers that the account was unconfirmed, but added “I am prepared to believe almost anything [about Memphis] because its mayor and police chief publicly urged the use of violence against organizers of the CIO a few weeks ago,” an observation that effectively neutralized his disclaimer about confirmation. The black press picked it up and gave it further credibility. A second DownBeat story a month later clarified the matter and said Smith had been taken directly to a black hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi. But the first story had far more appeal-and, one could argue, mobilizing social value-as a rallying point for public opinion. In a time when far worse things routinely happened to black citizens in the South and when Congress could not even pass anti-lynching legislation in the face of southern opposition, the rumor had a larger validity that sustained it for decades and made it the basis of Edward Albee’s 1960 play The Death of Bessie Smith.
Music criticism of jazz in DownBeat was, like jazz itself, young, arbitrary, and sometimes a bit immature. Reviewers evaluated single discs, rarely albums. They described the music and offered assessments, but analysis was thin and literary flair thinner still. Reviews were captives of a period jargon that would sound quaint in a decade. Discographies notwithstanding, the first book-length history of jazz was still several years away. The early outlines of that history began coming together in DownBeat in June 1936 when Marshall Stearns, the scholarly president of the Yale Hot Club, undertook a running “History of Swing” series, which ran more than 40 issues. It concluded with Jelly Roll Morton in March 1938. Twenty years later Stearns refined his early DownBeat history and published what remains today one of the more enduring jazz histories still in print, The Story of Jazz.
Writers on a Long Leash
Of the three major jazz/big band publications in place by the late ‘30s, each had its reputation. Orchestra World was widely regarded as a bulletin board for PR agents. This left Metronome, whose history began in 1885 as a classical publication, and DownBeat to slug it out. Metronome, which was family-owned by Ned Bittner and edited by George Simon, emphasized the popular bands and current news. It was less concerned with jazz per se and its history. At DownBeat, Cons favored cheesecake and headlines that often promised more than they delivered. But he also gave his writers a long leash. Writers like Fred Ramsey, Paul Eduard Miller, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and George Avakian, all of whom would one day make great contributions, published their first national writing in DownBeat.
If DownBeat was the most important jazz publication, one would not have known it from its covers. Pursuant to Cons’ notions of effective journalism, DownBeat covers were a mixture of celebrated musicians and anonymous models. Photos of sexy models in bathing suits and tight sweaters and aspiring starlets adorned every second or third cover. Generally, the less talent, the more skin. When a top bandleader was featured, it was often at the cost of considerable personal dignity. Gag shots were contrived by publicity agents or Cons himself: Woody Herman dressed as Santa Claus, Jimmy Dorsey dolled up as Father Time. Observant readers with an eye for little hypocrisies might have been amused when in the mid forties DownBeat ran an angry editorial criticizing “leaders who will sacrifice musical value for any funny hat routine.”
DownBeat has been taken to task by some for the relatively few black faces on its covers in the early years. Indeed, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Charlie Christian, Ben Webster, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and Earl Hines, to name just a few, all had to wait until well into the ‘50s or ‘60s before they were on a cover. Was this racism?
Perhaps, though to assume so misses to some extent the point of a magazine cover in those days. It had only had one purpose: to flag attention and invite purchase. With rare exceptions, a picture on DownBeat’s cover had absolutely nothing to do with anything inside the magazine, save for a brief identifying caption in a small inside box. From July 1936 through 1952 DownBeat published about 375 covers, and fewer than 145 featured any important jazz figures. Woody Herman holds the cover record in those years with 11. Jimmy Dorsey and Duke Ellington are tied at second with 10 each. Benny Goodman is third with nine. Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Red Norvo, and Doris Day had six covers each. Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton were tied with five. Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, and Harry James had four. Nat Cole, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller had three each; Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, two. Billie Holiday never appeared on a DownBeat cover during this period. In total, black artists appeared on DownBeat covers nearly 60 times from 1936 to 1952.
But the admonition not to judge a book by its cover is quite literally true in the case of DownBeat. Inside, no music magazine of the period was more progressive or aggressive on the race issue, or in making sure that its readers understood the black innovators who lay behind swing. As early as September 1936, Stearns posed the basic question that has dominated discussions of jazz and its racial politics ever since: Did white musicians “borrow ideas from Negroes?” To Paul Eduard Miller, race was the music’s central issue. “After more than 10 years of comparative analyses…of white and colored instrumentalists,” he wrote, “I have come to the inevitable, and to me obvious, conclusion: Negroes are superior.” Many black musicians who played a major role in the music-often ones whose names had fallen into obscurity, such as trombonist Jimmy Harrison or King Oliver-received proper recognition for their contributions in DownBeat.
In September 1939, DownBeat’s monthly circulation brushed against 80,000. In October, the magazine became a semi-monthly, publishing on the first and fifteenth of every month, a move that, according to Dexter, increased the editors’ work load about 60 percent and the revenues 100 percent. Dexter and Toll also found their salaries raised to $35 a week.
By the end of 1940, Cons was in a dilemma over DownBeat’s New York presence. Leonard Feather, whose $8-a-week apartment on West 92nd Street had served as the magazine’s New York news bureau since February, was “imprudently suggesting that $40 a month was not an adequate stipend,” according to Feather. Cons disagreed. One reason was that Dexter had just told him he had received an offer from Billboard to go to New York as that magazine’s music editor at a salary of $60 a week. Cons saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: keep Dexter happy and continue a strong New York presence, though at Feather’s expense. So he dropped Feather, matched the Billboard offer to Dexter, and sent him off to Manhattan. The New York DownBeat office moved to the Forrest Hotel, a musicians’ residence, on 49th Street near 8th Avenue.
To cover the West Coast, DownBeat was sufficiently prosperous by 1940 to buy a small Los Angeles music publication called Tempo: The Modern Musical Newsmagazine. The acquisition brought its editor Charles Emge onto the DownBeat staff, with L.A. offices on Rampart Street near MacArthur Park. Over the years his columns would accumulate a wealth of information on the Hollywood studio scene and become a major source for film music historians.
Meanwhile, DownBeat had problems at the top. In November 1940, a little magazine called Music and Rhythm was launched in Chicago, with Paul Miller editing and most of the regular DownBeat byliners contributing articles. Other stories were written by (or ghostwritten for) top musicians and bandleaders. The orientation was features, not news. By all appearances, however, it was a sister publication of DownBeat, turned out by the Maher Printing Company, the same shop that produced DownBeat. The address on the Music and Rhythm masthead, 609 South Federal, was simply the rear entrance to the same building in which DownBeat was located at 608 South Dearborn. Even the phone numbers were the same, HAR-2706. In August 1941, Carl Cons, while still at DownBeat, replaced Miller as editor.
About the only DownBeat name not connected with Music and Rhythm was Glenn Burrs, who sat by and grew increasingly impatient with Cons’ moonlighting while much work remained to be done on DownBeat. Finally, in March 1942, Cons sold his half interest in DownBeat to Burrs for a reported $50,000. He may have used part of the money to bolster the sagging fortunes of Music and Rhythm. Soon, though, additional financial reinforcements materialized when John Hammond joined Cons as co-editor that same month. With Hammond writing fighting editorials attacking racial discrimination in unions, recordings, and radio, the magazine’s focus took an ideological tilt left.
The departure of Cons, which was announced in April 1942, meant more to DownBeat than just the loss of a founding editor. It meant that Hammond, who had taken leave of Columbia Records to devote attention to Music and Rhythm, would be taking his opinions elsewhere too. Most important, when he and Cons offered the post of managing editor to Dexter at $75 a week, it meant DownBeat would be losing its key New York editor.
Music and Rhythm was written and edited in New York by Hammond and Dexter, but dummied and printed in Chicago by Cons. The production arrangement was error-prone. By August 1942, it published its last issue. Cons went into the army and never returned to the music business or publishing. Dexter, after army duty himself, went on to one more stab at publishing: Hollywood Note, which featured such DownBeat-bred writers as George Frazier and George Hoefer but ran for only a few issues starting in March 1946. He had already begun working for Capitol Records, however, where he went on to a highly successful career.
The Carnation Kid
Ned Williams, a veteran publicist who had edited a house magazine for Irving Mills’ company and had done publicity for Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, came over from the Hansen-Williams PR agency to become managing editor of DownBeat in Chicago. Mike Levin, who had been a stringer, was hired to replace Dexter in New York. Both men would dominate DownBeat’s editorial content through the rest of the forties. Williams was a natty dresser who always wore a carnation in his lapel, carried a cane, and sported a turned up wisp of a mustache. Friends called him “the carnation kid.” He was widely know and respected throughout the music business, and brought much good will to DownBeat. Levin was a superb writer with strong opinions and a nose for intelligent controversy. “He was extremely bright,” says DownBeat colleague Jack Tracy, “and living evidence that the better the writer, the worse the speller. His copy was terrible to edit. You had to look at every word.”
Within weeks, the look of the magazine changed too. During the early years there had been relatively minor adjustments in graphics. From the beginning, for example, the inside masthead had carried the line, “The Musicians’ Newspaper.” Later the editors perhaps decided that their success warranted a promotion. So, in May 1939, the line became “The Musicians’ Bible,” a claim that perhaps proved a bit overreaching. It quietly disappeared the following March. Meanwhile, color came to the cover for the first time in October 1939 when the magazine went to a semi-monthly schedule. This prompted the first in a series of redesigns of the cover logo. In July 1943, after eight years on South Dearborn Street, DownBeat moved north to 203 North Wabash, a block from the Blackhawk and Fritzel’s, two of Chicago’s most celebrated celebrity hangouts, and a few hundred feet from the stage door of the Chicago Theater.
For DownBeat the war years meant lean years. Advertising shrank, though not because the instrument manufacturers lacked for sales. Quite the opposite. They were overwhelmed with war work and could sell anything they could make. Moreover, the War Production Board froze sales on new musical instruments. Marketing and advertising became unnecessary. All magazines felt the pinch. DownBeat began generating a stack of accounts payable at its printer.
The relationship between a magazine and its printer is like a marriage. Few things are closer or more interdependent. When a printer starts giving large credits to a struggling client magazine, it may be a sign that the printer may one day be going into the magazine business.
Such a printer was John Maher, who had entered DownBeat history in the summer of 1938 at age 39. At that time he bought Mead-Grade, a moderate-sized south-side print shop, and renamed it the John Maher Printing Company. The DownBeat account, which is believed to have been with Mead-Grade since 1936, went with the purchase. Maher had been a printer all his professional life. But he also had the cost control and financial instincts of an entrepreneur, attributes that Burrs lacked. In July 1943, after a six-year relationship, Burrs suddenly pulled DownBeat out of Maher Printing. As of August 1, the magazine began rolling off the Cuneo presses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The reasons for the shift are vague, but some say Maher was left holding a debt of undetermined size. Whatever the issues, the split would be temporary.
After the war, DownBeat began a long series of periodic “new eras” in its life. New, young writers began appearing. Ralph J. Gleason, who had been associate editor of a tiny magazine called Jazz Information, debuted with a guest editorial in January 1945. Herb Caen, still in the Air Corps, appeared in March. And Bill Gottlieb joined DownBeat after the war, bringing not only his typewriter but his camera. Yet DownBeat was slow to catch up. All its life the magazine had covered bands. Now it was slow to realize that that era was passing. It reminisced increasingly. It seemed to assume that copycat leaders such as Tommy Reynolds and Jerry Wald, or even original ones like Jimmy Zito and Boyd Raeburn, would replace Goodman, Shaw, and Basie.
In January 1946, DownBeat went from a semi-monthly schedule (the first and fifteenth of every month) to a bi-weekly one (every other Monday), with plans to go weekly in the future. But it ran into a double whammy that included one of the sharpest inflationary spikes of the century and severe shortages. Costs rose; income didn’t, despite a boost in the newsstand price from 20 to 25 cents. Among the most conspicuous of the early cost-saving shakeups was another switch in printers in July 1947. Burrs left Cuneo for an offset press in Dixon, Illinois. Suddenly, DownBeat appeared on a newsprint stock so coarse and cheap readers could practically pick splinters out of the fibers. The magazine looked awful. It was an appropriately unlucky way to celebrate a thirteenth anniversary. “With this issue,” the magazine announced, “DownBeat begins a change over from a slick semi-monthly magazine type to a rugged trade weekly in better newspaper style.” The editors did their best to put a good face on what was a discouraging situation.
The new DownBeat did indeed look rugged. But it promised quicker deadlines, bigger press runs, and expanded circulation. “You will notice many improvements in the new DownBeat,” an editorial noted. But all readers noticed was the cheap paper and murky photos. They reacted quickly with a rush of “what’s happened to DownBeat?” letters. Six weeks later, the editors ‘fessed up with an apology and an explanation. “We don’t like the present appearance of the sheet any better than you do,” the magazine admitted. “As part of the general bitter struggle for survival these days, DownBeat was obliged to retrogress drastically. [We were] just as seriously affected by general economic conditions during the last year as many other publications.” Burrs pressed on with the rugged look into 1948. Finally, on February 25, after seven months of offset type and newsprint, DownBeat returned to the John Maher Printing Company. With a smooth coated paper stock and letterpress printing, DownBeat looked like itself again.
Falling with a Tide
In the late ‘40s, jazz seemed to be losing its cohesion. As the big band era ebbed and swing stars were dismissed as “has-beens,” tradition and modernism fought for the privilege of defining jazz. Even the word “jazz” seemed curiously passé to some. So in July 1949 DownBeat took it upon itself to announce a contest for the best word to replace “jazz.” The magazine offered to pay $1,000 in cash to the person “who coins a new word to describe the music from dixieland through bop,” the headline said. Second and third prizes included the services of Charlie Barnet’s orchestra and the Nat Cole Trio for one night in one’s home. Even Norman Granz, whose Jazz at the Philharmonic tours were keeping a mass market interested in jazz, contributed $400 worth of prizes. In November came the word that the panel of judges deemed preferable to jazz: crewcut. Other alternatives included jarb, freestyle, mesmerrhythm, bix-e-bop, blip, schmoosic, and other equally contrived specimens.
The “let’s rename jazz” contest was symptomatic of a larger challenge for DownBeat as the decade turned. The magazine had risen on the tide of big band swing, and now it seemed to be falling with it. Two of the top three big band winners in the magazine’s 1949 poll (Barnet and Herman) disbanded before the results were announced. It was embarrassing and alarming. Everyone recognized the slump but no one could explain it, as if an explanation might lead to a solution. Critics, pundits, and industry types wrung their hands in DownBeat columns wondering how to “bring back the bands.” But solutions of that kind were only slightly less likely than a solution to Burr’s financial difficulties with DownBeat.
By 1950 he was falling deeper and deeper into the red on his printing bills. Maher waited and watched, not forgetting what had happened in 1943 when DownBeat shifted to the Cuneo Press under circumstances in which money may or may not have been owed him. He did not want it to happen again. To make financial matters worse, Burrs was undergoing a divorce, needed money, and may have feared the consequences of a property settlement with a major asset like DownBeat in the picture. With Maher anxious for his money and Burrs in need of liquidity, it was clear that each had something to gain by the sale of the magazine. In May 1950, the long-running tension between DownBeat and its printer finally came to an end, as Maher took over the magazine. Burrs’ name disappeared from the masthead on June 2, 1950, replaced by Tom Herrick, whom Burrs had originally hired in 1936 as advertising manager. Herrick had left in 1943, but had been contributing record reviews since the spring of 1948. Now he was publisher.
Other changes followed. As of 1951, Leonard Feather took over the New York office from Mike Levin, who joined the Roser-Reeves ad agency and in 1952 became a key player in the agency’s work for Republican party during the Eisenhower campaign-the first time consumer advertising methods helped elect a president. More than personnel switches, though, there was a conscious effort at DownBeat to expand coverage outside the big band field. The magazine started radio and television columns and expanded pop and record coverage. It added a classical department (i.e., “longhair”) and launched an annual classical critics poll in 1953. In October 1951 Maher, in his most effective cost-cutting move yet, shut down the magazine’s Wabash Avenue offices and shifted all editorial operations to the printing plant at 2001 South Calumet Avenue, where DownBeat shared a bullpen with several Spanish-language publications. In April 1952, Herrick left to take a job with the Seeburg Company, and Ned Williams, who liked to keep a bottle of whiskey in his desk for emergencies, was fired by Maher for having too many emergencies. A caretaker regime moved in. Harold English, a friend of Maher’s who owned a press-and-type company, came in as publisher. And Hal Webman came over from Billboard as editor in chief, working out of New York. For the first time in DownBeat’s history the magazine was edited outside Chicago.
More stability arrived in October 1952 when Maher appointed Norman Weiser president and publisher. Weiser was originally from New York, where he had cultivated the music publishers and worked for a radio trade magazine. That brought him to Billboard, which sent him to Chicago as an ad salesman and writer. To Maher, who was actively seeking to grow DownBeat’s advertising base, Weiser may have looked like a rainmaker. As expected, he carried over many of his music publisher customers, though little else.
If advertising follows editorial, one of the more puzzling questions of DownBeat’s first 20 years was its failure to attract record advertising, save for small jazz labels such as H.R.S. This despite the fact that DownBeat had been reviewing records since 1935, and that the major retail outlets for records were the musical instrument stores. After the war, record coverage was even expanded. A four-step record-rating system of musical notes began with Mike Levin in May 1946. Four notes meant a top rating. This went on until January 1951, when the ratings were spread out to simple numbers from one (a dud) to 10 (a masterpiece). This lasted only 18 months, though, and was replaced in May 1952 with the five-step rating of stars, which continues today. Still, record ads remained rare. One reason was that companies used radio to do their advertising for them. They didn’t know or care about consumer advertising. The recording business was also relatively small. As late as 1960, it was still dreaming of a $500 million industry gross.
But that was about to end. Technology would succeed where salesmanship had failed. The LP began to change the marketing of records when it appeared in 1948, and revolutionized it after it became the industry standard by 1951. Norman Granz became a significant and loyal DownBeat advertiser, promoting his tours and record albums in big double-page layouts, even as he battled DownBeat critics who nit-picked his JATP concerts. Columbia Records launched its Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert box set with a full-page DownBeat ad in January 1951, despite a near pan of the album in the same issue from Mike Levin.
One of Norm Weiser’s first acts as 1953 began was to appoint Jack Tracy as editor. Tracy joined the DownBeat staff in March 1949 at $75 a week. “I had just graduated the University of Minnesota School of Journalism,” Tracy recalls, “and that was one of the highest salaries of anyone in my class. I was 22.” Another move Weiser made was to hire Chuck Suber as advertising manager. Suber was then a rising agent at General Artists Corporation, which had long-range plans for him that included Hollywood and the business side of TV. But Weiser’s timing was good.
“I had just been offered a job at MCA,” says Suber, “and that made me think: If they see anything in me that they want, then I want out [of the agency business]. MCA was the largest and most ruthless of all the talent agencies. You quickly learned when you worked there that your main competition was inside the company, not outside. It was company policy, and you did whatever you had to do. So when Norm offered me the DownBeat job, it was the alternative I needed.”
The Suber-Tracy team would take DownBeat through the better part of the fifties and set it on the course that would spell survival. In the meantime, a new generation of noted jazz writers already had begun breaking into print through DownBeat: Bill Russo, John S. Wilson (from PM magazine), John Tynan, Nat Hentoff, and a bit later, Ira Gitler and Dan Morgenstern. In May 1952 Leonard Feather brought in a rising young TV personality, pianist, and composer in New York to write a weekly page-two column on the intrigues of song writing. The feature had to be discontinued in the summer of 1953, though, when the writer undertook a local late-night program on NBC called “Tonight.” He was Steve Allen.
After a Decade of Denial
In 1953, there was a slump. Suber remembers circulation dipping to below 40,000 and sinking. In broadening coverage, he recalls, the magazine had gone off in many directions and thus had no direction. As Nat Hentoff replaced Feather as New York editor in September, Weiser, Tracy, and Suber tackled the magazine’s larger problems in Chicago. One strategy centered on annual issues devoted to special topics. The first annual combo issue and dance band directory appeared in 1953. They were successful enough with advertisers and readers so that ultimately there were annuals devoted to percussion, reeds, trumpet, keyboard, and other music categories. Another enduring annual ritual added in 1953 by Tracy: the DownBeat Jazz Critics Poll and the Hall of Fame.
In July 1954 came the first price increase since 1946, from 25 to 35 cents. To make it seem more palatable, the magazine was decked out in another graphic face-lift. It was getting to look so much like a magazine that early in 1955, after 21 years as a news tabloid in magazine’s clothing, DownBeat finally crossed the Rubicon and converted to the standard 81_2-inch by 11-inch format it maintains at this writing. The rationale was to gain greater newsstand distribution. The old newspaper look gave way in part to feature story pages. Up Beat and Hi Fi became regular supplements. The first in a 27-year line of DownBeat Year Books also began that year. And collections of DownBeat record reviews were collected in hard-cover editions in the late fifties. After Norm Weiser’s departure in April 1956 to return to the music publishing business, where he became executive vice president of Chappell Music, Suber became publisher and proceeded to undertake the most radical remaking of the logo in the magazine’s history. In September, the bold, all-cap look that had marked DownBeat graphics in various permutations from the beginning yielded to an all-lowercase look that (with periodic stylistic touch-ups) would stand for the next 34 years. In January 1957, Tracy began the DownBeat policy of listing complete personnels in record reviews. And in February 1958, he and Suber jettisoned the traditional news-style layout for a clean, egalitarian format inspired by The New Yorker.
With musicians increasingly marginalized from the center of pop music, the question at DownBeat was how to reach the audiences in which its traditional advertiser base would invest. One answer was to increase pop coverage at a time when pop music was at its most bland. DownBeat covers in the mid fifties featured show business types such as Patti Page, Maurice Chevalier, Jerry Lewis (a great big band fan and patron), and even Liberace. After 1956, DownBeat faced another question: how to deal with Elvis Presley. “Jack [Tracy] and I realized it couldn’t be avoided,” says Don Gold, then associate editor. “He was establishing a kind of new mainstream and we had to acknowledge it, though we never thought of him becoming a voice of rock and roll.” Alas, neither Patti Page nor Elvis Presley would be the answer DownBeat was seeking. The real answer came one day from Brownsville, Texas.
In the spring of 1956, Tracy received an invitation to attend a festival of high school jazz bands in Brownsville. He was unable to attend but, he passed the invitation on to Suber, who was very interested in going. He went down to cover it as a story, and came back extremely excited by its implications. He had never seen anything like it. From then on he took a special interest in building a relationship between DownBeat and what he recognized as a growing movement. He helped organize clinics and rallied DownBeat’s major advertisers to co-sponsor clinics with musicians such as Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, and Buddy DeFranco, who had been endorsing their products for years.
After Tracy left to join Mercury Records in March 1958, and Gold, whom Tracy had hired in 1956, became editor, Suber began writing the First Chorus column. He used it often to press his theme of jazz education, which he and Maher were convinced did not have to stop at the high school level. In the late fifties he wrote a First Chorus in which he argued that the success of the high school festivals meant it was time to start a college one. “If anyone is interested,” he said in effect, “call me.” Someone did. Shortly thereafter, two young men from the University of Notre Dame were sitting in Suber’s office, finding much to agree with Suber about. Soon all parties shook hands on a deal, and the Notre Dame Jazz Festival was born. Maher put up sponsorship money in the magazine’s name with the proviso that DownBeat would have control over rules and procedures and would appoint the panel of judges.
The success of the Notre Dame program brought others into the field, including Stan Kenton, who became a major figure in the development of the clinic and music summer camps. His young musicians were keenly attuned to the idea of being a music faculty, and he also recognized the long-term business potential.
Jazz education turned out to be the strategy both DownBeat and its advertisers needed. The business justification was a straight and clear. The best way DownBeat could survive as a magazine was to serve musicians, particularly learning musicians. And jazz education provided the magazine an opportunity not only to write about music, but to help build it as well. “We had this burgeoning school jazz movement,” says Suber, “with several hundred thousand kids and a generation of educators who came out of the swing band period. It was not only a growing audience. Most of our best circulation that the advertisers wanted to pay for came directly from this market.” This pleased John Maher enormously; his support of jazz education would continue to be a major mission of DownBeat from then on. It pleased him that he could serve a good social purpose while at the same time helping to fortify the magazine’s future.
Maher generally respected editorial independence, and rarely crowded its prerogatives unless something profoundly offended him. He would become involved in editorial questions when he thought they had direct sales consequences-such as artists represented on the magazine’s cover. He would look at newsstand sales, for example. If he saw a drop, common sense told him the problem was in the issue’s cover power, or lack of it. He constantly weighed the selling merits of art vs. photos, of blue vs. red, of single subjects vs. groups, of knowns vs. unknowns. In the late fifties Tracy and later Gold began freshening up DownBeat covers with stylized, often slightly abstract illustrations. The days of leggy starlets were gone. When the magazine was preparing to move from South Calumet to 205 West Monroe in the Loop in the summer of 1959, Suber remembers he and Gold standing ankle-deep in “band chicks” for two days as they emptied out the photo files.
In 1961, Gold commissioned David Stone Martin, whose work for Norman Granz had given Clef and Verve the most elegant album jackets in the industry, to produce 11 DownBeat covers. All were magnificent, especially a regal vision of Billie Holiday in February 1962. Maher authorized the unheard-of art budget of $200 each for one-time ownership.
The illustrated covers helped solve another nasty little problem, too. They helped make black artists look less black. Before drawing back in horror, however, and striking an attitude of moral outrage, one would do well to consider this matter in light of the racial zeitgeist that then prevailed. In the late fifties and early sixties, black access to many basic civil liberties was the most fiercely argued issue in American politics. The civil rights movement was underway, but nowhere near its crest. Even a staunchly liberal presidential candidate such as John Kennedy recognized the prudence of putting distance between himself and lunch counter sit-ins in the South rather than jeopardize his ambitions. Against these facts, some of the most dynamic figures in jazz were both youthful and black: Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Cannonball Adderley, and many others. This put DownBeat in a unique dilemma. Maher became increasingly sensitive to frequent DownBeat covers featuring black artists. The ferocity of the controversy in America, generally, and DownBeat, in particular, was not something abstract, but palpable. Bundles of issues bearing black artists on a cover would be returned unopened from certain markets. In the early sixties the post-paid subscription cards in each issue started coming back blaring angry messages. About half had Jim Crow obscenities scrawled on them. The other half had Crow Jim. Maher finally approved their removal altogether. What had been a minor concern to an otherwise progressive magazine in the thirties, when race was a minor matter on the American agenda, now became a major issue. Today reservations about putting appropriate African-American subjects on magazine covers would properly be regarded as racism. But in 1960, it wasn’t that simple. The hard fact of publishing life then was that the only magazines to regularly feature black faces on their covers were members of the so-called black press, such as Jet and Ebony. Within DownBeat, Gold, and later Gene Lees, argued that DownBeat had little choice, since so many of the leading jazz artists were black. Maher was more cautious. “He never never leaned on me about it,” says Gold, “only raised the question.”
A Business, Not a Cause
There were indeed advertisers who were unhappy about too many black faces on the cover,” Suber recalled, “though nobody canceled his advertising.” One of the reasons Maher listened to his advertisers was that he didn’t see Life, Look, Time, The Saturday Review, The Atlantic, or other general-interest publications in any great hurry to put black subjects on their covers. As a jazz-oriented magazine, of course, DownBeat had special reason to disregard that. But Maher, who was known to take Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and other black acquaintances to the Union League Club without hesitation, was unwilling to take what he saw as risks with DownBeat’s future. He tried to balance inherently conflicting interests. He understood that the integrity of the magazine depended on editorial independence. “When I became editor,” Dan Morgenstern recalls, “the first thing the Old Man said to me was, ‘If you get any pressure from advertisers, let me know immediately.’” Yet, it was his nature to run the magazine as a business, not a cause. “He was neither a racist nor a reformer really,” Suber recalled recently. “He was a businessman, and he responded to the things he felt affected the fundamentals of his business.”
Suber may have felt less forgiving in April 1962, when Maher fired him. The two men had differences on a range of issues, and when Suber began saying publicly that he was thinking of starting a new magazine, Maher replaced him. (Suber would return in 1968, after Maher had suffered a heart attack. “I suspect he wanted someone in place who knew the magazine” in the event of his death, Suber recalled later. “Asking me back was probably a tough thing for the Old Man to swallow. But he did it graciously and willingly.”)
Meanwhile, the magazine continued to grow under Don DeMicheal, an excellent drummer and vibraphone player whom Gene Lees had brought to Chicago from Louisville, Kentucky, in 1961. DeMicheal was a superb editor who would see DownBeat through a time of impressive growth, as the guitar industry boomed along with the jazz education movement. He would also bring in many innovations. Layouts grew more interesting, color was added, and analytical pieces by LeRoi Jones probed social issues through music. Jazz became a vehicle for social and ideological protest in the sixties, and the black agenda moved to the center of American life-a fact that threw off the last shackles of any “cover quotas.” In 1962, Ira Gitler moderated a two-part discussion on prejudice that drew more letters than any piece in a decade.
DownBeat continued to attract the finest writers. Gold had brought in Don Henahan, who later went on to become first-string classical critic for The New York Times. And Martin Williams had come to the magazine on Nat Hentoff’s suggestion in the late fifties. But DeMicheal became the first to lure such prominent working musicians as Marian McPartland and Kenny Dorham to DownBeat as regular record reviewers-at $5 a review. When Atlantic brought out Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz in 1961, DeMicheal recognized it as a landmark. He assigned it to two different reviewers, whose reactions polarized from no stars (John Tynan) to five (Pete Welding). Both the music and the polarization were a preview of things to come in jazz.
In the nearly seven years DeMicheal edited DownBeat (during which operations moved to 222 West Adams Street), he and Maher developed what one observer called a love-hate relationship. This over and above the expected tensions of any partnership between art and commerce. DeMicheal was a highly ethical man and a fighter. As Dan Morgenstern, who succeeded him at editor, has pointed out, DeMicheal would not compromise his principles. “That’s why he and the Old Man may have had their fights, but they respected and even had affection for each other.”
In the late summer of 1967, DeMicheal left DownBeat, and Morgenstern, who had first written for the magazine in the late fifties and had been associate editor in New York since the end of 1964, moved to Chicago, reluctantly, to take over. The next two years would be rocky ones. Maher suffered a heart attack complicated by emphysema late that year. At the end 1968 he died.
With Maher’s death, the last remaining figure whose career went back almost to the beginning of the magazine passed from the scene. There was considerable concern for the future of DownBeat. Maher’s will left everything to his wife. The magazine went into the hands of American National Bank as trustee, with instructions to sell it after 12 months. Neither Maher’s widow, who served as titular president during the trust period, nor his two daughters had any interest in buying it themselves. But during the course of the year and at the suggestion of the bank, Maher’s son Jack began to check in on DownBeat. The magazine was approaching profitability, and the music and record industry was on the threshold of an economic explosion. Maher decided to buy out his family’s interests and continue DownBeat as a Maher publication. His decision was based on business, not sentiment. He frequently told friends, “The first responsibility of a business is to stay in business.”
A Force to Be Reckoned With
Before Jack Maher finally took over DownBeat in January 1971, he and Suber had a meeting. Maher was the owner and would take care of the business and money. Suber would take a salary and run the magazine. Both men re-emphasized the magazine’s franchise in the stage band movement and jazz education, which by then was booming.
So was rock. Its gravitational field affected almost every music being played in the post-Monterey-Pop years, from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis. DownBeat had to deal with it without submitting to it. “Jazz-blues-rock” became part of the cover logo, even as Morgenstern fought to moderate the magazine’s commitment to the pop sensibility. A compromise policy finally was reached. DownBeat would talk about rock acts such as the Who and Jefferson Airplane, but from the point of view of musicianship, not personality or their part in the “youth culture.” There was balance. In 1972, Morgenstern invited Gary Giddins, then 22, to review jazz records, while Alan Heineman focused on rock.
By the seventies DownBeat had survived its old rival Metronome and numerous other jazz magazines that had come and gone. Now, however, there loomed Rolling Stone, which targeted a distinctly different readership but many of the same advertisers. Each magazine symbolized and reflected a part of the musical culture of its time. The difference was that DownBeat focused on the music; Rolling Stone concentrated on its attitude. Drugs were rampant in each magazine’s venue. DownBeat had traditionally condemned their use or remained silent. Rolling Stone gave them the lure of myth.
Maher and Morgenstern recognized Rolling Stone as a force to be reckoned with. They talked about it. But in the end, the only way to directly fight back was to start another magazine. DownBeat could not become Rolling Stone without undermining its own heritage and its readership. And the prospects of succeeding at a new magazine were dim. First, Chicago was not the place to do it. But to go to L.A. or New York would take a huge investment. More important than money would be the right people. Jann Wenner was young and hungry when Rolling Stone appeared in November 1967. DownBeat was neither. “We felt jazz would not disappear, but recognized it might be in eclipse for quite a while,” Suber says. “We had to just wait it out.”
DownBeat did wait it out and prevailed. After Dan Morgenstern’s departure to head the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Jack Maher took a strong editorial role as well as the title of editor for most of the next 11 years. One of his coups came on January 5, 1977, when the DownBeat Readers Poll became the focus of the PBS national music series, “Soundstage.” Producer Ken Ehrlich had approached the magazine the previous summer with the idea of a DownBeat all-star program. The result was a remarkable snapshot of contemporary jazz in the seventies: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, George Benson, Jean-Luc Ponty, Sonny Fortune, Ron Carter, Bill Watrous, Billy Cobham, Thad Jones, Gary Burton, and others, with Quincy Jones as musical director. It was one of the most memorable jazz-on-TV events of the decade. Everybody won-jazz, DownBeat, PBS, and Chuck Mitchell, who left his post as associate editor of DownBeat and went to work in television.
In July 1979, DownBeat went to a monthly schedule for the first time since 1939. Circulation climbed steadily, though the appearance of country singer Merle Haggard on the cover in May 1980 cost DownBeat at least one outraged subscriber, Buddy Rich. A long line of editors and contributors helped put out the magazine in the seventies and eighties, of whom Larry Kart, Art Lange, John Litweiler, Howard Mandel, Robert Palmer, and Neil Tesser would establish reputations in the music world at DownBeat that have sustained and grown. Chuck Suber finally left in June 1982, after nearly 30 years with DownBeat, less six years in the sixties.
This cleared the way for a third generation of Maher men to join the company. John “Butch” Maher signed on in 1983 after a successful career in advertising sales with The Chicago Tribune. He ascended to publisher and continued the magazine’s focus on music education by founding Musicfest, a national student jazz festival that helped bring such young talents as Roy Hargrove and Joey DeFrancesco to the foreground.
In 1991, at the age of 43, Butch Maher lost a battle with cancer. His brother Kevin, an advertising sales professional who served as publisher of Music Inc. (a Maher-owned trade publication written for musical products retailers), assumed the role of publisher for both magazines. Frank Alkyer, who had signed on as editorial director in October 1989, was appointed editorial director/associate publisher. In 2002, he still holds this position, with Jason Koransky serving as editor and Dave Zaworski associate editor.
In almost 70 years of covering jazz and related fields, DownBeat has distinguished itself in a way no other magazine of its kind has. It has survived, though not always in purity. “In the nineties,” Howard Reich wrote in The Chicago Tribune Magazine, “[DownBeat] has annoyed and infuriated some fans by celebrating on its cover Lyle Lovett, Lou Reed, Kenny G, and Stevie Wonder. When covers such as these alternate with pieces on major jazz artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, DownBeat still gives the impression that it doesn’t know exactly what it wants.”
Reich may state the case of the occasionally frustrated reader. But the financial health of the magazine is at its peak. Its search for popular musicians to validate jazz is more a reflection of the splintered state of jazz. Gillespie and Davis unfortunately are dead, along with many of the other jazz legends who filled concert venues and sustained DownBeat during decades past. In between the boppers, who built their audiences in the fifties, and Marsalis, who began building his in the eighties, is the lost generation of the sixties and seventies. For 20 years, as artists such as Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Rollins slowly built careers and ascended to solid bankability, the insurgent generation devoted itself to experimentation and fusion with rock. DownBeat can only reflect that reality.
Through it all, however, DownBeat has always “kept the faith,” in the words of Chuck Suber. “When it strayed from jazz, it never cut its tethers.” Cons, Burrs, Herrick, Hentoff, Williams, Tracy, Emge, Suber, Feather, DeMicheal, Morgenstern, and many others all might take a measure of satisfaction in that.
But no one more than John Maher, who always carried a little piece of folded paper in his wallet and would from time to time show it to people with pride. On it were all the names of all the jazz publications that had started and folded since DownBeat came into being in 1934. Every time he could add a name to that list he was a very happy man. By the time he died, he was able to take considerable pleasure in the length of the list.
Today it continues to grow.