A History as Rich as Jazz Itself


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.


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November 2017
Rudresh Mahanthappa
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