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.

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May 2024
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