A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

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.

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.

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