A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

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.

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