A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

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.

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