A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

Writers on a Long Leash

Of the three major jazz/big band publications in place by the late ‘30s, each had its reputation. Orchestra World was widely regarded as a bulletin board for PR agents. This left Metronome, whose history began in 1885 as a classical publication, and DownBeat to slug it out. Metronome, which was family-owned by Ned Bittner and edited by George Simon, emphasized the popular bands and current news. It was less concerned with jazz per se and its history. At DownBeat, Cons favored cheesecake and headlines that often promised more than they delivered. But he also gave his writers a long leash. Writers like Fred Ramsey, Paul Eduard Miller, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and George Avakian, all of whom would one day make great contributions, published their first national writing in DownBeat.

If DownBeat was the most important jazz publication, one would not have known it from its covers. Pursuant to Cons’ notions of effective journalism, DownBeat covers were a mixture of celebrated musicians and anonymous models. Photos of sexy models in bathing suits and tight sweaters and aspiring starlets adorned every second or third cover. Generally, the less talent, the more skin. When a top bandleader was featured, it was often at the cost of considerable personal dignity. Gag shots were contrived by publicity agents or Cons himself: Woody Herman dressed as Santa Claus, Jimmy Dorsey dolled up as Father Time. Observant readers with an eye for little hypocrisies might have been amused when in the mid forties DownBeat ran an angry editorial criticizing “leaders who will sacrifice musical value for any funny hat routine.”

DownBeat has been taken to task by some for the relatively few black faces on its covers in the early years. Indeed, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Charlie Christian, Ben Webster, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and Earl Hines, to name just a few, all had to wait until well into the ‘50s or ‘60s before they were on a cover. Was this racism?

Perhaps, though to assume so misses to some extent the point of a magazine cover in those days. It had only had one purpose: to flag attention and invite purchase. With rare exceptions, a picture on DownBeat’s cover had absolutely nothing to do with anything inside the magazine, save for a brief identifying caption in a small inside box. From July 1936 through 1952 DownBeat published about 375 covers, and fewer than 145 featured any important jazz figures. Woody Herman holds the cover record in those years with 11. Jimmy Dorsey and Duke Ellington are tied at second with 10 each. Benny Goodman is third with nine. Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Red Norvo, and Doris Day had six covers each. Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton were tied with five. Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, and Harry James had four. Nat Cole, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller had three each; Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, two. Billie Holiday never appeared on a DownBeat cover during this period. In total, black artists appeared on DownBeat covers nearly 60 times from 1936 to 1952.

But the admonition not to judge a book by its cover is quite literally true in the case of DownBeat. Inside, no music magazine of the period was more progressive or aggressive on the race issue, or in making sure that its readers understood the black innovators who lay behind swing. As early as September 1936, Stearns posed the basic question that has dominated discussions of jazz and its racial politics ever since: Did white musicians “borrow ideas from Negroes?” To Paul Eduard Miller, race was the music’s central issue. “After more than 10 years of comparative analyses…of white and colored instrumentalists,” he wrote, “I have come to the inevitable, and to me obvious, conclusion: Negroes are superior.” Many black musicians who played a major role in the music-often ones whose names had fallen into obscurity, such as trombonist Jimmy Harrison or King Oliver-received proper recognition for their contributions in DownBeat.

In September 1939, DownBeat’s monthly circulation brushed against 80,000. In October, the magazine became a semi-monthly, publishing on the first and fifteenth of every month, a move that, according to Dexter, increased the editors’ work load about 60 percent and the revenues 100 percent. Dexter and Toll also found their salaries raised to $35 a week.

By the end of 1940, Cons was in a dilemma over DownBeat’s New York presence. Leonard Feather, whose $8-a-week apartment on West 92nd Street had served as the magazine’s New York news bureau since February, was “imprudently suggesting that $40 a month was not an adequate stipend,” according to Feather. Cons disagreed. One reason was that Dexter had just told him he had received an offer from Billboard to go to New York as that magazine’s music editor at a salary of $60 a week. Cons saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: keep Dexter happy and continue a strong New York presence, though at Feather’s expense. So he dropped Feather, matched the Billboard offer to Dexter, and sent him off to Manhattan. The New York DownBeat office moved to the Forrest Hotel, a musicians’ residence, on 49th Street near 8th Avenue.

To cover the West Coast, DownBeat was sufficiently prosperous by 1940 to buy a small Los Angeles music publication called Tempo: The Modern Musical Newsmagazine. The acquisition brought its editor Charles Emge onto the DownBeat staff, with L.A. offices on Rampart Street near MacArthur Park. Over the years his columns would accumulate a wealth of information on the Hollywood studio scene and become a major source for film music historians.

Meanwhile, DownBeat had problems at the top. In November 1940, a little magazine called Music and Rhythm was launched in Chicago, with Paul Miller editing and most of the regular DownBeat byliners contributing articles. Other stories were written by (or ghostwritten for) top musicians and bandleaders. The orientation was features, not news. By all appearances, however, it was a sister publication of DownBeat, turned out by the Maher Printing Company, the same shop that produced DownBeat. The address on the Music and Rhythm masthead, 609 South Federal, was simply the rear entrance to the same building in which DownBeat was located at 608 South Dearborn. Even the phone numbers were the same, HAR-2706. In August 1941, Carl Cons, while still at DownBeat, replaced Miller as editor.

About the only DownBeat name not connected with Music and Rhythm was Glenn Burrs, who sat by and grew increasingly impatient with Cons’ moonlighting while much work remained to be done on DownBeat. Finally, in March 1942, Cons sold his half interest in DownBeat to Burrs for a reported $50,000. He may have used part of the money to bolster the sagging fortunes of Music and Rhythm. Soon, though, additional financial reinforcements materialized when John Hammond joined Cons as co-editor that same month. With Hammond writing fighting editorials attacking racial discrimination in unions, recordings, and radio, the magazine’s focus took an ideological tilt left.

The departure of Cons, which was announced in April 1942, meant more to DownBeat than just the loss of a founding editor. It meant that Hammond, who had taken leave of Columbia Records to devote attention to Music and Rhythm, would be taking his opinions elsewhere too. Most important, when he and Cons offered the post of managing editor to Dexter at $75 a week, it meant DownBeat would be losing its key New York editor.

Music and Rhythm was written and edited in New York by Hammond and Dexter, but dummied and printed in Chicago by Cons. The production arrangement was error-prone. By August 1942, it published its last issue. Cons went into the army and never returned to the music business or publishing. Dexter, after army duty himself, went on to one more stab at publishing: Hollywood Note, which featured such DownBeat-bred writers as George Frazier and George Hoefer but ran for only a few issues starting in March 1946. He had already begun working for Capitol Records, however, where he went on to a highly successful career.

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June 2023
James Brandon Lewis
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