A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

The Carnation Kid

Ned Williams, a veteran publicist who had edited a house magazine for Irving Mills’ company and had done publicity for Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, came over from the Hansen-Williams PR agency to become managing editor of DownBeat in Chicago. Mike Levin, who had been a stringer, was hired to replace Dexter in New York. Both men would dominate DownBeat’s editorial content through the rest of the forties. Williams was a natty dresser who always wore a carnation in his lapel, carried a cane, and sported a turned up wisp of a mustache. Friends called him “the carnation kid.” He was widely know and respected throughout the music business, and brought much good will to DownBeat. Levin was a superb writer with strong opinions and a nose for intelligent controversy. “He was extremely bright,” says DownBeat colleague Jack Tracy, “and living evidence that the better the writer, the worse the speller. His copy was terrible to edit. You had to look at every word.”

Within weeks, the look of the magazine changed too. During the early years there had been relatively minor adjustments in graphics. From the beginning, for example, the inside masthead had carried the line, “The Musicians’ Newspaper.” Later the editors perhaps decided that their success warranted a promotion. So, in May 1939, the line became “The Musicians’ Bible,” a claim that perhaps proved a bit overreaching. It quietly disappeared the following March. Meanwhile, color came to the cover for the first time in October 1939 when the magazine went to a semi-monthly schedule. This prompted the first in a series of redesigns of the cover logo. In July 1943, after eight years on South Dearborn Street, DownBeat moved north to 203 North Wabash, a block from the Blackhawk and Fritzel’s, two of Chicago’s most celebrated celebrity hangouts, and a few hundred feet from the stage door of the Chicago Theater.

For DownBeat the war years meant lean years. Advertising shrank, though not because the instrument manufacturers lacked for sales. Quite the opposite. They were overwhelmed with war work and could sell anything they could make. Moreover, the War Production Board froze sales on new musical instruments. Marketing and advertising became unnecessary. All magazines felt the pinch. DownBeat began generating a stack of accounts payable at its printer.

The relationship between a magazine and its printer is like a marriage. Few things are closer or more interdependent. When a printer starts giving large credits to a struggling client magazine, it may be a sign that the printer may one day be going into the magazine business.

Such a printer was John Maher, who had entered DownBeat history in the summer of 1938 at age 39. At that time he bought Mead-Grade, a moderate-sized south-side print shop, and renamed it the John Maher Printing Company. The DownBeat account, which is believed to have been with Mead-Grade since 1936, went with the purchase. Maher had been a printer all his professional life. But he also had the cost control and financial instincts of an entrepreneur, attributes that Burrs lacked. In July 1943, after a six-year relationship, Burrs suddenly pulled DownBeat out of Maher Printing. As of August 1, the magazine began rolling off the Cuneo presses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The reasons for the shift are vague, but some say Maher was left holding a debt of undetermined size. Whatever the issues, the split would be temporary.

After the war, DownBeat began a long series of periodic “new eras” in its life. New, young writers began appearing. Ralph J. Gleason, who had been associate editor of a tiny magazine called Jazz Information, debuted with a guest editorial in January 1945. Herb Caen, still in the Air Corps, appeared in March. And Bill Gottlieb joined DownBeat after the war, bringing not only his typewriter but his camera. Yet DownBeat was slow to catch up. All its life the magazine had covered bands. Now it was slow to realize that that era was passing. It reminisced increasingly. It seemed to assume that copycat leaders such as Tommy Reynolds and Jerry Wald, or even original ones like Jimmy Zito and Boyd Raeburn, would replace Goodman, Shaw, and Basie.

In January 1946, DownBeat went from a semi-monthly schedule (the first and fifteenth of every month) to a bi-weekly one (every other Monday), with plans to go weekly in the future. But it ran into a double whammy that included one of the sharpest inflationary spikes of the century and severe shortages. Costs rose; income didn’t, despite a boost in the newsstand price from 20 to 25 cents. Among the most conspicuous of the early cost-saving shakeups was another switch in printers in July 1947. Burrs left Cuneo for an offset press in Dixon, Illinois. Suddenly, DownBeat appeared on a newsprint stock so coarse and cheap readers could practically pick splinters out of the fibers. The magazine looked awful. It was an appropriately unlucky way to celebrate a thirteenth anniversary. “With this issue,” the magazine announced, “DownBeat begins a change over from a slick semi-monthly magazine type to a rugged trade weekly in better newspaper style.” The editors did their best to put a good face on what was a discouraging situation.

The new DownBeat did indeed look rugged. But it promised quicker deadlines, bigger press runs, and expanded circulation. “You will notice many improvements in the new DownBeat,” an editorial noted. But all readers noticed was the cheap paper and murky photos. They reacted quickly with a rush of “what’s happened to DownBeat?” letters. Six weeks later, the editors ‘fessed up with an apology and an explanation. “We don’t like the present appearance of the sheet any better than you do,” the magazine admitted. “As part of the general bitter struggle for survival these days, DownBeat was obliged to retrogress drastically. [We were] just as seriously affected by general economic conditions during the last year as many other publications.” Burrs pressed on with the rugged look into 1948. Finally, on February 25, after seven months of offset type and newsprint, DownBeat returned to the John Maher Printing Company. With a smooth coated paper stock and letterpress printing, DownBeat looked like itself again.

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