A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

Falling with a Tide

In the late ‘40s, jazz seemed to be losing its cohesion. As the big band era ebbed and swing stars were dismissed as “has-beens,” tradition and modernism fought for the privilege of defining jazz. Even the word “jazz” seemed curiously pass‚ to some. So in July 1949 DownBeat took it upon itself to announce a contest for the best word to replace “jazz.” The magazine offered to pay $1,000 in cash to the person “who coins a new word to describe the music from dixieland through bop,” the headline said. Second and third prizes included the services of Charlie Barnet’s orchestra and the Nat Cole Trio for one night in one’s home. Even Norman Granz, whose Jazz at the Philharmonic tours were keeping a mass market interested in jazz, contributed $400 worth of prizes. In November came the word that the panel of judges deemed preferable to jazz: crewcut. Other alternatives included jarb, freestyle, mesmerrhythm, bix-e-bop, blip, schmoosic, and other equally contrived specimens.

The “let’s rename jazz” contest was symptomatic of a larger challenge for DownBeat as the decade turned. The magazine had risen on the tide of big band swing, and now it seemed to be falling with it. Two of the top three big band winners in the magazine’s 1949 poll (Barnet and Herman) disbanded before the results were announced. It was embarrassing and alarming. Everyone recognized the slump but no one could explain it, as if an explanation might lead to a solution. Critics, pundits, and industry types wrung their hands in DownBeat columns wondering how to “bring back the bands.” But solutions of that kind were only slightly less likely than a solution to Burr’s financial difficulties with DownBeat.

By 1950 he was falling deeper and deeper into the red on his printing bills. Maher waited and watched, not forgetting what had happened in 1943 when DownBeat shifted to the Cuneo Press under circumstances in which money may or may not have been owed him. He did not want it to happen again. To make financial matters worse, Burrs was undergoing a divorce, needed money, and may have feared the consequences of a property settlement with a major asset like DownBeat in the picture. With Maher anxious for his money and Burrs in need of liquidity, it was clear that each had something to gain by the sale of the magazine. In May 1950, the long-running tension between DownBeat and its printer finally came to an end, as Maher took over the magazine. Burrs’ name disappeared from the masthead on June 2, 1950, replaced by Tom Herrick, whom Burrs had originally hired in 1936 as advertising manager. Herrick had left in 1943, but had been contributing record reviews since the spring of 1948. Now he was publisher.

Other changes followed. As of 1951, Leonard Feather took over the New York office from Mike Levin, who joined the Roser-Reeves ad agency and in 1952 became a key player in the agency’s work for Republican party during the Eisenhower campaign-the first time consumer advertising methods helped elect a president. More than personnel switches, though, there was a conscious effort at DownBeat to expand coverage outside the big band field. The magazine started radio and television columns and expanded pop and record coverage. It added a classical department (i.e., “longhair”) and launched an annual classical critics poll in 1953. In October 1951 Maher, in his most effective cost-cutting move yet, shut down the magazine’s Wabash Avenue offices and shifted all editorial operations to the printing plant at 2001 South Calumet Avenue, where DownBeat shared a bullpen with several Spanish-language publications. In April 1952, Herrick left to take a job with the Seeburg Company, and Ned Williams, who liked to keep a bottle of whiskey in his desk for emergencies, was fired by Maher for having too many emergencies. A caretaker regime moved in. Harold English, a friend of Maher’s who owned a press-and-type company, came in as publisher. And Hal Webman came over from Billboard as editor in chief, working out of New York. For the first time in DownBeat’s history the magazine was edited outside Chicago.

More stability arrived in October 1952 when Maher appointed Norman Weiser president and publisher. Weiser was originally from New York, where he had cultivated the music publishers and worked for a radio trade magazine. That brought him to Billboard, which sent him to Chicago as an ad salesman and writer. To Maher, who was actively seeking to grow DownBeat’s advertising base, Weiser may have looked like a rainmaker. As expected, he carried over many of his music publisher customers, though little else.

If advertising follows editorial, one of the more puzzling questions of DownBeat’s first 20 years was its failure to attract record advertising, save for small jazz labels such as H.R.S. This despite the fact that DownBeat had been reviewing records since 1935, and that the major retail outlets for records were the musical instrument stores. After the war, record coverage was even expanded. A four-step record-rating system of musical notes began with Mike Levin in May 1946. Four notes meant a top rating. This went on until January 1951, when the ratings were spread out to simple numbers from one (a dud) to 10 (a masterpiece). This lasted only 18 months, though, and was replaced in May 1952 with the five-step rating of stars, which continues today. Still, record ads remained rare. One reason was that companies used radio to do their advertising for them. They didn’t know or care about consumer advertising. The recording business was also relatively small. As late as 1960, it was still dreaming of a $500 million industry gross.

But that was about to end. Technology would succeed where salesmanship had failed. The LP began to change the marketing of records when it appeared in 1948, and revolutionized it after it became the industry standard by 1951. Norman Granz became a significant and loyal DownBeat advertiser, promoting his tours and record albums in big double-page layouts, even as he battled DownBeat critics who nit-picked his JATP concerts. Columbia Records launched its Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert box set with a full-page DownBeat ad in January 1951, despite a near pan of the album in the same issue from Mike Levin.

One of Norm Weiser’s first acts as 1953 began was to appoint Jack Tracy as editor. Tracy joined the DownBeat staff in March 1949 at $75 a week. “I had just graduated the University of Minnesota School of Journalism,” Tracy recalls, “and that was one of the highest salaries of anyone in my class. I was 22.” Another move Weiser made was to hire Chuck Suber as advertising manager. Suber was then a rising agent at General Artists Corporation, which had long-range plans for him that included Hollywood and the business side of TV. But Weiser’s timing was good.

“I had just been offered a job at MCA,” says Suber, “and that made me think: If they see anything in me that they want, then I want out [of the agency business]. MCA was the largest and most ruthless of all the talent agencies. You quickly learned when you worked there that your main competition was inside the company, not outside. It was company policy, and you did whatever you had to do. So when Norm offered me the DownBeat job, it was the alternative I needed.”

The Suber-Tracy team would take DownBeat through the better part of the fifties and set it on the course that would spell survival. In the meantime, a new generation of noted jazz writers already had begun breaking into print through DownBeat: Bill Russo, John S. Wilson (from PM magazine), John Tynan, Nat Hentoff, and a bit later, Ira Gitler and Dan Morgenstern. In May 1952 Leonard Feather brought in a rising young TV personality, pianist, and composer in New York to write a weekly page-two column on the intrigues of song writing. The feature had to be discontinued in the summer of 1953, though, when the writer undertook a local late-night program on NBC called “Tonight.” He was Steve Allen.

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July 2022
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