A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

After a Decade of Denial

In 1953, there was a slump. Suber remembers circulation dipping to below 40,000 and sinking. In broadening coverage, he recalls, the magazine had gone off in many directions and thus had no direction. As Nat Hentoff replaced Feather as New York editor in September, Weiser, Tracy, and Suber tackled the magazine’s larger problems in Chicago. One strategy centered on annual issues devoted to special topics. The first annual combo issue and dance band directory appeared in 1953. They were successful enough with advertisers and readers so that ultimately there were annuals devoted to percussion, reeds, trumpet, keyboard, and other music categories. Another enduring annual ritual added in 1953 by Tracy: the DownBeat Jazz Critics Poll and the Hall of Fame.

In July 1954 came the first price increase since 1946, from 25 to 35 cents. To make it seem more palatable, the magazine was decked out in another graphic face-lift. It was getting to look so much like a magazine that early in 1955, after 21 years as a news tabloid in magazine’s clothing, DownBeat finally crossed the Rubicon and converted to the standard 81_2-inch by 11-inch format it maintains at this writing. The rationale was to gain greater newsstand distribution. The old newspaper look gave way in part to feature story pages. Up Beat and Hi Fi became regular supplements. The first in a 27-year line of DownBeat Year Books also began that year. And collections of DownBeat record reviews were collected in hard-cover editions in the late fifties. After Norm Weiser’s departure in April 1956 to return to the music publishing business, where he became executive vice president of Chappell Music, Suber became publisher and proceeded to undertake the most radical remaking of the logo in the magazine’s history. In September, the bold, all-cap look that had marked DownBeat graphics in various permutations from the beginning yielded to an all-lowercase look that (with periodic stylistic touch-ups) would stand for the next 34 years. In January 1957, Tracy began the DownBeat policy of listing complete personnels in record reviews. And in February 1958, he and Suber jettisoned the traditional news-style layout for a clean, egalitarian format inspired by The New Yorker.

With musicians increasingly marginalized from the center of pop music, the question at DownBeat was how to reach the audiences in which its traditional advertiser base would invest. One answer was to increase pop coverage at a time when pop music was at its most bland. DownBeat covers in the mid fifties featured show business types such as Patti Page, Maurice Chevalier, Jerry Lewis (a great big band fan and patron), and even Liberace. After 1956, DownBeat faced another question: how to deal with Elvis Presley. “Jack [Tracy] and I realized it couldn’t be avoided,” says Don Gold, then associate editor. “He was establishing a kind of new mainstream and we had to acknowledge it, though we never thought of him becoming a voice of rock and roll.” Alas, neither Patti Page nor Elvis Presley would be the answer DownBeat was seeking. The real answer came one day from Brownsville, Texas.

In the spring of 1956, Tracy received an invitation to attend a festival of high school jazz bands in Brownsville. He was unable to attend but, he passed the invitation on to Suber, who was very interested in going. He went down to cover it as a story, and came back extremely excited by its implications. He had never seen anything like it. From then on he took a special interest in building a relationship between DownBeat and what he recognized as a growing movement. He helped organize clinics and rallied DownBeat’s major advertisers to co-sponsor clinics with musicians such as Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, and Buddy DeFranco, who had been endorsing their products for years.

After Tracy left to join Mercury Records in March 1958, and Gold, whom Tracy had hired in 1956, became editor, Suber began writing the First Chorus column. He used it often to press his theme of jazz education, which he and Maher were convinced did not have to stop at the high school level. In the late fifties he wrote a First Chorus in which he argued that the success of the high school festivals meant it was time to start a college one. “If anyone is interested,” he said in effect, “call me.” Someone did. Shortly thereafter, two young men from the University of Notre Dame were sitting in Suber’s office, finding much to agree with Suber about. Soon all parties shook hands on a deal, and the Notre Dame Jazz Festival was born. Maher put up sponsorship money in the magazine’s name with the proviso that DownBeat would have control over rules and procedures and would appoint the panel of judges.

The success of the Notre Dame program brought others into the field, including Stan Kenton, who became a major figure in the development of the clinic and music summer camps. His young musicians were keenly attuned to the idea of being a music faculty, and he also recognized the long-term business potential.

Jazz education turned out to be the strategy both DownBeat and its advertisers needed. The business justification was a straight and clear. The best way DownBeat could survive as a magazine was to serve musicians, particularly learning musicians. And jazz education provided the magazine an opportunity not only to write about music, but to help build it as well. “We had this burgeoning school jazz movement,” says Suber, “with several hundred thousand kids and a generation of educators who came out of the swing band period. It was not only a growing audience. Most of our best circulation that the advertisers wanted to pay for came directly from this market.” This pleased John Maher enormously; his support of jazz education would continue to be a major mission of DownBeat from then on. It pleased him that he could serve a good social purpose while at the same time helping to fortify the magazine’s future.

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