A History as Rich as Jazz Itself

Cover Power

Maher generally respected editorial independence, and rarely crowded its prerogatives unless something profoundly offended him. He would become involved in editorial questions when he thought they had direct sales consequences-such as artists represented on the magazine’s cover. He would look at newsstand sales, for example. If he saw a drop, common sense told him the problem was in the issue’s cover power, or lack of it. He constantly weighed the selling merits of art vs. photos, of blue vs. red, of single subjects vs. groups, of knowns vs. unknowns. In the late fifties Tracy and later Gold began freshening up DownBeat covers with stylized, often slightly abstract illustrations. The days of leggy starlets were gone. When the magazine was preparing to move from South Calumet to 205 West Monroe in the Loop in the summer of 1959, Suber remembers he and Gold standing ankle-deep in “band chicks” for two days as they emptied out the photo files.

In 1961, Gold commissioned David Stone Martin, whose work for Norman Granz had given Clef and Verve the most elegant album jackets in the industry, to produce 11 DownBeat covers. All were magnificent, especially a regal vision of Billie Holiday in February 1962. Maher authorized the unheard-of art budget of $200 each for one-time ownership.

The illustrated covers helped solve another nasty little problem, too. They helped make black artists look less black. Before drawing back in horror, however, and striking an attitude of moral outrage, one would do well to consider this matter in light of the racial zeitgeist that then prevailed. In the late fifties and early sixties, black access to many basic civil liberties was the most fiercely argued issue in American politics. The civil rights movement was underway, but nowhere near its crest. Even a staunchly liberal presidential candidate such as John Kennedy recognized the prudence of putting distance between himself and lunch counter sit-ins in the South rather than jeopardize his ambitions. Against these facts, some of the most dynamic figures in jazz were both youthful and black: Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Cannonball Adderley, and many others. This put DownBeat in a unique dilemma. Maher became increasingly sensitive to frequent DownBeat covers featuring black artists. The ferocity of the controversy in America, generally, and DownBeat, in particular, was not something abstract, but palpable. Bundles of issues bearing black artists on a cover would be returned unopened from certain markets. In the early sixties the post-paid subscription cards in each issue started coming back blaring angry messages. About half had Jim Crow obscenities scrawled on them. The other half had Crow Jim. Maher finally approved their removal altogether. What had been a minor concern to an otherwise progressive magazine in the thirties, when race was a minor matter on the American agenda, now became a major issue. Today reservations about putting appropriate African-American subjects on magazine covers would properly be regarded as racism. But in 1960, it wasn’t that simple. The hard fact of publishing life then was that the only magazines to regularly feature black faces on their covers were members of the so-called black press, such as Jet and Ebony. Within DownBeat, Gold, and later Gene Lees, argued that DownBeat had little choice, since so many of the leading jazz artists were black. Maher was more cautious. “He never never leaned on me about it,” says Gold, “only raised the question.”

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