A History as Rich as Jazz Itself


A Business, Not a Cause

There were indeed advertisers who were unhappy about too many black faces on the cover,” Suber recalled, “though nobody canceled his advertising.” One of the reasons Maher listened to his advertisers was that he didn’t see Life, Look, Time, The Saturday Review, The Atlantic, or other general-interest publications in any great hurry to put black subjects on their covers. As a jazz-oriented magazine, of course, DownBeat had special reason to disregard that. But Maher, who was known to take Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and other black acquaintances to the Union League Club without hesitation, was unwilling to take what he saw as risks with DownBeat’s future. He tried to balance inherently conflicting interests. He understood that the integrity of the magazine depended on editorial independence. “When I became editor,” Dan Morgenstern recalls, “the first thing the Old Man said to me was, ‘If you get any pressure from advertisers, let me know immediately.’” Yet, it was his nature to run the magazine as a business, not a cause. “He was neither a racist nor a reformer really,” Suber recalled recently. “He was a businessman, and he responded to the things he felt affected the fundamentals of his business.”

Suber may have felt less forgiving in April 1962, when Maher fired him. The two men had differences on a range of issues, and when Suber began saying publicly that he was thinking of starting a new magazine, Maher replaced him. (Suber would return in 1968, after Maher had suffered a heart attack. “I suspect he wanted someone in place who knew the magazine” in the event of his death, Suber recalled later. “Asking me back was probably a tough thing for the Old Man to swallow. But he did it graciously and willingly.”)

Meanwhile, the magazine continued to grow under Don DeMicheal, an excellent drummer and vibraphone player whom Gene Lees had brought to Chicago from Louisville, Kentucky, in 1961. DeMicheal was a superb editor who would see DownBeat through a time of impressive growth, as the guitar industry boomed along with the jazz education movement. He would also bring in many innovations. Layouts grew more interesting, color was added, and analytical pieces by LeRoi Jones probed social issues through music. Jazz became a vehicle for social and ideological protest in the sixties, and the black agenda moved to the center of American life-a fact that threw off the last shackles of any “cover quotas.” In 1962, Ira Gitler moderated a two-part discussion on prejudice that drew more letters than any piece in a decade.

DownBeat continued to attract the finest writers. Gold had brought in Don Henahan, who later went on to become first-string classical critic for The New York Times. And Martin Williams had come to the magazine on Nat Hentoff’s suggestion in the late fifties. But DeMicheal became the first to lure such prominent working musicians as Marian McPartland and Kenny Dorham to DownBeat as regular record reviewers-at $5 a review. When Atlantic brought out Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz in 1961, DeMicheal recognized it as a landmark. He assigned it to two different reviewers, whose reactions polarized from no stars (John Tynan) to five (Pete Welding). Both the music and the polarization were a preview of things to come in jazz.

In the nearly seven years DeMicheal edited DownBeat (during which operations moved to 222 West Adams Street), he and Maher developed what one observer called a love-hate relationship. This over and above the expected tensions of any partnership between art and commerce. DeMicheal was a highly ethical man and a fighter. As Dan Morgenstern, who succeeded him at editor, has pointed out, DeMicheal would not compromise his principles. “That’s why he and the Old Man may have had their fights, but they respected and even had affection for each other.”

In the late summer of 1967, DeMicheal left DownBeat, and Morgenstern, who had first written for the magazine in the late fifties and had been associate editor in New York since the end of 1964, moved to Chicago, reluctantly, to take over. The next two years would be rocky ones. Maher suffered a heart attack complicated by emphysema late that year. At the end 1968 he died.

With Maher’s death, the last remaining figure whose career went back almost to the beginning of the magazine passed from the scene. There was considerable concern for the future of DownBeat. Maher’s will left everything to his wife. The magazine went into the hands of American National Bank as trustee, with instructions to sell it after 12 months. Neither Maher’s widow, who served as titular president during the trust period, nor his two daughters had any interest in buying it themselves. But during the course of the year and at the suggestion of the bank, Maher’s son Jack began to check in on DownBeat. The magazine was approaching profitability, and the music and record industry was on the threshold of an economic explosion. Maher decided to buy out his family’s interests and continue DownBeat as a Maher publication. His decision was based on business, not sentiment. He frequently told friends, “The first responsibility of a business is to stay in business.”


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