Down Beat was founded in Chicago in 1934 by an insurance salesman/musician, who only intended on making a trade magazine for musicians to find practical information such as getting gigs. Eventually he sold the rights to one of his editors named Glenn Burrs, and he would go on to drastically change the magazine and create a name for it. With editorials on jazz and reviews on albums, concerts and clubs, he turned the magazine into an essential periodical to follow for anyone interested in jazz, and at one point even called it “the musician’s bible.” Burr’s development of the magazine was just in time as swing was reaching new peaks, and Down Beat thrived along with it. By 1939 the magazine had a monthly circulation of about 80,000 readers and increased its publications to be semi-monthly.
Down Beat and bop were not by any means a perfect fit for each other. When looking through the pages of old Down Beat issues from the 30’s and 40’s it is easy to tell that the magazine was more focused on the mainstream music and treated its subjects it as fun rather than serious. It isn’t that they didn’t give serious reviews of musicians, but they would use adjectives like “stinks” instead of using academic diction. The writers also seem to be heavy on the opinion and light on the reason behind it.
Its presentation was nothing to be taken seriously either. “With rare exceptions, Down Beat’s cover had absolutely nothing to do with anything inside the magazine. “Photos of sexy models in bathing suits and tight sweaters and aspiring starlets adorned every second or third cover.”1
Although Down Beat did not really promote or even really show it was aware of bebop in its earlier years, by around 1948, most of its writers seemed to have taken a definitive stance of support or at least interest. It is this year that they have articles such as “Pianist Monk Getting Long Awaited Break,” concerning bop founder Thelonious Monk. Even in this article though, they are still distanced from the musician and only say “It has been written before that Monk was the genius of the famed sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem,” and the journalist refrains from giving his own opinion on him. 2
One of the most important roles that Down Beat served for jazz was an institution to publish controversial opinions about the music and foster debate about them. For instance, Down Beat writer Mike Levin published an interview that he did with Stan Kenton, which promoted a progressive and modernist view of jazz. Kenton gave his opinions on the evolution of jazz along with that of the human psyche. He said: “There is more freedom in jazz, more regard for the individual emotion. Jazz is a new way of expressing emotion. I think the human race today may be going through things it never experienced before, types of nervous frustration and thwarted emotional development which traditional music is entirely incapable of not only satisfying, but also representing. That’s why I believe jazz is the new music along just in time.” Even though Stanton was a “progressive jazz” artist, his music and bebop were both part of the burgeoning modernist jazz, which placed more importance in the intellectual aspect behind the music. 3
The next issue of the magazine featured an irate response by musician Roy Scott, who in a flurry of red herrings, defended traditional jazz over progressive jazz. Instead of responding to Stanton’s argument about the development of jazz, Scott merely criticized him and said “Personally, I think the new Kenton band sounds ugly and awful,” said Mr. Scott. “Stan plays his kind of music because he’s helpless. It’s all similar to an illiterate who hasn’t a vocabulary and must rely on a collection of slang and curse words.” 4 Is printing this kind of material thought provoking or immature? That is a hard question to answer, but Down Beat didn’t care. Even if it wasn’t good for the intellectual aspect of the music, it kept readers subscribed so they could see who blew up on whom next. It kept the topics exciting. Like John Genarri says about the Down Beat writer George Frazier who was known for starting feuds, “Frazier’s writing style could affect a young jazz fan’s hormones in much the same way as the heartthrob-of-the-month girl pictures.” 5 In accordance to this strategy, Down Beat published many directly connected arguments that they thought would capture attention.
Some of the debates were more civil and made good jumping off points for the reader to formulate their own opinion, like that between Parker and Gillespie. The two articles helped define bop for the mainstream listeners of jazz who still possibly couldn’t understand bop and was not sure whether or not it was jazz. The debate started in an article published on September 9th, 1949, where Parker said, “Bop is no love child of jazz.” The interviewer, Michael Levin, pressed him and asked what the definition of bop was. Parker responded, “It’s just music. The beat in a bop band is with the music, against it, behind it. It pushes it. It helps it. Help is the big thing. It has no continuity of beat, no steady chug-chug. Jazz has hat, and that’s why bop is more flexible.” 6
In an article in the following month, Dizzy Gillespie disagreed with Parker’s opinion when he said, “Bop is an interpretation of jazz.” He goes on to say, “The trouble with jazz now is that people can’t dance to it. I want to make bop bigger, get it a wider audience.” 7 Unlike the excerpts from Stanton and Scott, this is an example of a civil debate between two musicians who have different ideas about where they want to take their music and where it comes from. But both of the debates were important in helping shape people’s understandings about music. Through each of their opinions they became role models for whichever readers agreed with what they had to say. As Gennari wrote, critics and musicians “critically shape the terms and conditions on which the music and musicians reach the public.” 8 Therefore, all critical work, like that in Down Beat was in a sense a companion piece to the music itself.
Down Beat did not only try to define jazz for the sake of its fans’ understanding, but also because as jazz developed away from the big-band swing era, Down Beat lost some of its popularity. That was the topic under which they thrived, and bops popularity had an adverse affect for the magazine. They even got so desperate to keep jazz defined and relevant that in 1949 they created a contest for their readers to “coin a new word to describe the music from dixieland through bop.” 9 Although the winning word, “crewcut,” never took off, Down Beat managed to survive their stagnation from the swing boom and still issues magazines today.
1 McDonough, John Sixty Years of Down Beat (Milwaukee, Hal Leonard, 1995) 9
2 Down Beat, Chicago, Feb 11, 1948, 11
3 Levin, Michael, “Jazz in Neurotic-Stan,” Down Beat 15 no. 1 (1948) 1
4 Ray Tabs Kenton Ork “Ugly, Yelling Outfit” Down Beat 15 no. 2 (1948) 5
5 Gennari, John Blowin’ Hot and Cool (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006) 69
6 Levin, Michael, “No Bop Roots in Jazz: Parker,” Down Beat, Septermber 9, 1949
7 Wilson, John “Bird Wrong; Bop Must get a Beat: Diz,” Down Beat, October 7 1949
8 Gennari, John Blowin’ Hot and Cool (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006) 13
9 Falling with a Tide, http://www.downbeat.com/default.asp?sect=about_07
10McDonough, John Sixty Years of Down Beat (Milwaukee, Hal Leonard, 1995) 9