J is for Jazz is a trip through the alphabet, looking at the major personalities, styles and historical institutions that have fed the music through the decades.
Since its inception in Chicago in 1934, DownBeat Magazine has been one of the most respected voices in jazz journalism. Its long-running blindfold test continues to be a hit with readers. It's the feature where prominent jazz artists are played a selection of mystery tracks and asked to identify the artists and comment on their performances. This challenge goes to the core of what jazz musicians and fans hold dear: having great ears and the ability to pinpoint a performer’s sound and personality just by listening to them. Hundreds of musicians have taken the challenge through the years, including John Coltrane, who showed amazing acuity in his 1959 blindfold challenge.
Another feature that has had plenty of traction with jazz fans is the annual DownBeat poll, voted on by both critics and readers. Poll categories include all the expected jazz instruments, vocalists, composers, arrangers, record labels, producers and the like.
DownBeat struggles, but survives
As early as 1949, sensing a fragmentation in the still relatively young jazz genre, DownBeat thought it would try to come up with a name that better defined the art form in all of its breadth, from Dixieland to bebop. So, the magazine sponsored an ambitious contest to rename jazz. First prize was $1,000; second and third prizes were performances by Charlie Barnet’s big band and the Nat King Cole Trio, respectively, in the winner’s home. However, the responses were so uninspired ("mesmerrhythm," "bix-e-bop" and the like) that it’s unclear if any prizes were awarded at all.
In subsequent decades, DownBeat pandered to a wider audience and inadvertently took a self-induced faceplant on a hard surface for their efforts. Covers in the 1950s included Jerry Lewis and Liberace. In 1980, legendary drummer and DownBeat subscriber Buddy Rich cancelled his subscription when country artist Merle Haggard was featured on the cover. But the magazine ultimately survived and thrived again on the basis of solid writing and outreach initiatives that included sponsoring educational clinics for students led by the likes of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
DownBeat’s connection to Canada
Canadian festivals have received significant coverage over the years from DownBeat. Musicians have always enjoyed having the magazine's writers show up at their gigs while on assignment north of the 49th. Of course, album reviews continue to be one of the big attractions to the magazine. Ken Micallef of DownBeat had this to say about the Vancouver band NightCrawlers and their debut CD, Presenting, as shown on the band's website:
“It’s hard to make a bad organ trio record given the associations a whirring Leslie can conjure in our collective jazz perception. But when organ grinder Chris Gestrin mans the Hammond, a great record emerges. Gestrin plays with Vancouver, B.C.'s Night Crawlers, exponents of the holy grail of 1960 s organ swing. Recorded live at Vancouver’s Cellar Nighclub, the operative word on Presenting is authenticity, from mixing the recorded digital files on 2 - inch tape to sweltering performances of material by Big John Patton, Jack McDuff and Horace Silver. The Night Crawlers play like a decades-old organization, possessing the swagger, muscle and greasy swing feel of yesteryear’s greats. This live record is practically a time machine.”
There are other offerings in the jazz magazine market, including Jazz Times and Jazziz, but DownBeat is the grandaddy of the genre and, as such, has earned a rightful place under "D" in our letter-by-letter survey of the jazz alphabet.
Have your say. Have you read DownBeat or other jazz journals through the years? How do jazz magazines figure into you appreciation of the art form?
Nicholas Payton proposes a name change for jazz
J is for Jazz and Jelly Roll Morton
J is for Jazz, E is for Ellington
J is for Jazz, A is for Armstrong