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JT 50: The History of JazzTimes

From then to now: A look at the magazine's evolution over the past 50 years

Historic issues of JazzTimes
Early issues of the Sabin’s Discount Records circular, Radio Free Jazz, and JazzTimes

JazzTimes did not start with a proposal, prospectus, or PowerPoint presentation. There was no capital investment. There was no particular strategic plan. It didn’t even have a name. What kind of magazine is launched without a thoroughly researched and market-tested name? The answer is a jazz magazine in 1970—one that would evolve into an award-winning publication and, with all modesty, one of the finest music magazines in the world.

Like most publications, it started as the vision of one man. In the ’60s, Ira Sabin, a former society drummer and concert presenter, was the owner of an R&B and jazz record store—Sabin’s Discount Records—in the U Street corridor of Washington, D.C. The store became a cultural hot spot, with many of the great African-American artists of that time stopping by while on tour for meet-and-greets or signings, or just to hang out.

After the riots of 1968, Ira moved the store to a shopping center on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the Penn Branch neighborhood of DC. In 1970 he started printing up a circular for the store, highlighting various recent releases and providing coupons, as well as offering some short takes on records. Looking at those pieces now, you see not only the mix of R&B, soul, blues, and jazz but also the greatness of the music of that time. At some point, Ira decided to turn the circular into a tip sheet for radio people. He started to add short columns from local DJs and writers, along with playlists for what radio stations were airing. DJs would write in asking for copies of recent releases in a column called “Pulling Coattails.”

As the circular grew and he got some advertising for it, Ira realized that it was becoming more than a promotional item for the store. It was a newspaper, in tabloid form, and it needed some sort of name. He somehow came up with the title of Radio Free Jazz, which we’ve never been able to parse. Did it refer to avant-garde jazz on the radio? (Not likely.) Was it suggesting that radio was free of jazz? (That would be the opposite of the publication’s focus.) Most likely, it was a reference to Radio Free Europe, which had such a large impact on culture behind the Iron Curtain. Ira told us many years later that he just liked the way it sounded.

Over time the publication picked up more prestigious contributors, including Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, and Herb Wong. It was Feather who told Ira that the name Radio Free Jazz just wouldn’t do. “Why not call it the Jazz Times like the New York Times?” Feather asked. Although the name was eventually trademarked with the USPTO, there was no real title search. Ira decided to drop “the” and make JazzTimes one word with a capital T, something that many people, including several of its own contributors, would get wrong for the next four decades. Ira also turned to subscriptions to ease cash flow. The first subscriber was Dizzy Gillespie; the second was the pianist Kenny Drew.

Ira sold the record store in 1980 and devoted all his time to the magazine, which was growing in size and influence. He found a little office in Silver Spring, Maryland, a struggling exurb of DC at that time. Rents were cheap. One of the earlier offices was over a banquet hall. He hired a series of editors, including the Washington Post music critic Mike Joyce, to help assign and edit the content, while he hustled to find advertising prospects (record labels and festivals, mainly) and distribution channels—from record stores and bookstores to newsstands.

Because the magazine continued to function as a conduit between record labels and radio stations, a few cognoscenti including Orrin Keepnews and Nesuhi Ertegun suggested that Ira host a conference for the jazz industry. The first JazzTimes Convention took place in Washington at the Omni Shoreham. Within a few years, it moved to New York, where it was held at the Roosevelt Hotel for several years. Looking back at the topics of the panels and workshops at those conventions in the ’80s and comparing them to the session titles of the more recent Jazz Congress and JazzConnect conferences that we co-produced during the last eight years, it’s amazing to see that the basic issues didn’t change much: the effect of new technologies, building the audience for jazz, creative approaches to presenting live jazz, and so many other evergreen topics.

As printing technology evolved, glossy four-color magazines became more common and even affordable, yet Ira found it hard to make that transition. In 1990 he turned over the reins to his son Glenn, who had worked at the record store when he was barely a teenager and later sold ads for the magazine. The second generation did make the transition. In the ensuing years, Glenn, with much help from myself and his brother Jeff, as well as various editors, designers, and contributors, pushed the publication forward into a more sophisticated look and tone. Under Ira’s leadership, JazzTimes had been almost exclusively focused on mainstream jazz. If it didn’t swing, it didn’t make it into print. Glenn expanded the magazine’s coverage beyond the mainstream to cover fusion and contemporary jazz. Record labels like Blue Note, GRP, PolyGram, Warner Bros., Atlantic, and Columbia became regular advertisers.

The ’90s were a period of great growth for JazzTimes, and the jazz industry at large. All the major labels had active jazz departments. Retail outlets like Tower Records, Borders, and Barnes & Noble were doing booming business as the market for CDs exploded with both new releases and reissues of material from jazz’s long history. More and more jazz festivals happened all over the globe. Jazz education grew. Business was good for a magazine that covered all that, and issues averaging over 200 pages enabled JazzTimes to feature dozens of artists and review hundreds of albums each month.

The evolution of the internet created a seismic shift for many industries, including the record business and print publishing. Chains like Tower and Borders, which were significant sellers of magazines as well as records, went under. Add to all that the economic crisis of 2008-2009, and a niche publication like JazzTimes faced an enormous challenge to make its way as a single title. So when the opportunity came for the Sabin family to sell the publication’s intellectual property to the Madavor Media group in the spring of 2009, a deal was struck.

I, like an old washing machine in the basement of a recently sold house, transferred over to the new ownership based in Braintree, Mass., along with editor Evan Haga. Since 2009, JazzTimes has been part of a portfolio of fellow niche magazines, such as Outdoor Photographer, The Writer, BirdWatching, and Plane & Pilot. The resulting economies of scale, as well as shared resources and best practices, enabled us to not only weather the storm but continue to develop and improve, winning multiple awards for journalism and design in those years.

For the last 30 years, JazzTimes has been guided by only four editors: Mike Joyce, Christopher Porter, Haga, and Mac Randall, plus myself as a utility player filling all sorts of different roles. However, during that same time there have been dozens of employees who have contributed to the magazine’s growth and success. Finally, the cumulative roster of contributing writers, photographers, and illustrators represents the best that music journalism has to offer. Whatever legacy the magazine has can rightly be credited to hundreds of creative and well-intentioned people, all working toward a goal laid out by Ira Sabin 50 years ago: to serve the music and the artists who make it.