In its 100 year history, America’s TIME magazine has featured no fewer than FIVE jazz musicians on it’s iconic front page. Can you guess who they are, before we tell you?
The first issue of Time magazine, its title stylised in capitals as TIME, was published on 3 March 1923 and would continue, weekly, for almost a century.
Based in New York City as the first weekly news magazine in America, it’s known for its in-depth reporting and insightful analysis, yet most famous for its front covers which have become iconic symbols of the times in which they were published.
This trend of featuring a single person on the cover would be a trademark of the magazine from its very first issue, which featured Joseph G. Cannon who was leader of the Republican party and had also served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and continued until the late 1960s.
With an editorial policy that covered many aspects of American life, it was inevitable that jazz would indeed also find its place in TIME magazine…
…and fitting that the first should be none other than Louis Armstrong.
It took a while though.
Armstrong, as representative of the greatest of American art forms, didn’t appear until 1949, more than quarter of a century after the first publication of Time and more than thirty years after the first jazz records had been released.
With his picture on the cover of Time magazine’s issue of 21 February 1949, Louis Armstrong was the first of five jazz musicians to grace the cover between 1949 and 1990.
Of the five, the first and last were trumpet players (Louis and Wynton Marsalis), and the other three pianists: Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
It’s interesting to speculate why this should be, and also why there have been no women jazz musicians represented…
Louis Armstrong (21 February 1949)
The first jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time, the article inside the magazine was titled ‘Louis The First’ and discussed in detail his achievements in jazz and his imminent return to New Orleans.
Due to the decline of the large ensembles in the mid/late 1940s, the trumpeter pared his band down to a smaller unit that became known as Louis Armstrong and His All Stars.
In 1949 his popularity was on the rise, though, and Armstrong would have a succession of pop hits as well as touring overseas.
Dave Brubeck (8 November 1954)
Five years after Armstrong appeared on the cover of TIME, it would be the turn of pianist Dave Brubeck.
In an interview titled ‘The Man on Cloud No. 7’ the article touched on Brubeck’s burgeoning popularity and his radical style (as it was then perceived).
His relationship with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond was, by now, firmly established and fulfilling its early promise; both pianist and saxophonist discuss how their intuition guided them through some of their more intricate compositions, as if each could read the other’s mind.
A few months prior to the interview Brubeck and his quartet released the album Jazz Goes To College, the pianist’s first album for Columbia Records. It wasn’t until five year’s later that the legendary jazz album Time Out was released – perhaps validating the magazine’s sense of a great story.
A mixture of standards and a couple of originals, Jazz Goes To College documents the band’s early development during an intensive period of live performances in a relatively short space of time.
Duke Ellington (20 August 1956)
Timing is everything, and this article, ‘Mood Indigo & Beyond’, appeared in the magazine – with Duke on the cover – immediately after the pianist’s runaway success at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956.
Indeed, Ellington in his autobiography Music Is My Mistress credited Paul Gonsalves’s monumental performance at the festival as getting him on the cover, but this is not quite how it happened.
It transpires that the portrait of Duke that appears on the cover had been completed by the artist Peter Hurd in June 1956 and that the interview itself had taken place at a similar time to the portrait.
After the success of the Ellington Orchestra’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, which was significant enough in reviving Duke’s stalling career, Ellington’s press agent deemed in a perfect hook on which to hang an interview and feature in the magazine, and the editors agreed.
The press reviews of the concert coupled with the TIME magazine cover feature ensured there was plenty of coverage for Duke and the resulting album of the concert was released to high praise.
The rest is, as they say, history.
Thelonious Monk (28 February 1964)
In an interview called ‘The Loneliest Monk’ writer Barry Farrell allegedly had about thirty conversations with the pianist over a period of two or three months, often outside a club such as the Five Spot or in an after-hours bar.
Farrell’s writing paints a picture of Thelonious Monk as a lonely person. It is apparent the person he is closest too is his wife Nellie, and the story of the confiscation of his cabaret card (effectively preventing Monk from working in any of the New York clubs) is once again recounted.
With hindsight, it’s a strangely conceived and executed piece of work on one of the giants of the music and does little credit to show Monk’s importance as a composer.
Farrell talks about the difficulties that the pianist had in getting his work accepted, and the struggles of his early years, along with his penchant for wearing an array of different hats.
One is left with the feeling that this was perhaps a missed opportunity, or maybe even that Monk was just too reclusive and elusive to be pinned down for any length of time.
The saxophonist John Coltrane says of his time with Monk that, when learning the music, he would say very little but demonstrate it music at the piano.
Perhaps simply by listening to the records it the best way for us to understand him too.
Wynton Marsalis (22 October 1990)
Bringing this illustrious group to a close,Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was just 29 years old when he was featured on the cover of TIME magazine.
Already a veteran of the jazz scene, he had made a dozen records under his own name and was being heralded as the driving force behind the renaissance of acoustic small group jazz which took inspiration from the hard bop style of the fifties and sixties.
The article discusses Marsalis’s increasing importance as a voice in the music, as well as his outspokenness that often put him at the heart of controversy. Interesting to note that, since this interview, the trumpeter he has delved further back into the roots of the music, from gospel and spiritual music to early jazz from New Orleans.
Marsalis remains outspoken, yet has also been a steadfast champion of the history of the music and the purity of jazz.
This has resulted in much excellent music but, to his critics (or, rather, fans of his early work), he may have spent too much time looking back, rather than taking the music into the new millennium.
Thanks for reading.
If (like us) you didn’t guess all five first time round, I hope it’s proven an interesting angle into how the wider world has viewed the jazz scene over the last century.
Looking for more?
You can still find all of these issues digitally via the TIME magazine vault, should you wish to dive deeper into them.