James T. Maher

Born: January 27, 1917
Died: July 18, 2007

Ohio connection: Birth


Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1917, writer and historian James Maher was a cultural critic of jazz and American popular music.

A passionate fan of jazz and American popular music since childhood, Maher began his career as a journalist in 1934 at the Cleveland Plain Dealer where he covered sports until 1935, after which he attended Ohio State University. In 1937, he became a publicity assistant for the University’s athletic department, a position which he held until 1940. After serving in the U.S. Army (1943-45), Maher moved to New York City and began working in public relations. There he continued writing and cultivating his expertise in American vernacular music. Maher married Virginia Maddocks in 1948, but their marriage ended in divorce in 1954. He married Barbara Joan Judd in 1962, and they had a son. In 1958, he left public relations to focus on writing fulltime since by then he’d become known in the music field as a scholar of jazz and popular music. Maher’s depth of knowledge is evidenced in the documentaries to which he lends his wisdom: Ken Burns’ “Jazz” and in the PBS series American Masters “Benny Goodman: Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing.”

Maher authored of two books: The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles of the Age of American Palaces (1975) and The Distant Music of Summer: A Novel (1979). He wrote essays for music journals and popular magazines, and he contributed to other works: Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall & Jean Stearns (1968); Jazz: A History of America’s Music by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns (2000); The Oxford Companion to Jazz (2000), edited by Bill Kirchner. Perhaps his most significant contributed work was working as editor for, and providing the introduction to, composer Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. Considered a classic of musical scholarship, American Popular Song was a finalist for the 1973 National Book Award and won the Deems Taylor Award from the ASCAP Foundation in 1975. Maher’s contribution was pivotal. In the book’s acknowledgment, Wilder expresses his appreciation to Maher: “To James T. Maher for his inestimable contribution to this book, for his truly phenomenal knowledge and research, his impeccable collation of thousands of facts . . . his guidance and encouragement. Also for his superb editing. If ever the phrase ‘but for whom this book would never have been written’ were apt, it is so in this instance.”

James Maher died July 18, 2007 in New York City. He was 90 years old. His obituary appeared in The New York Sun among other publications.

American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, finalist 1973 National Book Award for Arts & Letters; Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, 1975.