James Maher, a writer and historian who exerted a vast influence on the field of music and cultural criticism, died July 18 at a Manhattan nursing home. He was 90.
Maher was best known for his contributions to Alec Wilder's "American Popular Song," a classic of musical scholarship, and for his prominence in the 2001 Ken Burns documentary "Jazz."
Maher began his career as a journalist in his native Cleveland, covering sports for the Plain Dealer in 1934. While a student at Ohio State University, he met Benny Goodman for the first time, albeit casually; the two later became friends.
From 1945 onward, he considered New York home, and for many years he worked in public relations. He had been an ardent fan of jazz and American popular music since boyhood, and in the 1940s and after he established himself as one of the premier scholars of American vernacular music, even as he continued to pursue a career in journalism and public relations. A close associate of the author and curator Marshall Stearns, he was instrumental in Stearns's founding of the first official archive of jazz, which became the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. Only a handful of taped interviews with Charlie Parker are extant; one was conducted jointly by Stearns and Maher.
Present at the birth of the long-playing record at the start of the '50s, Maher authored many liner notes over a 50-year period. He wrote notes for such classic albums as "Benny Goodman Plays ‘The Sound of Music,'" "Oscar Peterson/Nelson Riddle," and "(Stan) Getz/(Joao) Gilberto #2." He also wrote many annotations for historical albums in the celebrated RCA Vintage series.
Maher's liner notes and articles were invariably thorough and comprehensive, filled with new and often revelatory information and otherwise unpublished facts. His notes on Goodman's "Sound of Music" album, produced by the clarinetist himself (who also picked Maher for the job) are a detailed history of the interaction between jazz and the Broadway stage.
Although Maher later wrote two books on his own, he is probably most famous for his contribution to Wilder's "American Popular Song." Maher was essentially Wilder's coauthor, but he was content to accept the credit of "editor"; Maher and Wilder wrote the book together, going through hundreds upon hundreds of classic songs, coming up with observations about the musical styles of the composers, and then fashioning those observations into coherent chapters about the great American songwriters. Published in 1972, "American Popular Song" won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, was nominated for a National Book Award, and has long been recognized as the definitive work on the subject.
From the 1970s until recently, Maher continued to write, research, and dispense wisdom to dozens and dozens of younger authors and researchers; it sometimes seems as if every book ever written on American music owes something to Maher.
He was full of opinions and theories on the origin of jazz and how the brass band tradition of the 19th century managed to merge with the blues and ragtime, and he had an insatiable curiosity for such matters as the development of the four- and then the five-piece saxophone section in the jazz orchestra.
He was author of "The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles of the Age of American Palaces," a 1975 history of famous mansions, and a well-received novel, "The Distant Music of Summer" (1979).
Far from the least of his assets was a remarkable sense of humor. In the last few years of his life, Maher was a frequent presence on PBS documentaries, most famously in "Jazz" and on "Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing," about Benny Goodman.
The day after one of these shows had aired, Maher, who was then already over 80, was reached by phone by The New York Sun. He said his phone had been ringing off the hook all day. "Who's calling?" this reporter asked, feeding him the straight line. "Undertakers," he said, "putting in their bids!"
James Thomas Maher
Born January 23, 1917, in Cleveland; died July 18 at the Kateri Residence in Manhattan, of natural causes; survived by his wife, Barbara Joan Judd, and his son, Frederick James Maher.