Milt Gabler was born in Harlem, May 20, 1911, the eldest of six
children. He said he fell in love with jazz at a dance at Silver
Beach in the Bronx in the late 20's or early thirties. He worked for
his father at a hardware store on 42nd Street while a student at
Stuyvesant H.S. He talked his father into installing a record
department in his radio shop which quickly became the Commodore Music
Shop, the first jazz specialist store.
Circa 1933, at the bottom of the depression, he had reissued a few Jack Teagarden items from the old ARC* dime store labels on the Commodore label. He also ordered special re-pressings of out-of-print Vocallion records by Pinetop Smith, Romeo Nelson, etc. When ARC pressed beyond his special-orders for sale to Commodore's competitiors, he started the UHCA label. UHCA meant United Hot Clubs of America, which really didn't exist (but was a good idea). UHCA eventually went beyond re-issuing jazz classics from Paramount, Gennett, Okeh, Columbia, etc. to unearthing valuable unissued material by early jazz masters.
When ARC discontinued the Okeh label in 1935, Gabler bought most of the inventory for a dime each (which many years later resulted in his being saluted as a Man of Distinction in a beautiful whiskey ad with a mint Bix Okeh 78.). You could still buy such items across the counter at the Commodore in the 40's.
The N.Y.Times obit reminds us that Gabler was famous for "talking customers out of spending more mponey for records than he thought they could afford." I recall a very old article about him where the guy on the customer side of this kind of advice was the Prince of Wales, a very hip royal for whom a 20's jazz standard was named.
On January 17, 1938, Eddie Condon led a contingent of great jazzmen into the Brunswick studio where Bobby Hackett, Geprge Brunies, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Jess Stacy, Artie Shapiro and Gerge Wettling cut the first records soon to be released on the Commodore label.
A few months later Jack Teagarden replaced Brunis for another session. Other sessions led by Freeman, Stacy followed, including a comedy record featuring Evertt Sloane, Bud Freeman and Minerva Pious (Mrs. Nussbaum of the Fred Allen radio show) parodying Noel Coward's Private Lives. It was called Private Jives.
The oft-repeated formula for a jazz label is expressed in a Bud Freeman original, "Tappin' The Commodore Till". Several record stores had issued material from Broadway shows on labels such as Liberty Music Shop, Rabson's, etc. (They had a particular liking for Lee Wiley's vocals and frequently used great jazzmen such as Stacy, Freeman, Fats Waller and Joe Bushkin, etc. as accompanists) But Commodore concentrated strictly on hot jazz, tho they eventually succumbed to Lee Wiley's vocal charms. Soon HRS (Hot Record Shop), Musicraft, Keynote, and eventually Wax, Prestige and Riverside had their beginning in a retail location. Jazz Man & Dial on the West Coast, Seymour's in Chicago and Delmark in St.Louis followed suit.
But don't get the idea that Commodore was strictly a trad label. Listen to the Mel Powell material (including Benny Goodman aka Shoeless Joe Jackson), the wonderful Lester Young KC5 &6 sessions (inaugurated with another purchase from Vocallion), the Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, deParis Brothers. Ben Webster, Edmund Hall, Teddy Wilson, Hot Lips Page (with Don Byas) and the brace of Willie" The Lion" Smith albums indicate the breadth of his interest, stretching the minds of those who only listen to "dixieland" and hopefully indicating that modern jazz fans could do worse than to tap into the Commodore till.
One of the most important contributions made by Commodore was its release of the famous Stange Fruit Billie Holiday session when ARC was afraid to release it due to the lyrics (about lynching)**. (I always understood that Brunswick had done the session, were afraid to release Strange Fruit but sold the whole session to Gabler, but the obituaries all say that Gabler produced the session.) This could have been why Billie signed with Commodore when her Brunswick/CBS contract ran out.
The obits also state that Gabler was one of the first to make recordings of Broadway shows. He is also credited with writing the Hot Discography, an invaluable tool for the jazz collector in those times when very few historical jazz performances were available, but this was a project of Charles Delaney whose first edition appeared in France in the 30's. However, Gabler did sponsor the post-war edition in the U.S. in 1946, and it is true that he was the first to print band personnels on record labels.
The Commodore was a meeting place for anyone interested in jazz and one of the store's unheralded contributions to jazz history took place after hours when Gene Williams edited the first jazz maagazine in the US: Jazz Information. (Downbeat and Metronome were, at that time, devoted to pop music, gave as much space to the Freddy Martins and Sammy Kayes as to the Benny Goodmans and Duke Ellingtons -- little coverage to combo jazz and virtually none to blues.) This led to the publicaiton of Jazzmen and the Jazz Record Book, the U.S. jazz books. (The discovery of Bunk Johnson occurred during the writing of Jazzmen.)
Jelly Roll Morton did his last recording sessions for the General label, a sideline of a better-than-average recording studio. When the owner became more interested in improving the recording process he sold Milt the General masters, consisting of a dozen each of piano solos and band sessions (featuring Red Allen, Albert Nicholas, etc.) by Morton, a nice session by neglected clarinet great Joe Marsala (with Bill Coleman and Pete Brown), as well as an album of party songs by Madame Spivey (immortalized in the film: Rod Serling's Requium For A Heavyweight, starring Anthony Quinn.)
Albums by the Almanac Singers (Pete Seeger,et al) appeared on Commodore long before a viable folk movement began, foreshadowing his later activity at Decca with Josh White.
When CBS bought ARC in 1938 they did not acquire the Brunswick and Vocallion trade marks which, with all the pre-1932 masters, had been retained by Warner Brothers. Legal action eventually followed with the result that Decca picked up the Warner Bros. rights. Gabler, who had been pressing some of these masters on UHCA, was eventually placed in charge of a reissue series on the resurgent Brunswick label. 78 rpm albums by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Noone, Jelly Roll Morton, Pinetop Smith, Bing Crosby, Wilmouth Houdini, Red Nichols, as well as anthologies of Boogie Woogie (Speckled Red, Romeo Nelson, Montana Taylor, etc.), Hot Piano (Mary Lou Williams, Frank Melrose, Alex Hill, James P. Johsnon), and American Folk Miusic (including a few sides by Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis.) The series was annotated by various jazz experts including Gene Williams, William Russell, and Alan Lomax.
Eventually Milt Gabler's work at Decca took more and more of his time as he rose in the executive ranks there. After the wartime record ban, Decca picked up Milt's talent roster virtually intact: Billie Holiday, Eddie Heywood and Eddie Condon. (Condon, however, continued supervising sessions for Commodore by Miff Mole, Brunis, Pee Wee, and the magnificent Wild Bill Davison.) Commodore acquired the Town Hall concert performances by Stuff Smith, Gene Krupa, etc. produced by the very colorful Baron Timmie Rosenkratz. Frank Foster and Frank Wess did the last Coimmodore sessions in the early 50's by which time Gabler had no time for the label.
But the label was revived in the mid-50's headed by Gabler's son-in-law, Jack Crystal, (that's Billy Crystal's father!) who managed the shop and was also busy with the legendary Central Plaza Sunday night jam sessions.
The Commodore catalog was usually available in the UK on the London label, and subsequent reissues appeared on Mainstream and on Commodore labels produced by Columbia's Special Products division and later by a firm involved with Chicago's Rose Record store.
Most recently there was a marvelous box by Mosaic of all the Commodore masters, including some startling sessions somehow never issued before.
At Decca, Gabler was the first to record Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald. He also produced pop records by Peggy Lee, the Ink Spots, and Bill Haley (incl. "Rock Around The Clock"), The Weavers, and many others. Milt eventually wound up in the executive suite at Decca and survived the merger with MCA to become chairman of the board. A few years ago he sold the Commodore masters to what is now Universal Records.
At the age of 90, Milt Gabler died July 20, 2001, survived by his wife Estelle, a son, two daughters, two sisters, a brother, five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and a grateful world of jazz fans and musicians.
Thanks for everything, Mr. Gabler, and (personally) for that record shop/label formula. Milt Gabler's contributions go far beyond even the splendid Commodore catalog.
I love the quote in the New Yorker "...New Orleans was the cradle, we were the iron lung" (of jazz).
(The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and liner notes of the wonderful Mosaic Records box set contributed to the collation of this article.)
- Bob Koester