In the 1930s Milt Gabler’s father ran a small New York hardware store selling electrical odds and ends. Young Milt saw a morally and aesthetically congenial prospect if they started selling older records that dancers liked and priests of Mammon weren’t currently marketing. So he added old copies to stock, and even did some reissuing (first independent jazz reissue company), and when the record companies got interested in their own archives he started making his own and created the first independent jazz label: Commodore. The musicians he engaged were the best, likewise the music they made.
He pioneered mail order, and recognising the limits of the retail outlets he could run he created presumably the first jazz specialist shop—something old, something new, some of it in-house and some of it blues.
As happened later in London, his shop concentrated minds and bodies and listening and knowledgeable talking resources. Future important critics met there, learned there, and no doubt attended the regular jam sessions he ran. The founders of Blue Note records, refugees from Nazi Germany, were among them.
In 1941 the relocated jazz shop was taken over by Gabler’s brother-in-law, Jack Crystal (not yet father of Billy) and by the 1950s, Jack C. was running sessions for dancing in the Central Plaza. Admirers of the photos displayed while Billy Crystal tells the story, if they don’t know already, should be told that recordings of broadcasts from the 1950s sessions can be found on the Danish Storyville label. The grinning Benny Waters can be seen in one photo, and heard playing brilliant clarinet on a Storyville set in Jimmy Archey’s band. The music is a jamming sort of thing swing masters then otherwise without work (like Waters, and like others who didn’t live to record aged 95 in 1997) supplied to meet a demand for the Eddie Condon sort of music which seems too hot to deserve the “Dixieland” label it was sold under.
The film also refers to the event which improved Gabler’s finances and put Pa Crystal in charge of the shop from1941: the appointment of Gabler as A&R boss at the burgeoning Decca records company, where he remained for three decades until MCA bought Decca and he would have had to relocate to California.
As a jazz producer with Commodore Gabler was unexcelled. The set’s subtitle “From ‘Strange Fruit’ to ‘Rock Around the Clock’” begins with an allusion to the pioneering protest song Billie Holiday had been singing at her gigs but could not get her recording company—Columbia, a “major”—to record. With the “bulging eyes and twisted mouth” in the pastoral scene of the South it was an attack on a current cultural relativism which tolerated lynching in certain areas of the Republic. Gabler’s Austrian relatives were being subjected to nothing less at the time, and the perky roly-poly man has to be commended for even more than what he did for music and musicians.
The audio CD has about a dozen jazz or jazz-related items, half of those from Commodore, others from the long Decca years. Commodore material—after being not terribly available—did come out in a flood within the past twenty years, including a release of the complete archives in huge boxes (limited editions now sold out) from Mosaic.
The rest of the material is mostly Decca, and a lot of it vocal pop, though including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald both singly and together, and Billie Holiday with Strings rather than the very good little jazz group on the Commodore classics “Strange Fruit” and “Fine and Mellow”. “Lover Man” was another major Holiday recording.
There is the first hit consequent on Gabler’s identifying Sammy Davis Jr. as a singer of note. Pearl Bailey and Bing Crosby have jazzmen in their accompaniments, but there are strings with the Weavers, a decidedly leftie folkie quartet including Pete Seeger and a nice enough infiltration into the sort of mainstream late 1940s to early 1960s pop with which America was once awash. Gabler was an ace producer of saleable but not musically negligible stuff of the sort, and it might be an interesting cultural experience to give the audio CD a listen through. Given the range into domesticity music, a recommendation would have to be as living history rather than in specially musical terms—other than to nostalgia buffs or a specific interest in that period. Bill Haley remains fun, but Wayne Newton?
The merit of the DVD is that it is mostly Billy Crystal’s personal recollection of the time when his own talents were burgeoning—a very little kid amusing and liked by major and generally under-appreciated jazzmen. What a context! There is not too much of the history of pop which rather commandeers the audio disc. The DVD with its stills and home movies and personal narrative is certainly worth seeing. Milt Gabler and Jack Crystal deserve all the praise they are here accorded.