Various Artists: Billy Crystal Presents the Milt Gabler Story

Robert R. Calder

Subtitled 'from 'Strange Fruit' to 'Rock Around the Clock'', a 30-minute DVD of Billy Crystal reminiscing about his jazz and pop producer uncle's amazing achievement, plus a CD of copious, very various audio evidence.

Various Artists

Billy Crystal Presents the Milt Gabler Story

Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2005-03-15
UK Release Date: 2005-01-11
Amazon affiliate

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.