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Obituaries

Milton Gabler; Promoted Jazz, Rock

July 29, 2001|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Milton Gabler, a nonmusician with a gifted ear who had a lasting influence on jazz and rock music, has died. He was 90.

Gabler died July 20 at the Jewish Home and Hospital in New York City.

In an eclectic career, Gabler is credited with a number of firsts in the music business. He founded Commodore records, the first independent jazz record label. He developed the idea of reissuing recordings by purchasing and reselling unwanted recordings from major labels. He founded the first mail-order record label. And he was the first to list the names of the band members on a recording.

Called "one of the record industry's unsung greats" by the Encyclopedia of Rock, Gabler also signed pioneer rocker Bill Haley to a contract and produced Haley's seminal recording "Rock Around the Clock."

Gabler also produced and released one of the most controversial recordings in the history of American music: Billie Holiday's version of "Strange Fruit," the vividly uncompromising protest against racism and lynchings in the South.

Gabler was born in Harlem, the oldest of six children. His interest in jazz grew out of his childhood summers at the beach in the Bronx, where he heard jazz bands at the local dance pavilion.

During high school, he began working at his father's hardware store but soon transferred to another store his father owned, a radio shop on East 42nd Street in Manhattan. Young Gabler soon put loudspeakers over the shop's door and tuned in a local radio station. The innovation drew customers into the store, but many of them wanted to buy records, not radios.

Gabler eventually talked his father into stocking records, and the shop became a happening place for aficionados of "hot" music, the term used in those days to describe jazz.

An innovative retailer, Gabler started buying out-of-print jazz recordings from major record companies in 1934 and reselling them in the store under its new name, the Commodore Music Shop. He was the first person to sell these records, which came to be called reissues.

Around the same time, he also began listing the names of band members on records.

"You recognize a man by the tone of his voice. You can recognize a musician by the way he blows his notes," Gabler told jazz historian Dan Morgenstern in an interview some years ago for a compilation of Commodore sessions released by Mosaic records.

Another Gabler innovation was the United Hot Clubs of America, the first mail-order record label, which he co-founded.

Over the years, he earned the trust of many musicians producing a strong catalog of music for Commodore, including Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Eddie Condon, Roy Eldrige and Jess Stacy.

"A ray comes out of him," one musician commented in a New Yorker profile of Gabler some years ago. "You can't help doing something the way he wants. Here is this guy, can't read a note of music, and he practically tells you what register you're going to play in just by the position of your head."

In the same profile, Gabler explained his attraction to producing jazz recordings.

"The thrill I get is not knowing what's going to happen. I never can tell when I'm going to be lifted right out of my seat. That doesn't come with arranged music. You don't get knocked out. You don't get the bottom, the drive, the punch, the big, fat hot note."

Commodore's most noted recording was Holiday's "Strange Fruit." In 1939, she went to Gabler's store and told him that Columbia, then one of the major labels in jazz, would not let her record "Strange Fruit," which she had been singing nightly at Cafe Society, a club in Greenwich Village.

In his definitive book on the song, "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights," David Margolick writes that Gabler agreed to record the song if Columbia would release her for one recording session.

Gabler gave Holiday $500 to record four sides, including "Strange Fruit," plus $1,000 later. "We used to give her cash . . . right out of the cash register in the store," he told Margolick. "We never really kept a record of it."

Over the years, Gabler rejected the notion that he had any greater motive for recording "Strange Fruit." "I did it for kicks," he said. "It was exciting."

Holiday recorded for Gabler again briefly in the 1940s after she was dropped by Columbia. And Gabler was instrumental in bringing her to Decca, which had signed him in 1941 as a producer and A&R man. After joining Decca, Gabler continued his work at Commodore until 1950. The last Commodore sessions were recorded in 1954 and were produced by Leonard Feather, who went on to become a noted Los Angeles Times jazz critic, and by Gabler's brother Danny.

At about the same time that Commodore records was going under, Milt Gabler moved on to rock music, signing Haley for Decca. That same year, Gabler produced Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."

"All of the tricks I used 10 years earlier with Louis Jordan I used with Bill Haley," he told Rolling Stone magazine. "The only difference between them was the way we did the rhythm. On Jordan, we used a perfectly balanced rhythm section from the swing era. . . . But on rock 'n' roll, what Bill did, he had a heavy back beat."

In 1983, Gabler was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was introduced at the ceremony by his nephew, the comedian Billy Crystal.

Gabler is survived by his wife, Estelle; a son; two daughters; two sisters; a brother; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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