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Founder of Commodore RecordsCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Milt Gabler could neither read nor play music, but he succeeded in making an indelible impression on the development of jazz in the two decades between 1934 and 1954, and added a significant contribution to the birth of rock and roll to that roster of achievements.
Gabler is credited with an impressive list of "firsts". He launched the first independent record label in jazz, Commodore Records, and recorded some of the most important figures of the day, including Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, Pee Wee Russell, Roy Eldridge and Eddie Condon.
He was the first producer to include the names of all the musicians on his releases, and also published the first jazz discography, Charles Delauney's The Hot Discography (1936), thereby inaugurating a cottage industry which continues unabated. He was the first to record musicians in an informal jam session format, a subsequent staple of jazz recording, and co-founded the first mail order record label, the United Hot Clubs of America.
Although his lasting legacy will lie with the body of work he recorded for the Commodore label, which was active from 1937 until 1954, his two most famous associations lay with Billie Holiday and Bill Haley. In 1939, he recorded and issued Billie Holiday's version of the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" after her record label, Vocalion, took cold feet over possible repercussions in the south. And in 1954, he produced the session which yielded Haley's "Rock around The Clock", and launched the rock and roll era.
He was born in Harlem, the oldest of six children, and picked up his love of jazz early. He went to work in his father's hardware store, but quickly wangled a transfer to a radio shop which his father also owned. He rigged up a speaker above the door and relayed music to the street, then made the step to selling records when customers began to ask for them.
He named the shop the Commodore Music Store, and it became a focal point for jazz fans and musicians alike. He was always a soft touch for musicians in need of an "advance", and his generosity was commemorated by saxophonist Bud Freeman in his composition "Tapping The Commodore Till".
Gabler bought up unwanted copies of recordings from the record companies and resold them, making him the first person to deal in reissues. When the companies began to supply his competitors with the same discs, he set up his own label in 1937, and recorded some of the most important jazz of the era.
The success of Commodore Record inevitably led to an offer to join a major record label as producer. He went to work for Decca Records in 1941, but continued to run Commodore as well. He acted as producer for a diverse range of artists, including Peggy Lee, Louis Jordan, The Ink Spots and The Weavers, and was first to bring Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald together on record.
Gabler contributed to another slice of history when he signed Bill Haley and the Comets to Decca Records in 1941. He produced their initial recording session on 12 April, 1954, much of which was spent cutting a song which the company though the more likely hit of the two due to be recorded that day. Their efforts on "13 Women" left only ten minutes for the second song, which Gabler recorded with an unusually high sound level after the briefest of sound checks. "Rock Around The Clock" was cut in a single take, and changed the face of popular music.
Ironically, the new era which that disc ushered in was much to the detriment of his beloved jazz, although the era of jazz in which he made such a major contribution had already passed in any case. In the face of a changing market-place, Commodore Records was wound up in 1954, ending a significant chapter in jazz history.
In 1983, Gabler was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His nephew, the comedian Billy Crystal, performed the introduction at the ceremony.
He is survived by his wife, Estelle; a son; two daughters; two sisters; a brother; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.