Music surrounds people everyday—in cars, elevators, grocery stores, doctor offices, and homes. But do people listen or just hear this music? Listening to music is a record producer’s job, and one of the most successful, but unknown record producers was Milt Gabler. In 1938, Gabler founded Commodore, the first independent jazz record label. Gabler once said, “Just as New Orleans was the cradle of jazz, Commodore Records was the iron lung.” And at the helm of this iron lung was Gabler, a man with a sharp ear for talent who really listened to music, and who the Encyclopedia of Rock called, “one of the record industry’s unsung greats.”
Milton (Milt) Gabler was born on May 20, 1911 in Harlem, New York. Gabler’s Austrian born father owned the Commodore Radio Corporation, a popular radio and speaker supply store. In 1924 Gabler began working at the store while still in high school. One day, to get people’s attention, he hooked up a loudspeaker over the shop’s door and tuned in a radio station. Customers hearing the music would stop at the store and ask Gabler if he sold records. After having to explain to one too many customers that the shop only carried radios and speaker supplies, Gabler finally convinced his father to begin selling records. Gabler told Dan Morgenstern in Reading Jazz that his father told him to flip open the yellow pages and call the “phonograph record companies,” which he did, ordering, as he put it, “whatever was coming out.” Jazz, though, was what truly interested Gabler.
By 1934, the now renamed store—the Commodore Music Shop—became as High Fidelity’s Michael Ullman stated, “the country’s most important source of Jazz 78s and a meeting ground for fans and musicians.” As shop manager Jack Crystal told Nat Hentoff in Listen to the Stories, the store also became “a nondescript shrine for jazz buffs from everywhere.” What brought these jazz buffs into the store was the music—music hand selected by Gabler himself—even though, as Hentoff says, “[Gabler] was not a musician, but years of listening had taught him the difference between hot and hokum.”
Also in 1934, Gabler began something new. He bought boxes of out-of-print jazz recordings from major record companies who had no plans to re-release them. Therefore Gabler, by selling these recordings at his store, became the first person to sell reissued records. However, this was not his only “first.” Gabler was the first to print the names of all participating musicians on a jazz record, thus giving recognition to the all too often unnamed musicians. Gabler compiled these lists himself and could easily name the musicians because, as he told Morgenstern, “You recognize a man by the tone of
Born Milton Gabler on May 20, 1911, (in Harlem, NY); son of an American mother and Austrian father who owned a radio supply store. Education: attended City College New York, NY for two years.
While still in high school, worked at Commodore Radio Corporation, his father’s store; after many customer requests for records, founded the Commodore Music Shop in 1926; reissued out-of-print jazz records in 1934; co-founded United Hot Clubs of America (UHCA), the first mail-order record label; published Hot Discography, a jazz music collector’s reference list; founded Commodore, first independent jazz record label and began producing records including early albums for jazz greats Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Jordon, and Billie Holiday, in 1938; hired by Decca Records in 1941; as Vice-President of Decca, produced a variety of records for jazz, country, and rock performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bill Haley and the Comets; retired in 1971; founded the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
Awards: elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993.
Address: Home —New York, NY.
his voice. You can recognize a musician by the way he blows his notes.” Gabler eventually collected these lists into Hot Discography, a reference book of jazz musicians and recordings. Another Gabler first was the co-founding of the United Hot Clubs of America (UHCA), the first mail-order record label. In 1938, after moving the Commodore Music Shop closer to New York City’s nightclubs, Gabler began producing jazz records.
Over the next 12 years, Gabler produced many great jazz records. His first major success was the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday’s protest song, “Strange Fruit.” This song was controversial, and according to Ullman, “many great sessions came to Gabler because of his reputation and daring.” Columbia Records, Holiday’s record company, had refused to record the song because it told the horrible truth about the common-place lynchings in the South during the 1940s. Gabler’s proved his daring reputation by recording “Strange Fruit” which became Commodore’s first big hit.
Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, success continued for Gabler. The New Yorkef’s Whitney Balliett wrote that he produced “almost ninety Commodore dates, using over a hundred and fifty musicians and singers.” Jazz singers like Holiday and swing musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, pianists like Mel Powell and Joe Sullivan, and many others loved to work with Gabler. Why? One musician, as quoted by Balliett, said, “A ray comes out of him [Gabler]. 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.” Thus, the musicians trusted Gabler—the non-musician with a gifted ear.
Gabler’s Commodore recording sessions, according to the Boston Globe’s Bob Blumenthal, fell into three types. The first, “typified the Commodore sound Nicks-ieland jazz.” This sound was made popular by Eddie Condon—a rhythm guitarist whose “propulsive time, command of the chord changes, and catalytic impact on his [band] mates” drove the Chicago jazz sound. However, Condon’s music, Blumenthal continued, was not “always viewed favorably by later generations of listeners—in part because most of the musicians were white.” The second type of Gabler’s Commodore recording sessions was the solo piano sessions. Gabler, according to Ullman, “was lucky with pianists” and he recorded many of them including the “greatest swing pianist of them all, Art Tatum.” The third type of session, as categorized by Blumenthal was the “streamlined combos, usually involving black musicians” including electric guitarist Eddie Durham, saxophonist Leon (Chu) Berry, and trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Hot Lips Page.
Gabler’s success was not unnoticed by the press. In the early 1940s, Life not only featured one of Gabler’s recording sessions with Paul Whiteman’s jazz band, Teagarden, but also included Gabler’s Top 30 list of jazz collectors’ must-have records. Gabler’s success was also picked up by radio stations—who started buying Gabler’s records—and by major record labels. In 1941 Decca Records hired Gabler, although he continued to produce records for Commodore until 1950. However, as Blumenthal wrote, “he was determined to avoid [recording] conflicts with Decca.” Gabler even went so far as to avoid recording major jazz artists on smaller independent labels
Gabler’s success continued at Decca and in 1954, he signed rock and roll pioneers Bill Haley and the Comets. That year, Gabler produced Haley and the Comets’ smash hit, “Rock Around the Clock”. Yet, Gabler said that he had done nothing new for Haley. Gabler told Rolling Stone that “all the tricks I used [ten years earlier] with Louis Jordon, I used with Bill Haley. The only difference between [them] was the way we did the rhythm. On Jordon, we used a perfectly balanced rhythm section from the swing era. but on rock and roll, what Bill did, he had the heavy back beat.”
Gabler retired from Decca Records in 1971. He did not, however, relax: he founded the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) which honors all types of musicians and singers each February with Grammy Awards. Moreover, in 1991, Gabler finally received public recognition when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Hot Discography, 1938.
“Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday, 1939.
“Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley and the Comets, 1954.
ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, 4th ed., 1980.
Gottlieb, Robert, Editor. Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, Pantheon Books, 1996.
Hardy, Phil and Dave Laing._Encyclopedia of Rock, Shirmer Books.
Hentoff, Nat. Listen to the Stories, HarperCollins, 1995.
Boston Globe, February 11, 1990.
High Fidelity, January, 1989.
New Yorker, November 26, 1990.
Rolling Stone, February 4, 1991.
"Gabler, Milton." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/gabler-milton
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