The Bard of Bebop: Ira Gitler (by Mark Stryker)

(Mark Stryker’s book Jazz from Detroit will be published this summer.)

Ira Gitler, one of the most important post-war jazz journalists, has died at age 90. He was an exemplar of a breed within the trade. More of a knowledgeable super fan than a critic, he came up in an age in which conflicts-of-interest weren’t given a lot of thought and there was a great deal of fluidity within the business. Writers moved back-and-forth between the recording industry and journalism, contributed liner notes to the same labels whose records they reviewed, and maintained close relationships with musicians without disclosing them in print. Ira was an insider with bebop coursing through his veins. He didn’t just cover the scene; he was deeply embedded within the scene.

Ira was not a flashy prose stylist, but he knew how to tell a story. His strengths were his passion for the music, his rapport with musicians, his experience on the front-lines in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the contagious enthusiasm he brought to the page and record jackets. He did, however, have one flash of inspired transcendence: He coined the famously apt phrase “sheets of sound” for the mesmerizing flurries of notes that characterized John Coltrane’s playing c.1958-59.  It’s a great metaphor, appearing for the first time in the liner notes to Coltrane’s Soultrane (1958). Ira used the term specifically to refer to the cadenza on “Russian Lullaby.” It quickly entered the lexicon, and Coltrane himself referenced the phrase in Downbeat in 1960 in the first-person piece “Coltrane on Coltrane.”

Ira’s informative, chatty, and often witty liner notes have been invaluable guides to the music for multiple generations of fans, and they were critical to my own early jazz education. He wrote notes for hundreds of recordings, from the 10-inch era through compact discs — I’d love to know what the exact total was over his lifetime. Beyond liner notes, Ira is best known for writing two indispensable books, Jazz Masters of the ’40s (1966) and Swing to Bop (1985). The latter is an oral history, much of it collected by Ira during the ’70s. These books pulsate with the excitement and energy of jazz in transition. Ira wasn’t a scholar, but he knew the territory. He had access, a good ear, and an honest feel for the life of the music at ground level, because that’s where he was living too. He chronicled the development of modern jazz in real time, taking down the stories while the cats were still alive. He worked with Leonard Feather on the various editions of The Encyclopedia of Jazz and, after Feather’s death, took the lead on the last edition in 1999. In 2017 Ira was named an NEA Jazz Master for advocacy. He deserved it.

In liner notes for a 1970 reissue of 1953-54 Miles Davis material on Prestige, Ira offers a revealing snapshot of the era and his unique place in it. He first explains that the reissue title, Miles Ahead! derived not from the famous 1957 LP by Miles and Gil Evans on Columbia, but from a piece that Miles recorded in 1953 that Ira himself titled in the production process. He then recounts the events of the 1953 Collectors’ Items session led by Miles with both Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins on the date and Ira in the role of producer.

January 30, 1953 was not a happy day for Davis. Caught in the pursuit—he being both pursued and pursuer—of a pre-occupation, Miles was late for his date. (We almost did a Walter Bishop, Jr. trio album that day.) When he finally arrived so did the gin and beer I had ordered. Parker wanted some gin and I couldn’t refuse my idol. I also thought that everyone would have some and chase it with the beer. Who figures that a man is going to chug-a-lug a fifth of Gordon’s? Result: one cackish Bird, who when he did awaken was a bit sluggish. This made Miles, who was in a bad mood, even crankier. Then I nearly finished things completely, callow, hero-worshipping youth that I was.

Usually I adopted a laisser-faire attitude, content to serve as buffer between the company and the engineer on one hand and the musicians on the other. I’d offer helpful suggestions and supervise takes but for the most part the musicians knew what they were doing, and I had enough sense to know when they were doing it right. But on this day, I wanted to snap Miles out of a groove that had him into one false start after another. I walked out of the control room into the studio. “You ain’t playing shit,” I told him. Instead of the positive shock I had hoped for it created a pouting scowl. He began to pack his horn. The others questioned him in disbelief. “Cat says I’m not blowing shit,” he said and continued preparations for leaving. (Looking back on it now I see that maybe he wanted an out.) All I saw was my job walking out the door, so I became genuinely humble and after some pleading and cajoling he decided to stay.

(You can read the rest of the notes here.)

Born in Brooklyn, Ira studied piano sporadically as a kid and picked up the alto saxophone in college. He told Jazz Times magazine in 2000 that the horn was his favorite possession, and that it had been played by Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean and John Coltrane. Ira started writing about sports and jazz in high school, and his first piece about the music was a review of Dizzy Gillespie at the Spotlight on 52nd Street. After studying journalism at the University of Missouri, he started working for Prestige Records back in New York in the early ’50s, sweeping floors and packing records. He graduated to writing liner notes and occasional work as a producer — his name is associated with important recordings by Miles Davis, Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk and others. He was soon writing for Metronome and then Downbeat, where he contributed reviews and features starting in the late ’50s. He served two stints as associate/New York editor of Downbeat in the ’60s, and he later became a familiar byline in JazzTimes and a gaggle of other publications.

Ira remained a stalwart champion of bebop and hard bop his entire life — including supporting younger musicians in recent decades whose aesthetic was rooted in the traditions he loved. His voice was especially important in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when players like Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell and their ilk were not always getting the kind of press that they deserved. Ira never warmed to the avant-garde, and in one of his lesser and most controversial moments disparaged Abbey Lincoln in print as a “professional Negro” for the explicitly political thrust of her music. Still, he remained a reliable guide in the idioms he understood best. On another front, many jazz fans are not aware that Ira loved hockey perhaps as much as jazz and wrote several books on the subject. He continued to play organized hockey himself at least into his 70s.

Here is one of Ira’s favorite musicians, Detroiter Barry Harris, and the 1967 LP Luminescence for which Ira wrote the notes. Ira was a great fan of Detroit musicians. In fact, in 1981 he organized a Detroit Piano Summit concert in New York featuring Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna and Bess Bonnier — the latter a close friend and contemporary of the others, who spent her entire career in Detroit. The title tune is the kind of song that Ira loved — a bebop romp through the chord changes of “How High the Moon.” Rest well, Ira.

— Mark Stryker

Coda: Two additional things from my own life with Ira Gitler. Back when I was a teenager in the late 80s, Gitler contributed a monthly column to JazzTimes called Apple Chorus. These reviews of live music in New York City made a strong impression, perhaps especially the reportage of a Chet Baker gig where Kenny Kirkland left the bandstand in a huff and Michel Petrucciani came up out of the audience to finish out the set. Apple Chorus was definitely one of the engines that drove my desire to move to NYC. Also, I use Gitler’s word “continuity” to discuss bebop with students; “continuity” also appears (with attribution to Gitler) in my Bud Powell essay Burning Down the House. –– ei