Program : 
Milt Gabler and The Commodore Records Story

This week Riverwalk Jazz remembers Milt Gabler and his Commodore Records label.

Milt Gabler, Herbie Hill, Lou Blum, and Jack Crystal, Commodore Record Shop, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947. Jack Crystal is the father of actor Billy Crystal. Photo © William P. Gottlieb

The independent label Commodore Records, founded in 1938 as an offshoot of the legendary mid-Manhattan record store, was one of the first record companies whose principal motivation was a deep love for the music and a desire to celebrate jazz and its players. The company was essentially the creation of the remarkable Milt Gabler.


Billie Holiday "Strange Fruit" session. Photo courtesy

Milt Gabler, born in 1911 in Harlem, got his start in the record business by working at his family's radio store. He began to sell his own favorite jazz records alongside the radios in the store, and went on to found his own label. The roster of Commodore recording artists includes Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Edmond Hall, Bud Freeman, 'Hot Lips' Page, Muggsy Spanier, Bobby Hackett, Willie 'The Lion' Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, 'Wild Bill' Davison, Lester Young, Earl Hines, Lee Wiley and Fats Waller, among others. The great Billie Holiday recorded her passionate and groundbreaking rendition of the racial protest song "Strange Fruit" for Commodore.


By the mid-1930s, the Commodore Music Shop on East 42nd Street had become, in the words of George Frazier, "a wondrously cluttered hole-in-the-wall where you would go at lunchtime or after work to hear tumultuous talk and brave new music."


Milt Gabler summed up his feelings about the music this way:


"If you love jazz, you cannot stand still. Your interest can only go forward as the new performers and innovators appear. By the same token, if you have an open mind and are serious about the subject, you must go back to the source, the mouth of the mother river, the root. You must hear the men and women who came before, the creators and stylists and writers who inspired and taught the young people of today. There it is—on the record, to be enjoyed and listened to."


In 1954, by then a member of Decca's A&R staff, Gabler produced a New Jersey-based combo doing a rhythm and blues number. The band was Bill Haley & The Comets, the song was "Rock Around the Clock," the anthem of early rock 'n roll.


This week Riverwalk Jazz salutes Milt Gabler and Commodore Records with performances by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in the style of the famous Eddie Condon Commodore sides. Titles include "Breeze That Blew My Gal Away," "Oh, Sister Ain't That Hot!," and the first song ever recorded on Commodore by Condon, "Love is Just Around the Corner."


Photo credit for home page teaser image: Commodore Record.  Image courtesy the Gabler family.