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Ira Gitler (1928-2019)

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Ira Gitler, a jazz author, journalist and producer who was a wealth of eyewitness knowledge and whose liner notes starting in the early 1950s appeared on more albums than many of the musicians he wrote about recorded, died on February 23. He was 90.

Ira is perhaps best known for writing Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz volumes starting in the 1950s. Each musician entry was concise and, at one point, included the addresses of the artists, presumably so that musicians, record labels and clubs could find them for work. But Ira's finest books were Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s, Jazz Masters of the Forties and The Masters of Bebop: A Listener's Guide.

His Swing to Bop remains one of the most important and comprehensive book on the bebop revolution of the 1940s. The exhaustive historical deep-dive that Ira published in 1985 is noteworthy for the musicians telling the story in their own words.

Ira's liner notes grace hundreds of albums over 60 years, from Prestige's Swingin' With Zoot Sims in 1951 to Uptown's two-CD Chubby Jackson set, New York City 1949: Ooh, What An Outfit!, in 2014. Unlike many writers of jazz liner notes, Ira's essays weren't professorial or erudite. Instead, they were more emotional and expressive. What they lacked in posh wording they more than made up for in first-hand knowledge and friendship with the artists that came through in his prose. In short, he spoke the language of musicians.

In his liner notes to John Coltrane's Soultrane in 1958, Ira came up with a phrase to describe the tenor saxophonist's cascading lines: “Red [Garland] begins Russian Lullaby with an out-of-tempo introduction before Trane comes ripping in...Trane's 'sheets of sound' which he has put to wider use, are demonstrated in the beginning of the tag." Sheets of sound would remain the best and most concise description of Coltrane's attack.

Ira and I spoke often from the inception of JazzWax in 2007. I treasured those long calls, and Ira's regular praise was motivating. I interviewed him on several occasions over the years and quoted him extensively in my book, Why Jazz Happened (2012). Ira interviewed me during a Barnes & Noble talk when my book came out.

Here are tracks that Ira included among his favorites:

Here's Chubby Jackson's Father Knickerbopper...



Here's 'Round Midnight in 1953 featuring Miles Davis (tp), Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins (ts), Walter Bishop (p), Percy Heath (b) and Philly Joe Jones (d)...



Here's Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk playing The Way You Look Tonight in 1954, a session Ira supervised...



Here's John Coltrane's Russian Lullaby...



Here's Dan Morgenstern and me explaining the accident that led to Zoot Swings the Blues, a 1951 session that Ira supervised...



Here's Ira, the supervisor on Miles Davis's Collectors' Items, explaining how 'Round Midnight made it onto the album in 1953...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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