Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Jazz record label formed in 1938 by Milt Gabler (b 20 May 1911, Harlem, NYC; d 20 July 2001); the first label formed exclusively for jazz in the USA, preceded in the world only by Swing in France the year before. Gabler began selling records in his father's radio shop in NYC in 1926; the Commodore Music Shop soon became a hangout for musicians, and Gabler was an innovator long before he made a record: his was the first shop to have browsing bins arranged by artist, and he was the first to reissue classic sides. He would cherry-pick stocks in warehouses and shops going out of business, paying more than the record companies paid under the return privileges of the day and grabbing the jazz records for his stock. Then he ordered pressings of out-of-print items, knowing he could sell two or three hundred copies of 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie' even if it took a year or two, but the record companies began pressing a few extra and selling them in competition with his stock, so he started the first mail-order record club, with its own label: the United Hot Clubs of America. He also talked club owners into free jazz concerts on Sunday afternoons, for everyone's benefit, to drum up trade (when other club owners copied Gabler's initiative, they charged admission but still didn't pay the musicians).

The record companies began doing their own reissues, so Gabler made his first Commodore records in January 1938: Eddie Condon's Windy City Seven included Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Bobby Hackett, Artie Bernstein and George Wettling on bass and drums, and Jess Stacy on piano, whose hands were still sore from the famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert the night before. A distinctive label was designed, still instantly recognizable, and Gabler was the first to list the personnel on the label. He also bought in material from outside: Cow Cow Davenport, Django Reinhardt and Fletcher Henderson from Eli Oberstein's U.S. Records (in receivership); he bought Buzz Reeves's General Records just to get Jelly Roll Morton piano solos (Reeves developed acetate discs for transcriptions and did so well that he lost interest in the commercial record business); Gabler bought the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists to get Wilson solos, which he then did not put out because Wilson asked him not to. He was able to record four tracks by Billie Holiday in 1939 because Columbia would not record 'Strange Fruit'; he copyrighted 'Fine And Mellow' (a juke box hit) for her in her name, instead of taking a piece himself as other producers might have done. By the time other jazz labels were starting up (Blue Note, Bob Thiele's Signature etc) he knew that he could sell their records retail, so he concentrated on artists they weren't recording; nevertheless he recorded Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Chu Berry (to name three of the greatest tenor saxophonists of the era, though he recorded Young playing gorgeous clarinet), plus Bunk Johnson, Wild Bill Davison, Muggsy Spanier, Miff Mole, Joe Bushkin, Edmond Hall, Red Norvo, Gene Krupa, Stuff Smith, Sidney Bechet, Willie 'The Lion' Smith; also people who rarely got a chance to record as leaders: Russell, Wettling, Hackett, Joe Marsala, Joe Bushkin, Mel Powell and Bob Wilber's first recordings.

In November 1941 Gabler also went to work for U.S. Decca, having warned them that everybody else was reissuing classics from their vaults and offering to oversee Brunswick and Vocalion reissues. He produced twelve more sides with Billie Holiday in 1944 for Commodore; then took her to Decca to record 'Lover Man', the only chart hit she had in her lifetime. (The whole family including in-laws worked in the record shop; Jack Crystal allegedly got Billie Holiday to babysit with his son Billy.) At Decca Gabler produced the jump bands of Louis Jordan and Buddy Johnson as well as Lionel Hampton; in those days he had to stop the drummers from playing too loud, but later with Bill Haley and His Comets, in a disused ballroom with a wooden floor, curtains hanging from the balcony and up-to-date equipment, he taught the music to Haley (who couldn't read music) and overdubbed his weak voice, recording the sound of '50s rock'n'roll, e.g. 'Rock Around The Clock' (no. 1 hit '55).

Meanwhile Commodore carried on into the 1950s with Frank Wess, Ralph Sutton and the only recording by the legendary Texas pianist and bandleader Peck Kelley, in 1957. The Commodore Music Shop finally closed and Gabler left Decca in 1971; various not-very-good deals were made and Commodore recordings were leased to Mainstream, Atlantic, Columbia Special products, Teldec and King overseas, then Essex Entertainment. The complete Commodore recordings were issued by Mosaic in three boxes in 1990 totalling 66 LPs: the limited edition sold out. The Commodore recordings were finally owned by MCA, then Matsushita, then Universal; the first release '97 was a two-CD set of the complete Billie Holiday, 16 tracks plus alternative takes, but the transfers had never been very good. Finally GRP Records took over. Pianist Dave Grusin and drummer Larry Rosen formed Grusin/Rosen Productions in 1976 and were associated with Arista; a decade later they went to MCA and apart from running a successful smooth jazz label began producing the first definitive reissues of classic jazz from MCA's vaults in startlingly good transfers. In 2000 GRP began releasing Commodore reissues by Holiday, Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell and others to their usual high standard, produced by Orrin Keepnews, the excellent transfers by Steven Lasker.