Lee Mergner Remembers Ira Sabin

Former JazzTimes editor shares his memories of the magazine’s founder (8/10/28 - 9/12/18)

Ira Sabin w Dizzy Gillespie 1984 web

Ira Sabin with Dizzy Gillespie, JazzTimes' first subscriber, 1984 (photo courtesy of Glenn Sabin)

I first met Ira Sabin in 1989. I had moved from my hometown of Philadelphia to the D.C. area to be with my then girlfriend, now wife, Irene. I had done various things in the music business—booking bands, producing some records, promoting shows—but hadn’t been particularly successful. I had no real job prospects, so I made a list of all the jazz and music companies in the area and sent them my résumé. JazzTimes was at the top of that list. I was a subscriber and had even been to the JazzTimes Convention at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York in 1986. That really made an impression on me, seeing people like Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Betty Carter, the Heath Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie … all hanging out, drinking, telling stories, jamming in the venue at night. It was clear that they not only had a relationship with the magazine, but also had a personal relationship with the guy running the magazine: Ira Sabin. And now I lived in the same city as this cool jazz guy.

I didn’t know that he had founded the magazine first as a circular for his jazz and soul record store, Sabin’s Discount Records. Or that he had almost singlehandedly transformed it from an in-store sales piece to a tip sheet inexplicably called Radio Free Jazz to a newsprint tabloid. Or that Dizzy was its first subscriber. I surely didn’t know that he had worked as a musician himself, playing as a drummer for society functions and even promoting some jazz concerts in the area, including some of the first integrated shows in D.C. I just knew that he and his magazine were linked to the whole jazz community and I needed a job.

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This cool jazz guy called me not long after I sent him the résumé and told me that he had an opening at the magazine, because his son Glenn had left. He didn’t hire me then, but I pestered him for about a year, and eventually in 1990 he asked me to come in and help in the office, sort of like a temp. His bookkeeper was in and out, mostly out. With computers coming into the business, Depression-era Ira was pretty well flummoxed.

I answered the phones, did data entry, and handled other stuff that I really can’t remember. I just knew that this place—a crummy office in then-crummy downtown Silver Spring, Maryland—was somehow a nexus for the jazz world. I figured I’d try it out for a few months, make some contacts and leave for a sweet gig with Blue Note or the Newport Jazz Festival. At some point Ira asked me to sell ads. I think he paid me $10 an hour, but I would have paid him that same amount just to work there.

The business was struggling, I was struggling to sell ads—I reached out to Ira’s son Glenn for help and somehow we connected and he decided to come back and take over the business. The prodigal son was returning, but the transition was more than a little abrupt. Ira got sick, was hospitalized and we moved his stuff out of the office the next day. Glenn knew that he couldn’t really run the business with Ira there with him. He was right. Over the next 19 years or so, Glenn and his brother Jeff ran the business, with Ira coming in every few days to use the copy machine, make calls, and question us about what we were doing with his magazine. Glenn called it “kicking the tires.” Unbeknownst to his sons, Ira was very proud and happy that they not only took the business over but thrived and grew the publication, taking it from a tabloid to a glossy. We even brought back his beloved JazzTimes Conventions. But the blueprint for the magazine had been created by Ira: The music comes first. Luckily we shared his love and respect for the musicians.

Ira was a real character, greeting anybody and everybody with his trademark “Hey man, what’s happening?” Or “Hey baby, what’s happening?” In Ira’s bebop world view, all men were cats and all women were chicks. By today’s standards of decorum and the #MeToo movement, I don’t think he could get away with his “Hey baby” greeting, though to be honest he called everyone “baby,” not just women. Michael Lazaroff, who produces the Jazz Cruise on which Ira sailed many times, said about him that with his elfin grin you always knew that there was a rascal inside him. I’d add that the rascal was often outside as much as inside.

As Ira was fond of saying, the only time he worked for someone else was when he was in the Army as a musician in the ’50s. After that he had only himself as a boss, from his D.C. society band to the record store to the magazine, although I suppose we could count his wife Irma as his boss for life. As a boss of people other than himself, Ira liked to talk tough, but he actually had a soft heart and, as far as I can remember, never fired anyone. That was left to Glenn and Jeff to handle, even going back to the record store days.

Ira loved hanging out with his old-timer jazz friends: the Heath Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Milt Hinton, Billy Taylor. The bassist Keter Betts, a jazz legend who lived nearby in Silver Spring, would come by the office from time to time and steal Ira away for a meal and maybe a smoke. Definitely a smoke. I was with Keter once outside a venue when Ira walked up and Keter asked him, “Irma with you?” “Nope.” Then Keter handed him a cigarette, proving that indeed Irma was Ira’s only boss.

Did I mention how much he loved listening to jazz? He practically lived at the clubs in D.C., places like Blues Alley and One Step Down. Part of the jazz life is the hang—the between-sets and after-sets late-night conversation lubricated with libations. Ira could definitely hang. He’d only go home when the club closed and the band was gone.

Ira was an amateur photographer and relished taking pictures at shows and festivals. Going through the JazzTimes photo files, I often run across shots by Ira of jazz locals and jazz greats alike. He also loved photographing children and had a real way with them, with or without the camera. I think they recognized a fellow child, albeit in that grown-up body of his.

You know that expression: He marches to the beat of his own drummer? That literally described Ira. His walk was so very distinctive. Tim Jackson from the Monterey Jazz Festival called it the Ira shuffle—a sort of bouncy step with a wiggling butt all tuned to some swinging rhythm of his own. It somehow matched his come-what-may personality.

He loved his jazz to be swinging, naturally. And that was always the highest compliment. How was so-and-so last night? Man, those cats were really swinging. Of course, a drummer himself, he loved watching and listening to drummers. If he walked into an empty jazz club and had his pick of seats, we knew where he was going: to the seat closest to the drum kit. I would’ve liked to have seen him play back in the day, not because he was so great—he always said he wasn’t—but just to see his joy and wonder, lost in the music he loved so much.

Keep on swinging, Ira. Save me a seat at the bar.

Read the JazzTimes obituary for Ira Sabin.