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At Home with Ira Gitler

Audience with a legendary jazz scribe

Ira Gitler at home (photo by Jacques Lowe)

Jazz writer Ira Gitler and his wife, painter Mary Jo Schwalbach, live in a brownstone apartment in the choicest part of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have one son, Fitz, a graphic designer for PC Magazine, who also lives in Manhattan. The couple has lived in the apartment since the early ’60s, taking it over from former tenant Woody Allen. Entering through the front door, you have to push your way through narrow halls filled with Schwalbach’s enormous art display—huge three dimensional sports sculptures and hundreds of watercolors—and Gitler’s collection of more than 6,000 LPs. The living room is also filled with Schwalbach’s paintings, as well as a computer, hi-fi and thousands of CDs. The apartment’s clutter is a testament to the couple’s lifetime devotion to art and music.

Gitler is co-author with Leonard Feather of The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz and author of Jazz Masters of the Forties and Swing to Bop. The New York native has been writing about jazz since he was a teenager, but it was sports that first caught Gitler’s imagination. “I dreamt of becoming a great baseball player, but then wanted to become a sports writer.” Gitler wrote a sports column for his high school newspaper, but when the jazz columnist graduated he took over that column as well. The year was 1946 and Gitler’s first jazz piece was a review of Dizzy Gillespie at the Spotlite Club on 52nd St.

After a brief stint at the University of Missouri, Gitler returned to New York and looked for jazz writing jobs to no avail. “It was tough to break into jazz writing at that time. In 1950 I started working for Bob Weinstock, who had just launched the Prestige and New Jazz labels. I was mostly sweeping floors and packing records. In 1951 Bob asked me to write the liner notes for a Zoot Sims 10-inch LP—it was the first time the company ever used liner notes.” His career launched, Gitler wrote for Metronome and became Feather’s assistant in 1954 to help with the first edition of the Encyclopedia.

Gitler never lost his passion for sports and in the late ’50s he began playing hockey, on which he’s written four books. In 1973 he started a hockey team, Gitler’s Gorillas, which has won 10 amateur league championships. He competes twice a week during the season and trains all year. “At my age playing sometimes gets tough. I have hockey knees and even had one ‘scoped last year.” Besides jazz and sports, Gitler is also a comedy buff and counted Lenny Bruce among his friends.

Schwalbach and Gitler spend most of their summers in Europe going to jazz festivals. “One of my favorite festivals is Juan-Les-Pins. But I also enjoy Umbria Jazz and Italy in general is magical for me.” Gitler plans to keep traveling, but he has no plans to move any place else. “I’m hooked on the energy of New York, and I am always happy to come back here and enjoy the clubs around the city.”

Gitler is preparing to write his memoirs. “Great moments with Lenny Bruce. My days in Morocco with Randy Weston. The performances I was privileged to experience—and maybe a few disasters!” The autobiography will include several lists, such as “songs Miles says he wrote but didn’t and songs he did write but are claimed by others! Hockey stars I’ve played with and musicians who have taken my jazz history classes at the Manhattan School of Music. If only I saved their papers!”

The Personal Files

What kind of computer and software do you use?
Apple iMac and Microsoft Word

What was the last Web site you visited?;;

Favorite possession?
My alto saxophone. That sax has been played by Coltrane, Sonny Stitt and Jackie McLean!

What was the last book you read? Favorite book?
American Pastoral by Philip Roth. Favorite: Call It Sleep by Henry Roth and Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber

What is your favorite restaurant?
Plage Les Pirates (Juan-Les-Pins, France); La Rosetta (Perugia, Italy)

What is your favorite drink?
Absolut on the rocks with a twist; Bass Ale

What’s your favorite piece of jewelry?
A Moroccan Hand of Fatima talisman

Favorite sports teams?
New York Rangers, Mets, Giants and Knicks

What would be a perfect day?
The Mets and Rangers both win on the same day, a great meal in between games, followed by the late set at the Village Vanguard listening to Roy Hargrove. Originally Published