Ira Gitler and I were friends for so long that I can no longer recall when first we met, but I suspect it was at a jazz club in Manhattan. And it would have been at a time when he was already an established presence on the jazz writing scene and I a mere upstart—but I’m certain he was nice to me. Being friendly was one of Ira’s natural talents and earned him returns in kind; it was a trait that made him such a good interviewer. His subjects trusted him.
This can be gleaned, of course, from reading Swing to Bop, the best book about that transitory period. Best because Ira was among the first jazz writers to respond to bebop when it was new; another was Leonard Feather, with whom Ira collaborated on the hugely important Encyclopedias of Jazz. But these were things still to come when we first met.
At that time, in the early ’50s, Ira had his first important job, at the still quite young Prestige label, an offspring of Bob Weinstock’s jazz record store. Ira played multiple roles. The most significant was writing liner notes, then a brand-new hybrid literary form that developed from the booklets that came with 78 albums, those genuine albums from which the LP derived its illogical name. There wasn’t much room on the back cover of a 10-inch LP, but the art of saying something helpful to both listener and artist was one Ira was among the first to master. It of course continued into the 12-inch era, and the CD format that followed. Ira became one of the most productive practitioners of the genre during his Prestige tenure, which also included less glamorous work, such as packing records for mail-order shipping and sweeping the floor—under the supervision of Bob’s legendary father, Pop Weinstock.
On the flip side of those album covers was the design and photographic work of Ira’s friend Don Schlitten. Both young men also got to wet their toes as producers, Ira for a famous—or rather, notorious—session that involved his hero Charlie Parker and a young Miles Davis, an experience that might well have dissuaded Ira from pursuing producing as a career. Don, on the other hand, took to it and became one of the very best, eventually for his own labels.
It was Don who gave me my first liner assignment, at a time when I’d begun to try my hand at the writing game. (Historians, please note that it was When There Are Gray Skies by Red Garland.) By this time the three of us were doing a lot of hanging out, and were joined by a Brandeis friend of mine, David Himmelstein. Our cadre, which we called the JJJ (what the initials stood for is known to some jazz elders but not by the public), traveled to Newport together, and non-drivers as we all were, assigned that chore to Ira’s sweet and patient wife, Mary Jo Schwalbach, a gifted painter whose work should be better known. This became a yearly journey; we would also share lodgings, with girlfriends along.
Ira had acquired an alto sax in college and taken some lessons, but it was a fling that didn’t last. His other love, as strong as that for jazz, was hockey, and in this he did take a playing role, founding and coaching his own team, Gitler’s Gorillas, which played in amateur leagues for several decades. They even got a writeup in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” a high point in their life. I got to watch them play a few times and Ira was a strong presence on and off the ice. He wrote three books about this great sport, including Hockey: The World’s Fastest Sport and Blood on the Ice. He also made a New York Rangers fan of me and I passed it on to my sons, as Ira did to his son Fitz.
Ira had yet another talent: For birthdays and other special occasions he would compose and recite a poem about the person in a style of his own, a present like no other. I wish I’d saved some.
We worked jointly at DownBeat; when Newport got too big to be covered by one person, we split the chore and it worked well—our tastes overlapped. We joined hands for “Jazz in the Garden,” a summer concert series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that lasted for several successful seasons until the Modern got trendy and wanted to mix jazz with R&B and such, a cocktail we refused. We also joined forces on radio, sharing WBAI’s weekly program The Scope of Jazz. And there was “Jazz on Broadway,” a concert series at the Little Theater, a great venue that happened to be available. It made a splash with and revitalized the career of Earl Hines.
Aside from such public collaborations, there was the monthly get-together of the JJJ. Ira, Don, David and I would gather to listen to records and chat, rotating locations and collections, an activity enhanced by consumption of a substance now legal. Don and I are the sole survivors.
Those happy days cannot be relived but they can be remembered, most vividly by listening to the music we shared and recalling the laughs. I think of Ira whenever I hear Charlie Parker or watch the Rangers play. Especially when they win…