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Ira Gitler 1928-2019

The prolific jazz writer coined the term "sheets of sound"

Ira Gitler at home (photo by Jacques Lowe)

Ira Gitler, one of the most important voices in post-World War II jazz journalism and criticism and a historian who co-authored The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, died Feb. 23 at an assisted living facility in New York. He was 90 years old.

His death was confirmed by his son, Fitz Gitler, to radio station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey.

Gitler was among the first writers about jazz to recognize and herald the shift toward bebop and modern jazz, as documented in his landmark 1985 book Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s. It was one of three books Gitler wrote about the advent of bebop. In addition to his books, he produced a massive volume of liner notes, reviews, interviews, and features.

It was as a liner-note writer that he first came to prominence: Indeed, he was the house liner-note writer for Prestige Records in the 1950s, serving for countless jazz fans as the introduction to music by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and many others.

“The whole essence of the music is my greatest joy,” Gitler told videographer Bret Primack in 2009. “In times of trial…the music was a blessing, was uplifting, and I think it is at any given time.”

Ira Gitler was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 18, 1928. He grew up listening to the swing bands of the Depression and the War years; his brother Monroe, 12 years older, took him along to ballrooms, dances, and record stores. The first record he ever bought was Charlie Barnett’s 1940 recording of “Flyin’ Home.” By the time he’d reached high school, however, the music was changing. Gitler encountered Dizzy Gillespie on radio broadcasts from 52nd Street and was intrigued. He published his first article, a 1946 review of Gillespie, in his high school newspaper.

After studying at the University of Missouri, Gitler returned to New York and took a job in the publicity department at Prestige Records. Beginning with 1951’s release Swingin’ with Zoot Sims, he became the label’s house liner-note writer, eventually gracing the liners of more than 700 albums with his enthusiastic, evangelical prose. His 1958 notes for John Coltrane’s Soultrane famously coined the term “sheets of sound” to describe the saxophonist’s style.

Gitler was also a producer at Prestige, and he became acquainted with musicians like Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis and observed their working style and interaction with band members. Those observations informed his writing and helped to make him, along with Nat Hentoff and Ralph Gleason, one of the original authorities on modern jazz.

Gitler wrote the first-ever published feature about Coltrane, in DownBeat magazine—for which he became New York editor in 1960. He also wrote for its rival jazz publications, Metronome, Playboy, and eventually JazzTimes. He also contributed to the New York TimesSan Francisco Chronicle, Village Voice, and New York magazine. In 1954, he began working with critic and historian Leonard Feather on the latter’s Encyclopedia of Jazz, and assumed co-authorship with the 1976 version. After Feather’s death, Gitler completed the final (1999) edition of the book on his own.

Gitler published his first book, Jazz Masters of the Forties, in 1966. In between that book and 1985’s Swing to Bop, he wrote four other books on his beloved ice hockey, including another encyclopedia, Ice Hockey A to Z (1978).

In addition to writing about jazz and producing records, Gitler was also active in producing live music events, notably for George Wein’s jazz festivals. He also taught jazz history at the New School and Manhattan School of Music.

He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1974; a lifetime achievement award from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2002; and an NEA Jazz Master fellowship in 2017.

In addition to his son, Gitler is survived by his wife of 46 years, painter Mary Jo Schwalbach, and two grandchildren.

Originally Published