Obituary: Ira Gitler

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Many of those who take jazz history seriously will have read Ira Gitler’s words. In books, magazines and liner notes he brought to wide attention a perceptive, informed and balanced view of music. His range of interest was wide but he was especially interested in and knowledgeable of the transition years between late swing-era music and early bop.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York City, 18 December 1928, and in the late 1940s he studied at the University of Missouri. In 1951 he wrote his first liner notes for Zoot Sims Swings the Blues (Prestige). For a little over two years he also worked at Prestige as a producer with musicians including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

In 1958 his liner notes for John Coltrane’s Soultrane included the term “sheets of sound”, which was thereafter used by just about everyone

In 1958 his liner notes for John Coltrane’s Soultrane included the term “sheets of sound”, which was thereafter used by just about everyone. He then assisted Leonard Feather on The Encyclopedia of Jazz, which was published in 1955, and a decade later on The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties, following this another decade along with The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies by which time he was Feather’s collaborator. 

In 1999 an updated and expanded work, completed by Gitler after Feather’s death, was published as The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. He also published Jazz Masters of the Forties in 1966 (republished as The Masters of Bebop in 2001).

Gitler also wrote for magazines, notably Downbeat (of which he was an associate editor) and Metronome, and also Jazz Magazine, Jazz Times, Modern Drummer, Village Voice, Playboy, and New York. He also contributed to magazines in Japan, Italy and France, worked with the US Information Service, collaborating on scripts for documentary films on Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

Aside from jazz, Gitler was a fan of ice hockey, writing books and magazine articles on the subject. He continued playing the game into his mid-70s

He broadcast regularly on radio, including WNCN, WBAI, KADX and Sirius Satellite Radio. He also taught at City College New York, Mannes School of Music at The New School, and at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1974 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and resulting from this in 1988 he published a book of interviews he had conducted with more than 50 artists from his favourite period: Swing to Bop: an Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s. In the 1980s and 1990s he worked with George Wein, producing concerts at jazz festivals in New York. Over the years Gitler wrote liner notes for many hundreds of albums.

Aside from jazz, Gitler was a fan of ice hockey, writing books and magazine articles on the subject. He also coached an amateur team, Gitler’s Gorillas, and remarkably continued playing the game into his mid-70s. Among these books are Make the Team in Ice Hockey and Blood on the Ice: Hockey’s Most Violent Moments; he also collaborated on Hockey! The Story of the World’s Fastest Sport.

Gitler was not long retired when his lifelong work was recognised in 2001 with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the New Jersey Jazz Society, in 2002 by a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Jazz Journalists Association, and in 2017 by a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship. 

Ira Gitler died in a New York nursing home, 23 February 2019. He is survived by his wife, Mary Jo Schwalbach Gitler, his son, Fitz Gitler, and two grandchildren.