Ira Gitler

Author, Editor, Producer, Educator (Award for Jazz Advocacy)
Portrait of bald man with glasses.

Photo by Frances McLaughlin-Gill


“Ira is very honored to receive this award; advocacy is a fitting description of his life in jazz. He has been sharing his love of the music since he wrote about Dizzy Gillespie for his high school paper in 1946.” – Fitz Gitler

Ira Gitler was an American jazz historian, journalist, educator, and author who wrote several books about jazz and hundreds of liner notes for jazz recordings. He also wrote for many jazz publications, and served as associate editor of DownBeat during the 1960s. In the 1980s and '90s he produced concerts for George Wein’s New York jazz festivals. Gitler also taught jazz history at several colleges and is considered one of the great historians and champions of the music. He was the recipient of the 2017 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy.

From age seven, Gitler immersed himself in the music of the swing bands of the 1930s and early 1940s. In the mid-1940s, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s new bebop innovations brought an epiphany. His professional writing career began in 1951, when he was asked to write Prestige Records’ first liner notes for a 10-inch LP of Zoot Sims Swings the Blues. His duties at Prestige in the early 1950s included producing recording sessions with musicians such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins. In his 1958 liner notes for Soultrane, he coined the term “sheets of sound,” likening John Coltrane’s emerging style to undulating fabric.

In 1954, Gitler began assisting leading jazz authority Leonard Feather in preparing The Encyclopedia of Jazz, one of the first great jazz reference books. He became co-author starting with the 1970s edition, and completed The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz in 1999 after Feather's death in 1994.

Gitler’s own first book was Jazz Masters of the Forties (reissued as The Masters of Bebop in 2001), which examined the bebop revolution by profiling leading players like Gillespie, Parker, and Max Roach, as well as disciples such as Dexter Gordon and J.J. Johnson. Subsidized by a 1974 Guggenheim Fellowship, he wrote Swing to Bop, an oral history weaving ten years of interviews with more than 50 musicians to tell the story of that transition.

Throughout his career, Gitler freelanced for U.S. and international jazz publications as well as varied magazines, newspapers, and websites. In addition to jazz, he had a passion for sports and wrote several classic books about ice hockey, as well as coaching and playing on an amateur hockey team until age 75.

Gitler’s jazz broadcasts were heard on WNCN and WBAI (New York in the 1960s); KADX (Colorado in 1980s); and Sirius Satellite Radio in the 2000s. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the New Jersey Jazz Society (2001) and the Jazz Journalists Association (2002).

Selected Bibliography

Jazz Masters of the Forties, Macmillan, 1966
The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, with Leonard Feather, Horizon Press, 1976
Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s, Oxford University Press, 1985
The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, with Leonard Feather, Oxford University Press, 1999


Ira Gitler

Music Credits:Let's Dance “ composed by Fannie Baldridge / Gregory Stone / Joseph Bonine, Performed by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra from the album The Essential Benny Goodman. “A Night in Tunisia” composed by Dizzy Gillespie, performed by Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespi, from the Album Diz 'N Bird At Carnegie Hall. “Now’s the Time” composed and performed by Charlie Parke,r from the album Best of Charlie Parker <music up> Fitz Gitler: He loved the intelligence of the music, and he loved the soul of the music, and that it married those two things, that it married that soulfulness of the blues, as well as the complexity of bebop. Josephine Reed: That’s Fitz Gitler—talking about his father, 2017 NEA Jazz Master, Ira Gitler. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. This week –we’re celebrating jazz and fathers. Sunday is father’s day and earlier in the week, we announced the 2018 NEA Jazz Masters: Joanne Brackeen, Pat Metheny, Dianne Reeves, and Todd Barkan. It’s a great class and a cause for celebration. I was reminded how much this music lives in the individuals who create it and who gift us with it. And how lucky we are that there are men and women who are so immersed in Jazz, they make it their lives as producers, educators, historians and so on. The music needs them to thrive; and in fact, each year, the NEA recognizes one of these advocates as an NEA Jazz Master. In 2017, that honor went to Ira Gitler, who’s as an author, editor, producer, and educator deeply committed to the art of jazz. He is the king of liner notes—having written some 700 of them over the years. He’s written for many jazz publications, including Downbeat and Metronome, and published two seminal books on jazz, The Masters of Bebop and Swing to Bop—one of the great oral histories. He co-wrote The Encyclopedia of Jazz and has produced recording sessions as well as concerts. Ira Gitler was the jazz musician’s jazz writer and a clear choice as a Jazz Master. Unfortunately, his health prevented him from joining in any of the celebrations and the—sadly, his health prevented him from joining in any of the celebrations. He was represented wonderfully, however, by his son Fitz Gitler, who clearly has a sense of his father’s many accomplishments and knows a number of his wonderful stories. And so, here’s a double treat: Fitz Gitler celebrating his father, 2017 NEA Jazz Master Ira Gitler. Josephine Reed: I really would like you to describe what it was like growing up in your home. From a musical perspective, what was going on in that house? Fitz Gitler: From my earliest memories, there was—there was always music. I was not just exposed to music in the house, but out of the house, as well. I often say the first concert I attended was Bud Johnson in Central Park, where he was playing with some other musicians outdoors. I think informally, and there’s a photo of him playing his saxophone to my baby carriage. My parents were out to hear music at clubs and at concerts all the time, and whenever it was practical to take me with them, they did. But then, of course, in the house, records were playing all the time, and sometimes it would just be for pleasure, and sometimes it would be for work. My father would be playing cassettes of a record he might be writing liner notes to, or he would be listening to music that he would put on at dinnertime. A special dinner would be accompanied by a special recording, whatever seemed appropriate to the moment. So I was always exposed to music from—from a very young age. Josephine Reed: Where was your father born? Fitz Gitler: My father was born in Brooklyn, at the very end of 1928. Both of his parents came from Europe around the—the turn of the century, and my father was the third of three children. Josephine Reed: He loved jazz very early on. How was he introduced to jazz? Fitz Gitler: My father started listening to jazz because of his brother, Monroe, who was a little more than 12 years older than him. Monroe had a love of the swing bands. This was the 1930s, and he would go out dancing at clubs like the Savoy. So, Monroe was bringing home records of Count Basie and Benny Goodman. <music up> Fitz Gitler: This was what he was sharing with my father. So, from this very young age, my father was hearing all of the music that his brother loved, and at about age six or seven, my father started to really get into it. He had already had some musical training. My—my father studied piano when he was five years old. So as my father started to become more and more interested in jazz, he continued to develop his knowledge of music. Josephine Reed: He was introduced to bebop at a very young age, as well. What was he, 12, I think? I mean, quite young. Fitz Gitler: My father started to hear the new music as soon as it was available to be heard. As he was growing up and listening to the swing bands and starting to go out to hear weekend matinee live bands performing in Brooklyn, he was interested in new things. So when, on the radio shows, like radio shows that were done by Symphony Sid and Alan Courtney and other DJs, he would hear something new and interesting, and his brother and he would often listen together, and they’d discuss it. When they first heard Dizzy Gillespie, they were unsure. Did it sound a little strange? Well, there’s something going on there, you know. What is that? Then, when he first heard Charlie Parker, there was no doubt. It was a revelation, or a lightning bolt. <music up> Fitz Gitler: Something new was happening, something that was exciting and—and captivating, and—and it was something that he had to go and follow. Later, when he was in college, Charlie Parker inspired him so much that he went and bought a used alto saxophone in Missouri, when he was going to college. And he took lessons and attempted to teach himself, and did play, over the years, publicly here and there—not often. It was, I think, enough of an attempt to play the music and to be a part of the music in that way that it informed his knowledge of the music and how difficult it was to play on a truly high level. Josephine Reed: What was the first piece your father ever wrote about jazz? Fitz Gitler: In 1946, my father was writing for his high school newspaper. He had previously written about sports. He wrote about the varsity basketball team. But in 1946, he took over the jazz column, and he went to see Dizzy Gillespie at the Spotlight, who had put together a new group and was in the recording studio at that time. And he went to hear him and wrote about him in the school paper. That was the first time his words about jazz were printed. Later on, when he went to college in Missouri, he wrote about jazz for a student newspaper at the University of Missouri, and was interested in continuing to write. However, when he came back to New York, the opportunities for him to write professionally about jazz were limited. He looked to see if he could get work at Metronome or Down Beat, which were really the only places to write seriously about jazz at the time, and there were no offers on the table at that point in time. Josephine Reed: I—I just want to backtrack a little bit. I read your—when your father went to school in Missouri, it was to study journalism, and he was thinking about being a sports writer. He wrote about sports his entire life, as well as music. He loved sports. Fitz Gitler: My father loved almost every sport. I remember growing up, watching hockey games with him, baseball and football and basketball. He’d—he’d watch a tennis match. During the Olympics, he’d watch just about anything. But hockey was what captivated him, both as a—a fan, and as a—a player, and a coach for many years. He started getting involved with coaching amateur roller hockey teams, and had scrimmage groups and—that went on for years and years. And around the time I was born, a—a hockey team coalesced around his leadership that they named after him, called Gitler’s Gorillas. That team still exists today. He played ice hockey until he was 75 years old, and he coached the team even for several years after that. He wrote about hockey for many years for the New York Rangers program, for GOAL! Magazine, for—for other publications, and he wrote several books on hockey, as well. He felt that jazz and hockey were not so different from each other. Both were fields that you had to make quick decisions at fast tempos. You had to be able to improvise. You needed to be inside the moment, the way you did in both music and hockey. Josephine Reed: He started writing liner notes for Prestige Records. Can you just tell us a little bit about the label Prestige, who they were then, who some of their artists were? Fitz Gitler: Prestige Records was started by Bob Weinstock. I believe it was 1949, and he started it as the New Jazz label. And my father had gotten to know Bob Weinstock during summers while he was in college. They were introduced by a mutual friend. And they would listen to records together, and then gradually, my father started to work for him. Once he came back from Missouri, he and Bob started working together more often. And the label was recording people like Stan Getz and Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis made a number of very famous recordings for Prestige, as well as Sonny Rollins. So many musicians were playing for Prestige during this period that my father was there in the early ‘50s. In 1951, my father wrote the first liner notes that Prestige published. Zoot Sims’ “Swings the Blues” had a longer take that fit the new, longer, 10-inch format, and my father wrote about that on the back of the record cover. And so, that was Prestige’s first liner notes, my father’s first liner notes, and after that, he was the liner note writer for Prestige. Prior to that, my father had written a little bit of label copy and dealt with DJs, distributors, and helped with the mail order business, and boxed up records and unboxed records, and swept the floors, and everything that needed to be done in a very small business. Josephine Reed: I’m curious. When you, perhaps in conversations with him or in reading his liner notes, what was distinctive, or became distinctive, about his liner notes? Fitz Gitler: Well, it was a way to get inside the music and describe the music, and help people understand what was going on the record, to talk about the songs and tell you who the musicians were. It was meant to be informative, to inform the listeners, to help them decide if they wanted to buy the record, and as they listened to the record, to perhaps understand what was going on, on some deeper level, by having this additional information. Josephine Reed: And on one of these, he coined the term “sheets of sound” on the liner notes for Soultrane what—which, first of all, is a really evocative term. What did he mean by that? Fitz Gitler: “Sheets of sound” was intended to describe these fast clusters of notes that Coltrane had been developing. And on Soultrane, it really had become something new. <music up> Fitz Gitler: What my father was describing was the effect of so many notes played in such a way that they blended in together to become part of a greater whole. They weren’t single notes anymore. There was this larger effect going on that all of these notes had created. Josephine Reed: When did he start producing records for Prestige? Fitz Gitler: After 1951, and this period that went on for about two years, my father also started to produce sessions for Prestige. Bob Weinstock took some time off of producing the sessions and didn’t want to work in the studio anymore. So, right before my father’s 23rd birthday, he produced Sonny Rollins’ first session as a leader. And his work in the studio running these sessions went on for about two years after that. Josephine Reed: There were sessions that he produced that went so beautifully, so smoothly, as I’m sure he conveyed to you. And there were others that ended up with good music, but it was like walking on razor blades to get there. And I’m thinking of a particular one with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Do you remember that one? Fitz Gitler: I know about this session. This is a session my father has been asked about a number of times, and it was, as he has said, a tough day. He had Charlie Parker on Prestige, but he couldn’t be called Charlie Parker on the record label, because he was under contract to Verve and Norman Granz. So he played tenor, not alto saxophone, which Charlie Parker is best known for. So, you had Miles Davis and Charlie Parker together. They had spent time together in the ‘40s. After Bird and Dizzy stopped playing together, Miles and Bird had played together over the years on different occasions. They had a—a long musical relationship. This particular day, Miles showed up late, and in the interim, while everybody was getting ready, Bird partook of the refreshments. My father had procured some drinks for this occasion. There were a number of musicians, plus my father, so there was a bottle of gin and a dozen beers. And, waiting around for Miles to show up, Charlie Parker drank almost an entire bottle of gin in two gulps, and then sat down and took a nap. While he was able to wake up and play beautiful music without any detectible defect, later on, it created some friction between Miles and Bird. And Miles may have been having some trouble playing that day. Playing a trumpet is not an easy thing. And Miles had trouble on a couple of takes. My father told him he wasn’t happy with his playing, and Miles said he was going to leave, and my father convinced him to stay. It was—it was a mess, and yet, somehow, at the end of the session, was all of this beautiful music. Josephine Reed: Tell me about another session. I love the behind scenes stuff. Fitz Gitler: Another session that he talks about all the time was when Kenny Clarke didn’t show up for a recording session, and Max Roach walked in the door, and this was another Miles Davis recording session. And, “Max, can you go get your drums?” “Sure.” So, Miles and my father take a break while they’re waiting for Max to come back with his drums. They go out, have a couple of drinks, enjoy the spring weather. They come back, and they do a number of songs. It’s all going fine. John Lewis is the piano player. “I have to leave. I have another gig.” What are they going to do now? Now, they don’t have a piano player to finish the session. The last tune was a Charles Mingus composition. Mingus was there. He said, “I’ll play piano.” So, Mingus sits down and plays piano on the last tune, and everything’s fine. Sometimes, the stars align, and other days, you’re lucky to get through it. But when you listen to the records, you don’t necessarily know these stories. You may feel them. It may be in there, in between the notes, or—or under it. It’s part of the passion and the stress. That’s part of what gives the music its immediacy, its emotional content. Josephine Reed: Your father must have been thrilled to be producing a record with Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker was his idol. Fitz Gitler: Bird was certainly one of his idols. He has said that Bird was one half of his heartbeat, and Dizzy Gillespie was the other. <music up> Fitz Gitler: He had so much love for so many other musicians, but you know, Charlie Parker is—is a unique individual in the history of jazz. You know, this was a very sensitive man, a man who had demons, and a man of immense talents; a man with many imitators and—and who influenced generations of musicians. But he was approachable. The other big factor in that, I think, was that my father somehow found musicians to be approachable. He talked to Dizzy that first time in 1946 that he wrote for his high school paper. He would go and introduce himself and ask questions. He was not afraid to approach his idols and to interact with them and to ask questions. And I would see the same thing later in his life. He would go and talk to musicians, those he didn’t know, those he did know. And if he was interviewing, you know, a piano player nobody had ever heard of before, or if he were—if he was going to go interview Sonny Rollins on stage, it didn’t really matter. He was going to ask them about the music. It was what—what interested him. Josephine Reed: He moved into reviews and jazz criticism. Did he ever talk to you about what he thought the role of a jazz critic was, what was significant about jazz criticism? Fitz Gitler: My father has certainly fallen into the category of jazz critic, but there’s a lot of other things you might describe him as: A—a historian, an educator, and here, we’re calling him an advocate, which I like, and I think he appreciates, also. Because, while certainly, he wrote record reviews and articles where he had to say critical or negative things about certain artists at certain times, in the larger picture, he was more on the musicians’ side, to hopefully help people better understand their music and their expression, and to share more information that would help people to enjoy and experience this art form. He found, as his career progressed, he had less and less interest in writing anything negative. If he couldn’t write something nice in a record review about something, he wasn’t going to write a liner note about that record. If there was something that he wanted to say, that he felt was important, though, he—was going to say it. Reviewing records, however, is a—it’s a difficult thing. You have this very short amount of space to try to inform people about something they’re going to spend their money on. And if you’re given the task of reviewing it and you’re not into it, or you think there’s something missing, you—you want to be honest. You know, that makes it difficult, because it’s much more in keeping with his spirit to say something positive, to—to accentuate the—the positive and to look for the things about something that are interesting, rather than talking about the things that, personally, you’re not enjoying. Josephine Reed: He wanted to share his love of this music. Fitz Gitler: His love of the music was what took him every step of the way. It’s what had him visiting clubs as a teenager. It’s what had him hitch hiking to go see bands in the Midwest during college. It’s what had him working at Prestige, and then later, writing books and writing magazine articles and reviews. He was doing it because he loved it. This was not a paycheck. He didn’t go into jazz for the money. Josephine Reed: He became known, I think, for someone who brings the reader into the club with him, when he’s writing. Fitz Gitler: Certainly later on, his writing had the ability to bring his own personal experience and his own personal anecdotes about his experiences, having been on the scene or at the concert, and to share what that was like, and what that era was like, and the context in which the music lived. It wasn’t just about the notes you hear on the record. It was about the life of the musicians and the world in which that—that music was being created, and the world in which you would have experienced it at the time it was recorded. Josephine Reed: Your father’s own books about jazz were really intimate looks into the musician’s thinking about music. Fitz Gitler: The same intimacy that he had with the music that he was trying to share in liner notes and articles was something that he tried to put into the Jazz Masters of the ‘40s book, which was then later reissued as Masters of Bebop. The intimacy also has something to do with the fact that he continued to interact with musicians on a very personal level. He was always conducting interviews, whether formally or informally for a couple of minutes or a couple of quick questions next to the bandstand after a gig at a club. There were always questions there were—to be answered, and sometimes people would sit down for a—a longer interview to share their experiences. And that came to a head when my father wrote another book, which was published in the ‘80s, called Swing to Bop, which told another part of the story. Whereas Jazz Masters of the ‘40s talked about bebop and the major players, divided more or less by instrument and who was influencing whom. Swing to Bop went back further to the ‘30s, and went all the way up to 1950, to ask the question, “How do we get from one place to the other?” But the story was told by the musicians in Swing to Bop. My father narrated a story that was mainly told in the voice of about 50 different musicians who shared their life story with him and gave a fuller picture of what it was like to have lived through that era with all the social, as well as cultural changes that were going on at that time. Josephine Reed: The interview that he gave to Hamilton College, he talked about jazz is an African-American music form, that it comes from African-American music, African-American history. But I also felt that he thought that music was also a place of reconciliation, as well. Am I putting words in his mouth? Fitz Gitler: No, not necessarily. His experience was one where jazz brought him together with people of different backgrounds than himself. He had a reason to interact with people who were black or Latino, people who had different backgrounds than this Jewish kid from Brooklyn. And they had something in common, if they both loved the music. But, about the music itself, it was certainly a black music, and that was where it had come from. The people who had made the most significantly appreciated steps forward in the music were almost exclusively African-American. But at the same time, the instances where black and white musicians started to collaborate and come together was an opportunity for people to understand the art that they created together transcended those racial boundaries, which still, in that era, have been very marked, once you stepped off the bandstand. Certainly, many black musicians experienced a different environment when they went overseas. So many musicians went to Europe and stayed, because they didn’t feel the same kind of prejudice or racism that they had had here in their own country. Josephine Reed: Your father producing concerts with George Wein for the New York City jazz festivals, which has to be a little like herding cats. Fitz Gitler: There were so many concerts over the years, and they were almost always an opportunity to have your heroes, and some of the most amazing musicians in the history of the music, all appear on one stage. The challenges were to contain it. I always remember the stress about going overtime. That you were going to have to start paying extra for the stage and the stage hands and everything. That was the—the most stressful thing. The music itself, and the musicians, that was comparatively easy. I mean, complicated to arrange and who was available and—and all of those things, but mostly joyful. Josephine Reed: Fitz, let me ask you, what do you want us to know about your father? Fitz Gitler: My father had an immersion in the music. He loved the intelligence of the music, and he loved the soul of the music, and that it married those two things, that it married that soulfulness of the blues, as well as the intellect of the complexity of bebop. It really affected him. It would make him laugh. It would make him cry. He lived and breathed it. <music up> Josephine Reed: That was Fitz Gitler talking about his father, NEA Jazz Master Ira Gitler. Find out more the NEA Jazz Masters at You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening and Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. <music up> Transcript available shortly.

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