Ira Gitler, Influential and Impassioned Jazz Critic, Historian and Advocate, Dies at 90

Feb 25, 2019

Ira Gitler, a passionate critic and proponent of modern jazz during its rise, and a tireless chronicler of its history thereafter, died on Saturday at a nursing facility in New York City. 

He was 90. His death was confirmed by Fitz Gitler, his son.

Few writers on jazz have ever loomed as large as Ira Gitler, who opined prodigiously for more than 60 years, in publications like Metronome, JazzTimes and DownBeat, for which he served as New York editor for a time.

He was a longtime steward of The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, which he inherited from Leonard Feather, and the author of Jazz Masters of the Forties and Swing to Bop — two authoritative treatises on bebop. Gitler also wrote hundreds of album liner notes, beginning in 1951, when he was working for Prestige Records.

Gitler’s notes for John Coltrane’s 1958 album Soultrane yielded his most famous coinage. Reaching for an apt description of the saxophonist’s torrential improvising, he came up with “sheets of sound,” which proved an indelible turn of phrase. (Even in this first usage, it came bracketed with quotation marks, as if Gitler were aware of its potential as a trademark.)

Months after the release of Soultrane, Gitler’s byline appeared on the first full-length feature about Coltrane, in DownBeat. That blurring of the line between label copy and critical appraisal was typical of the era. It also underscores a truism about Gitler — that he was at his best writing about the musicians with whom he felt closest.

This was assuredly the case with the bebop titans he revered, like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell. Conjuring the experience of hearing Powell with Parker, Gitler wrote: “He hung the audience by its nerve ends, playing music of demonically driven beauty, music of hard, unflinching swing, music of genius.” (That passage, recalling one night at The Three Deuces in 1947, can be found in Jazz Masters of the Forties.)

Ira Gitler, right, with tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon in the early 1980s, just before he filmed 'Round Midnight'
Credit Mary Jo Gitler / Used with permission

Gitler had a formative influence on generations of younger jazz writers — including Bob Porter, WBGO announcer and author of Soul Jazz, who followed in Gitler’s footsteps at Prestige. “I think in many respects, he’s the guy who put bebop into perspective,” says Porter. “Jazz Masters of the Forties was just a well-organized piece of work. For somebody who was trying to get into the music, it was a nice little roadmap.”

Gitler taught at institutions including The New School and the Manhattan School of Music. And he became a vocal supporter of many musicians beyond the original bebop generation, from drummer Lewis Nash to the Russian tenor saxophonist Igor Butman. 

He was no less outspoken about his dislikes, sometimes notoriously so. He gave Dave Brubeck’s Time Out a mere two stars in DownBeat, writing: “I appreciate the tender moments of jazz and fully realize that you can’t swing hard all the time, but when the underlying tenor is more like drawing-room music, I leave the drawing room and go to the bar.”

Even more contentious was his two-star review of Abbey Lincoln’s Straight Ahead, in 1961. Taking issue with the album’s implicit embrace of African nationalist and liberation politics, he charged Lincoln with “becoming a professional Negro.” His remarks caused an immediate uproar, so much so that DownBeat organized a panel discussion on racial bias in jazz.

“He delighted in arguments,” attests Porter. “If he disagreed with me about something I wrote, he would call me immediately. And if I disagreed with him, I would never tell him.”

Gitler also dabbled in poetry — he was known to send elaborate birthday poems to friends and acquaintances — and wrote song lyrics. His best-known contribution in that vein would be the lyrics to a Horace Silver tune, “Filthy McNasty,” recorded by Eddie Jefferson in 1968.

Gitler also wrote extensively on hockey — from the press box of his home team, the New York Rangers, and in books including Make the Team in Ice Hockey and Blood on the Ice : Hockey's Most Violent Moments. “It was the other great avocation of his life,” recalls Fitz Gitler. “He was involved in hockey in so many ways. He wrote about it, he coached, he played, he had that sort of all-encompassing love of it, just as he did with jazz.”

Stan Fischler, the noted hockey historian and broadcaster, worked with Gitler and Richard Beddoes on Hockey!: The Story of the World’s Fastest Sport, which was published in 1973. On Twitter, Fischler posted a series of tributes to Gitler, including this one:

Gitler’s Gorillas, a formidable team in the amateur league, officially formed in 1973, and quickly amassed a reputation. George Plimpton wrote fondly of the team in Open Net: A Professional Amateur in the World of Big-Time Hockey. And in 1980, Mark Singer wrote about the Gorillas in a Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker:

The Gorilla jersey, which is green and white and black, features a caricature of Gitler as King Kong — straddling Midtown, with the Empire State Building at knee level, a loving cup in one hand, and the head of King Kong tucked under his arm. It is an impressive rendering of the founder, who has a drooping pepper-and-salt mustache that matches his slightly drooping midsection.

Ira Gitler was born on Dec. 18, 1928, in Brooklyn. His love of jazz began when he was in grade school, thanks to the influence of his brother, Monroe, a dozen years his senior. Ira was already a budding aficionado of the music in middle school; by his teens he was a denizen of the clubs on 52nd Street. He wrote his first piece about jazz for his high school newspaper, after hearing Gillespie perform at the Spotlite Club there. 

“He did it for love, and then somehow managed to turn it into a career,” says Fitz of his father’s jazz legacy. “While he’s thought of as a writer and an author, his reach was kind of into every place where he could help share that love of his with other people — to help inform and clarify and evangelize for the music that he loved.”

Ira Gitler was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017, receiving the organization’s A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1974. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the New Jersey Jazz Society and the Jazz Journalists Association.

In addition to his son, Gitler is survived by his wife of 46 years, the former Mary Jo Schwalbach, a visual artist. For many years the Gitlers lived in an Upper East Side brownstone apartment that had previously been occupied by filmmaker Woody Allen.

JazzTimes caught up with Gitler at home in 2000, and posed a series of questions, including what would constitute the perfect day. His response: “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.”

According to Fitz Gitler, Ira was with Mary Jo when he died, listening to a compilation called The Definitive Art Tatum, and wearing a DownBeat T-shirt.