[Dixielandjazz] The Commodore Record Shop
barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Nov 10 15:57:17 PST 2004
Hole in the Wall
The crummiest shrine in the world
by David Hinckley New York Daily News, November 10, 2004
The original Commodore Record Shop was 9 feet wide. If you were a
jazz fan, those were the best 9 feet in the city.
Every great style of city music has spawned great record stores, from
gospel at Rainbow on 125th St. to Broadway tunes at Colony on 49th
St. to classical, hip-hop and doo-wop shops. For jazz back then, when
jazz was at the center of popular music, there was the Hot Record
Society (HRS) shop downtown.
And there was Commodore, which had a slight edge for several reasons:
the quality and quantity of records it released on its own label, the
vintage records it either coaxed into reissue or reissued itself, the
jam sessions -- and the fact that no matter how much a Commodore
customer knew, staffers like Herbie Hill, Lou Blum and Jack Crystal,
uncle of Billy, probably knew more.
They could identify a record from a customer humming a 10-second
solo, off-key. They could find records no other shop could seem to
find. They could whirl down a solid wall that had literally tens of
thousands of 78 rpm records, all in identical brown paper sleeves,
and pull out exactly the Coleman Hawkins side the customer wanted.
A loudspeaker above the door played what Commodore owner Milt Gabler
considered the best jazz ever recorded, like Bix Beiderbecke's
Wolverines and Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives or Sevens. Many of these
were new releases around the time Gabler started running the joint,
and they stayed in the Commodore's rotation long after the public had
turned to Benny Goodman and Count Basie.
Subject to the space limitations of a 9-foot shop, a customer could
come into Commodore to just listen, or to strike up a discussion on
the relative merits of, say, Billie Holiday's different backup
musicians. No jazz topic went undebated at the Commodore, which was
as sophisticated in its content as it was primitive in its
"It's a shrine," guitarist and club owner Eddie Condon said. "The
crummiest shrine in the world."
The original Commodore was on E. 42nd St., one of the many
institutions in that neighborhood that owed their names to Commodore
Cornelius Vanderbilt. You got off the train or the subway at Grand
Central, walked across 42nd toward Lex and looked for the place with
the plain sign that promised, "Radios, Phonographs, Records."
The shop was opened by Milt Gabler's father as the Commodore Radio
Corp., selling radios, speakers and parts. As young Milt grew up in
the family home in Harlem, he developed such a passion for music that
when he was only 15, in 1926, his father let him leave his previous
job at a family hardware store and help manage Commodore.
Milt soon concluded that phonograph records were as much a part of
the future as radio, maybe a bigger part, because people bought more
of them. So his first move was to increase the shop's stock of 78s.
By 1934 it had become the Commodore Music Shop, and over the years it
would occupy 147, 144 and 136 E. 42nd St., eventually expanding to
more than 9 feet wide.
Gabler would also open a branch on 52nd St., which was important
because it had a place for musicians to jam after hours, which they
By the late '30s, Gabler also started Commodore Records, which would
record 66 albums' worth of material that included Billie Holiday's
first waxing of "Strange Fruit."
Commodore Records' output again reflected Gabler's own taste, with
combos like Lester Young's more prominent than the big bands that
were increasingly taking over the charts. He also endeared himself to
jazzmen by squeezing the grooves on Commodore releases so they could
accommodate four minutes of music instead of the traditional three.
A jam session kind of guy, he said his idea of musical heaven was "an
informal gathering of temperamentally congenial musicians playing
unrehearsed and unscored music for their own enjoyment."
He also liked the people who played it. When he wasn't at the shop,
he often hung around the White Rose saloon nursing Irish whisky with
a beer chaser and laying a few dollars on musicians who came in with
a sad story.
For fans, however, one of Gabler's biggest contributions was scaring
up old favorites that had fallen out of print.
By 1934, as the Depression cut into record production and several
labels simply folded, a lot of classic sides were suddenly
unavailable. So Gabler would buy up as much back stock as he could
find, and when he ran out, he would try to persuade the owners to
reissue the sides.
When he couldn't, he would buy the reissue rights himself, putting
out classic jazz on the United Hot Clubs of America (UHCA) label.
UHCA, largely a paper organization with Gabler and fellow jazz
enthusiast Marshall Stearns, also grew into a valuable mail-order
service for jazz fans who couldn't get to New York.
He launched his own label because he was angry about this confounded
new style of jazz like Count Basie's that was driving out the classic
sounds he preferred.
But while old-time stylists were always welcome at Commodore Records,
Gabler also understood contemporary sound, and in 1941 he was hired
by Decca Records, where he would go on to produce music as diverse as
Louis Jordan's "Caldonia" and Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."
He kept Commodore going until 1957 -- "a wondrously cluttered hole in
the wall," said music writer George Frazier, "where you would go to
hear tumultuous talk and brave new music."
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