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commodreCommodore Records was more than a label releasing classic jazz recordings but the focus for a movement initiating change.  As a label it was formed in 1938 by Milt Gabler and became the first label formed exclusively for lovers of dixieland jazz in the USA, preceded in the world only by Swing in France the year before. Gabler began selling records in his father's radio shop in NYC in 1926; the Commodore Music Shop soon became a hangout for musicians, and Gabler was an innovator long before he made a record: his was the first shop to have browsing bins arranged by artist, the first to reissue classic sides and one of the first labels to list the full personnel of bands on the label.

He would cherry-pick stocks in warehouses and shops going out of business, paying more than the record companies paid under the return privileges of the day and grabbing the jazz records for his stock. Then he ordered pressings of out-of-print items, knowing he could sell two or three hundred copies of 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie' even if it took a year or two, but the record companies began pressing a few extra and selling them in competition with his stock, so he started the first mail-order record club, with its own label: the United Hot Clubs of America. He also talked club owners into free jazz concerts on Sunday afternoons, for everyone's benefit, to drum up trade (when other club owners copied Gabler's initiative, they charged admission but still didn't pay the musicians).

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Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records,  arrived in New York City January 1936 and found an apartment in midtown Manhattan. Gravitating to Commodore Records, he became friendly with Gabler and his brother-in-law, Jack Crystal (the father of comedian Billy Crystal), who worked at the shop and helped run the gigs.  “There was nothing in 1939", said Lion," No {music trade] books where you could check out things. Nothing. You had to go by your wits.” Through his friendship with Milt Gabler, Lion persuaded Commodore Music Shop to sell Blue Note’s first record releases. 

Throughout the 1930's and 1940's, Commodore recorded almost 90 records, using more than 150 musicians and singers. The New Yorker quoted an unnamed musician: ''A ray comes out of Gabler. You can't help doing something the way he wants. Here is this guy, can't read a note of music and he practically tells you what register you're going to play in just by the position of your head.''

One of his most controversal recordings was Billie Holiday's anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" recorded in 1938.  When major record companies declined to record it due to the nature Billie Holiday's searing anti-lynching song, ''Strange Fruit,'' for fear of losing sales in the South, his Commodore Records did. ''Southern trees bear a strange fruit,'' the lyric went, ''Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.''

Last modified on Friday, 21 August 2015 09:14

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