Ira Sabin, D.C. record-store owner, founder of JazzTimes magazine, dies at 90
September 13 at 7:30 PM
During World War II, when Washington was booming and many musicians were in the military, young Ira Sabin launched what became a lifetime gig in jazz. He had his first professional jobs as a drummer when he was 15, led groups in clubs and concert halls for nearly 20 years, became a promoter and record-store owner and in 1970 founded the publication that became JazzTimes magazine, one of the most successful and influential journals of its kind.
Mr. Sabin died Sept. 12 at an assisted living facility in Rockville, Md., at age 90. He had cancer, said a son, Glenn Sabin.
When he was 12, Mr. Sabin began playing in a school drum-and-bugle corps, then quickly fell under the spell of jazz. By 15, he was working as a professional musician.
“A man called me up one day and asked me what kind of drums I had,” he said in a 2000 interview with School Band and Orchestra magazine. “I told him what I had — tom toms, cymbals and everything. He said, ‘I’ll pick you up at 6:30.’ He didn’t even want to know anything about me, just that I could play.”
He earned his musicians’ union card at 16 and quickly found himself working three jobs a day in nightclubs, concert halls and society gatherings, “gaining a lifetime of professional experience in a few short years,” he later wrote in JazzTimes.
He performed in some of Washington’s first integrated jazz groups and sometimes entertained at private parties at the Georgetown home of Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) before he became president. By the late 1950s, Mr. Sabin was producing concerts and other performances, featuring such acclaimed musicians as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson.
Ira Sabin, right, with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, circa 1984. (Courtesy of Glenn Sabin/Courtesy of Glenn Sabin)
In 1962, he bought out a brother-in-law who had a record store, renaming it Sabin’s Discount Records. The store, at Ninth and U streets NW, was in the heart of Washington’s thriving jazz district, within walking distance of two theaters and six jazz clubs. The shop carried one of the country’s largest collections of jazz recordings, and musicians often stopped by to shop and chat.
“He seemed to attract folks and had this bon-vivant manner,” Lee Mergner, a former editor and publisher of JazzTimes, said in an interview. “In Ira’s world, people were all ‘cats’ and ‘chicks.’ He called everybody ‘baby’ and ‘man.’ ”
Mr. Sabin began to publish a four-page newsletter for his customers, highlighting new record albums and upcoming performances at jazz venues. Soon enough, disc jockeys around the country were sending him playlists, and record labels were taking out two-page advertisements.
Some of the country’s most respected jazz critics, including Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Stanley Dance, Dan Morgenstern and Martin Williams, began to write for Mr. Sabin. In 1970, he dubbed his newsletter Radio Free Jazz, in an effort to promote jazz to radio programmers. Published on rough newsprint paper, Radio Free Jazz grew from four pages to 12 to 28. The first paid subscriber was the renowned bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” Mr. Sabin wrote in JazzTimes in 1995. “I was the writer, editor, publisher, advertising sales person, artist, proofreader, photographer, distributor, you name it. Editorial decisions were simple, though: whenever I’d hear a player that knocked me out, he or she would be on our next cover.”
In 1980, at Feather’s suggestion, Mr. Sabin renamed his publication JazzTimes. It retained a newspaper format until 1990, when Mr. Sabin’s son Glenn took over as publisher and converted JazzTimes to a glossy monthly magazine. (Another son, Jeffrey, was the general manager.)
JazzTimes reached a peak circulation of more than 115,000 in the late 1990s. The Sabin family sold the magazine in 2009, but it remains, along with DownBeat, one of the primary journals chronicling the music, personalities and educational opportunities in jazz.
“What Ira did when he started that magazine was so important to the world of jazz,” saxophonist Jimmy Heath said in an interview. “He was a pioneer in that respect.”
Ira Sabin was born Aug. 10, 1928, in Brooklyn and moved with his family to Washington in 1939. His father was a businessman, his mother was trained as a pharmacist.
When Mr. Sabin was a student at Washington’s Eastern High School, jazz was evolving from the swing music of the 1930s to the more complex bebop style of the 1940s.
“I learned jazz playing in small combos, and by going to the neighborhood record store, buying Charlie Parker records and trying to play what was on the records,” Mr. Sabin said in 2000. “But much of jazz playing, particularly improvisation, can’t be taught — it’s inborn. Sure, people can show you, but it has to be in you.”
In the 1950s, he served as an Army musician and performed in musical groups in the United States and Japan. He returned to Washington in 1956 and began to branch into producing musical events, as well as performing.
During the 1968 riots in Washington, Sabin’s Discount Records was looted but, unlike many other businesses along the U Street corridor, was not burned down. Mr. Sabin later moved the store to Southeast Washington before selling it in 1981.
He lived in Kensington for many years before moving to Silver Spring, Md., in retirement. Survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Irma Leish of Silver Spring; three children, Marla Sabin and Jeffrey Sabin, both of North Potomac, Md., and Glenn Sabin of Silver Spring; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In addition to founding JazzTimes, Mr. Sabin organized one of the first national conventions for people working in jazz in 1979. He later moved the JazzTimes convention from Washington to New York, where later incarnations of the gathering have become major networking events for musicians, radio hosts, record company executives, nightclub owners, festival promoters, educators and writers.
“For him, it really was a labor of love,” Mergner said of Mr. Sabin’s leadership at the magazine. “He really wanted to serve these musicians and the music.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries
Wakako Yamauchi, celebrated Japanese American playwright, dies at 93
Adam Clymer, veteran New York Times political reporter and editor, dies at 81
Bill Daily, comic actor in ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘The Bob Newhart Show,’ dies at 91