Ira Sabin, founder of JazzTimes magazine, dies at 90

NEW YORK — Ira Sabin, a bebop drummer who in 1970 started what became JazzTimes magazine, one of the world’s leading jazz publications, as a four-page newspaper to promote releases at his record store in Washington, died Sept. 12 at an assisted living facility in Rockville, Md. He was 90.

For Mr. Sabin, JazzTimes reflected the passion he had had for the music since he was a teenager. It was stirred in the early 1940s on a trip to New York City with a neighbor, who dropped him off at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, promising to return soon.

“A man came over and asked me what a young kid was doing at a place like this,” Mr. Sabin recalled in JazzTimes in 1995. “We spoke for a few minutes before he walked over to the bandstand and picked up an alto. He turned out to be Charlie Parker.”

Parker soon joined the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the drummer Max Roach on the bandstand.


“I can still see the fireworks, hear the explosion of notes and feel the sheer joy and excitement as if it were yesterday,” Mr. Sabin wrote.

That thrill resonated for decades. He brought it to his record store, which, in its original location, was at the hub of Washington’s jazz district, in the Shaw neighborhood.

And he brought it to JazzTimes (originally called Radio Free Jazz), which he built into a strong rival of the long-established DownBeat, publishing leading such critics as Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler.

At its peak in the late 1990s, JazzTimes had a circulation of about 115,000.

He also brought the industry together at his nearly annual JazzTimes conventions, gathering representatives of radio stations, record companies, nightclubs, jazz societies, jazz festivals, and musician unions.

At the inaugural event, at a hotel in Washington in 1979, Gillespie, Frank Foster, and other musicians jammed all night.


“That first convention was a remarkable ingathering of the jazz world, and there would be many more,” jazz critic and historian Dan Morgenstern wrote in JazzTimes in 2000.

Soon after the convention, Mr. Sabin sold his record store to work full time publishing the magazine, which would evolve to a glossy monthly publication.

A Brooklyn native, Ira Sabin moved with his parents to Washington when he was 11.

Ira began taking drum lessons at 12 and became proficient enough to be playing professionally by 15. With many musicians in the military during World War II, he found steady employment. When he was in the Army during the Korean War, his musical career was not interrupted: He played with a 60-piece band at Fort Meade in Maryland, and with a six-piece combo in Japan.

After his discharge, Mr. Sabin began producing concerts and played with his trio at society events, including some at Senator John F. Kennedy’s home in Georgetown.

He went into the record-store business with his brother-in-law in 1962 and bought him out after several months. He renamed the store, at Ninth and U Streets, Sabin’s Discount Records; it became a musicians’ hangout, and in an era before such chains as Tower Records started to dominate music retailing, it grew to hold what is believed to have been the largest jazz inventory of any record shop in the United States.

Mr. Sabin’s publishing career started in the late 1960s with a handout for his customers called Sabin’s Happenings; by 1970 it had evolved into Radio Free Jazz.


He recalled doing virtually everything in the early years of the publication.

“I was the writer, editor, publisher, advertising salesperson, artist, proofreader, distributor, you name it,” he wrote in JazzTimes in 1995. But he had no problem deciding whom to cover. “Whenever I’d hear a player that knocked me out,” he said, “he or she would be on our next cover.”

In 2009, with JazzTimes experiencing financial woes, the family sold it to Madavor Media, a Boston-based company.