By Joe Kane
There was a time when the best known member of Long Beach's Crystal family
was not movie superstar Bill Crystal or popular City Council President Joel
Crystal, or movie producer "Rip" Crystal, but their father Jack. The elder
Crystal was one of the most loved and respected legends of the jazz world,
having promoted years of performances and run a classic jazz record label.
Recently retired from the Long Beach School System, Joel recalls the days of
his childhood, when so many of the jazz giants would be in their house on
Park Avenue for social, as well as business, reasons.
"My dad would take me to the Central Plaza where he was booking those great
players." Legendary names like Roy Eldridge, Red Allen, Charlie Shavers,
Lester Young, and Marion McPartland were always appearing there exhibiting
their supreme talents. "He recalls Jack saying: "These are very important
people, who are the fabric of American musical history."
Jack was one of the last individuals trying to keep that artistry alive, as
the Rock era entered the musical scene.
Billy Crystal related that he runs into people who still talk about Jack.
Conrad Janis recalled that, "Your Dad was the Branch Ricky of the Jazz World.
He was one of the first to integrate black and white jazz performances."
I asked him of the stories that Billy Holiday was his baby sitter. "The Billy
Holiday thing has been exaggerated out of proportion. What did happen, was
that one afternoon, when Dad had booked her for a Jazz Concert at Loew's
Second Avenue Theater, after the show she took me to see "Shane" at a nearby
"Also at my bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel in Long Beach, many of those Jazz
Greats came to entertain the party."
Jack's cultural influence extended overseas. Billy recalled that Jack had
been sending Commodore Jazz recordings to Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia.
Jack graduated Law School from St. John's University as the great depression
was starting, and worked at Macys for a while, before the jazz era of his
life began. He was married to Helen Gabler, sister of Milt, who along with
their father Julius, founded Commodore Records and the Commodore Music Store
(144 West 42nd Street, then at 136, and finally147). He joined as secretary
of the Company in 1931 and worked in the store till he took over as manager,
when Milt moved on to Decca Records in the late thirties. Jack ran it till it
closed in 1958. (Milt had the courage at to record Billy Holiday's "Strange
Fruit", the anti-lynching song, when even the man who helped make a star of
her, John Hammond, was afraid of repercussions.)
When Milt died recently at age 90, it brought back all the memories of my
relationship with Jack Crystal.
He shared in the deep affection the Jazz greats of the Big Band and Dixieland
Revival eras, that was usually only shared between the artists themselves.
The depth of that type of affection was of such a special quality, that when
trying to explain it to non-musicians, it was always a struggle to find he
Our friendship started one afternoon in the spring of 1962, when my phone
rang and the voice said: "Joe, my name is Jack Crystal. I have Roy Eldridge's
contract for you."
"He worked for me last night at the Central Plaza, and he asked me to give
it to you. I live right in back of you on Park Avenue. I'd like to meet you.
Roy said some nice things about you."
We sat and talked for quite a while, joyfully sharing our mutual musical
relationships. I was at that time playing bar mitzvahs, weddings, and
dinner-dances, and had innovated using those giants of jazz in that musical
arena, considered by some pros as commercially risky.
He showed keen insight when he said, "I see you're a fan, like I am."
Central Plaza was one of the few remaining musically hip jazz places of the
fifties and sixties, where Jack brought all those remaining giants of jazz to
swing the nights away, as the Rock era entered the musical scene.
Pianist Marty Napoleon, a veteran of Louis Armstrong's band, performed there
many times from 1950 through1963. The final entry in his Central Plaza date
book reads: "10/16/63. Jack Crystal died today."
"Man, I loved that guy" he told me.
"I remember nights that Carl Reiner, Jane Fonda, Lauren Bacall and Jason
Robards came to the Plaza to hear us wail."
One of Marty's warm and humorous memories was a card he has, that was on all
the tables. "Get this", he laughingly told me. "It says: 'No dancing on the
tables and no bottle throwing'."
This was done because of the excitement that originally was created when
trombonist Conrad Janis climbed on top of the piano with clarinetist Sol Yage
d, as they wailed into the climax of a swinging set. It was obviously very
contagious. Since it became a tradition through the years, the cards were an
attempt to control the frenzy.
Eddie Locke, who played drums for Roy Eldridge, including his last12 years at
Ryan's said: "Jack was a wonderful guy that all the jazz players loved. "He
was the best," he concluded.
A little incident occurred one afternoon that defines that warmth and
affection. As I stood with Jack near the beach, just prior to a jazz concert
in Long Beach, the trumpet giant, Red Allen, a black man, pulled up in a big
black Cadillac and came over to greet Jack. Jack quipped: "All you need now
is a white chauffeur."
He unfortunately died in 1963 at age 54 in the Long Beach Bowling alley. The
large turnout at his funeral was at least 85% black jazz musicians, clearly
an expression of the reciprocal love they had for him.
A final farewell took place at Central Plaza on December 8, 1963, when a
memorial concert dedicated to Jack Crystal took place. Approximately 75 of
the greatest ever-jazz personalities turned out to perform.