Just to be clear, Gil Sokolow is not dying. His health is superb, and he looks younger than his years. Because 88 is apparently the new 75.
But the man’s a realist. One of these days, he won’t wake up. He doesn’t want to burden his three children with disposing of his lifelong jazz obsession: 2,000-plus vinyl albums, cassette tapes, and books he has thoughtfully curated since he fell hard for jazz as a teen in West Philly.
“I want someone to appreciate it,” he says of the alphabetized collection that lines the walls in the den of his modest home in the Far Northeast.
So he’s looking to donate the trove. It includes recordings by just about every performer whose artistry evoked syncopated worlds between the clefs:
Count Basie, Stan Getz, Scott Joplin, Bessie Smith, Jack Teagarden, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Keith Jarrett, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Peewee Russell, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, Paul Consalves, Marian McPartland, and many more jazz greats.
Sokolow also collected recordings by lesser-known artists — such as Philly’s own Dennis Sandole, who mentored John Coltrane — whose genius moved him during live performances in now-defunct Philly jazz haunts such as the Downbeat, Blue Note, Red Rooster, and Earle.
It’s been 60 years, but he recalls vividly the night he saw Holiday at the Downbeat, backed by only a pianist and bass player and lit by a single spotlight. The smoky club was hushed in inky darkness, all eyes riveted on the frail songbird with the heartbreaking voice.
“When you heard her, you couldn’t speak, you could hardly breathe,” Sokolow says. “You were just so taken by her. She didn’t even move, and she grabbed you. It was enthralling.”
He tells of befriending flutist Herbie Mann when both men served in the Army. They chanced upon each other during a Jewish holy day in a synagogue in Trieste, Italy – they were the only ones wearing military uniforms – and bonded over their love of jazz. They remained close until Mann’s death in 2003.
On his honeymoon, Sokolow and his late wife, Lois, bought 98-cent tickets to Pearl Bailey’s performance at Birdland, the jazz supper club in Manhattan. Before the show, they gawked as Bailey dined on a plate of ribs.
“Most of us eat ribs, it’s a mess—you get sauce all over your face,” says Sokolow. “Not her. She ate them with such delicacy and refinement, she made it ladylike.”
Sokolow played bass for a while in his younger years but gave it up after tanking on stage with a band whose leader allowed him to sit in for a set.
“They were playing fast; I couldn’t even keep the beat at half-time,” he says. “I was terrible.”
He’s proud, though, of a more lasting contribution to the genre he loves: Sometime in the early 1950s (he can't remember the exact date), he brought jazz to Philly airwaves as Temple University’s first jazz DJ on WRTI, when its signal was heard only on campus. His on-air name was Gil Lowe and the vinyl he spun was his own.
His volunteering there lasted a year until his work as a pharmacist and family obligations ate up his free time.
Now he’s just about out of time itself, and the task at hand is to see that his collection will be in good hands. His devoted friend Connie Jesiolowska has made inquiries of several universities and jazz organizations about donation but received tepid response.
“No one seems to have room for it,” she says.
Ah, but Bob George does. He’s director of New York's Archive of Contemporary Music, which I called on Sokolow’s behalf. He'd be delighted to accept Sokolow’s 2,000-item collection.
“That’s small for us,” George says.
I’ll say: His organization once retrieved a 100,000-album haul from a man whose condemned Boston row house was literally sinking from its weight. Records were even stored in the oven.
Sokolow and Jesiolowska were relieved to hear of the archive's interest and will contact George to hear more.
What will never be surrendered, of course, are Sokolow’s memories – Billie under a spotlight, Pearl savoring ribs, Herbie in a uniform.
To paraphrase a beloved jazz standard, they can’t take that away from him.