The history of jazz, that signature American art form, is replete with musicians — from Kid Ory to Ornette Coleman — who’ve dared to improvise and tinker with melody and time signatures, and who’ve continually reinvented the nature of music itself.
But there have been other jazz heroes whose big contributions weren’t made in playing the music, but in listening to it and working to give wider audiences a chance to hear it, too. In the mid- to late 1950s, for example, when the rising popularity of rock ‘n’ roll cut into the market for jazz, a record producer named Norman Granz resolutely kept putting artists such as Art Tatum and Lester Young on vinyl, and did his part to help keep the genre alive for future music lovers.
The contemporary era’s version of Granz was Mat Domber, a record producer, label owner and concert impresario in Clearwater, Fla., who was instrumental in rescuing and preserving classic jazz. Domber, who died on Sept. 19 at age 84 in Florida, spent most of his adult life as a New York-based attorney and real estate investor. But from the time that his father took him to Greenwich Village to hear clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, his passion from was Dixieland and swing. After moving to Florida to run a condo management company in the mid-1980s, on a lark he decided to try his hand at producing a record by his friend, Dixieland bandleader Rick Fay, and got hooked on the music business.
“I began to meet other musicians and I decided to produce more records in the same genre,” he recalled in a 2000 newspaper interview. “I began to realize I was having fun for the first time in a very long time.”
A few years later Domber founded his own label, Arbors Records, and began recording artists “who weren’t getting the attention they deserved.”
Domber’s label started out as a labor of love. “I was fortunate because I didn’t really need the money, so we were able to keep our heads up for the first couple of years without worrying about making a profit,” he later recalled. But gradually, Arbors evolved and grew into an important force in jazz. Over a couple of decades, Domber produced and released more than 300 recordings by performers such as swing trombonist Dan Barrett. As the Jazz Lives blog eulogizes: “If you go to your CD shelves at this moment, chances are some of the most gratifying discs there are on the Arbors label.”
Domber also tried to nurture a generation of young musicians to play traditional jazz. In 1994, he created Statesmen of Jazz, a nonprofit organization that put on seminars in which high school students got to meet, and learn from, famous jazz musicians.