Buying a vinyl long playing jazz album in the format’s heyday — from the 1950s through the 1980s — was a three-step sensual process that stirred an almost irrational enthusiasm for the entire culture the music ignited. The record industry’s flair for creating passionate cover art seduced the imagination, the sounds etched into the grooves promised diversion and surprise, and the densely-typed liner notes on the back cover fired up an eagerness for enlightenment. The process continued at the turntable, where the cut of a stylus transformed the listener into an aural witness to the performer’s character and improvisational skills. It was, quite simply, a bonding experience.
An entertaining and capable writer of liner notes added much to the quality of this particular moment. A minute or two into the first track, a skilled guide significantly enhanced the listener’s adventure; effectively critiquing a composition here, thoroughly assessing a solo there, describing artistry and persona everywhere. Good liner note writers of the era — Feather, Gitler, Hentoff, Keepnews and Gleason among them — were sought after by record companies and musicians alike for their valuable role in marketing the finished creation, and Dan Morgenstern was the Hemingway of his business. Along with his work as editor of Down Beat during much of this period, his liner notes made the music understandable to those who wouldn’t know a valve trombone from a Wankel rotary engine, and enticed us to make celebrated jazz musicians our charismatic, lifelong companions through an unpretentious and charming writing style.
Discovering jazz in all its meaningful glory and gathering an understanding of its prominence in American life required the music of an ambitious performer, the vision of a sensitive visual artist, and the affecting guidance of a soulful writer. Dan Morgenstern was that writer, the “King of Jazz Journalism” whose unfailing performance at his own craft matched that of those he profiled.
We will leave it up to Sheldon Meyer, editor of Morgenstern’s Living With Jazz collection, to complete the introduction:
“Dan Morgenstern has been a major figure on the jazz scene for more than four decades. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, he was the editor of Down Beat, then the premier jazz magazine. His comments, criticisms, reviews of records, and reports on live jazz activities were central to the discussion of jazz at the time. Since 1976, he has been the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey, which he has made the central repository of jazz archives and research in the world. With his wide experience and knowledge, he has advised and directed a generation of jazz scholars and broadened the discussion and range of the discipline.”
In a February 4, 2005 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Morgenstern talks about his career as a jazz journalist and scholar, his defense of the latter-day Louis Armstrong, and shares his perspectives on eleven unique artists who, in their own way, helped construct the foundation of the music Morgenstern has so eloquently advocated for over half-a-century.
“He never was billed as the King of Jazz, but Louis Armstrong is the sole legitimate claimant to that musical throne. Without him, there would still be the music we call jazz, but how it might have developed is guesswork. He was the key creator of its mature vocabulary, and though nearly three-quarters of a century have passed since his influence first manifested itself, there is still not one musician partaking of the jazz tradition who does not, knowingly or unknowingly, make use of something created by Louis Armstrong.
“For those who basked in the living presence of Armstrong, it is sobering to contemplate that we are at a point in the history of jazz where many among us know him only in his posthumous audiovisual incranation, and many, alas, not even that well — unable instantly to recognize that voice, that trumpet sound, that face, that smile. Our age consumes even the most consummate art at such a pace that Armstrong’s universality is no longer a given. Yet the infinite reproducibility of his recorded works ensures his immortality, and future generations will surely come to know that jazz and Louis Armstrong are synonymous. The language he created is a marvelously flexible and expandable one that can be spoken in ever so many accents, and as long as it remains a living tongue, it will refer back to its creator.”
– Dan Morgenstern, from the liner notes to the 1994 Columbia compilation, Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
JJM As a young boy, in March, 1938, you had to leave Vienna, Austria in the wake of Hitler’s arrival. You wrote of that day, “One of the ugliest and most unmusical sounds I’d yet heard was that produced by the crowds greeting the arrival of Hitler in the city where he had learned to hate Jews.” What are your memories of that day?
DM We were living in a fairly central area of Vienna. At this particular time, I had scarlet fever, which was considered a serious and quite contagious illness then. I was getting a little better, and the windows of my room were open. I could hear this weird noise of people screaming and yelling Sieg Heil! It was a very ugly sound that was easily heard in my room, and it was kind of scary.
JJM Did you see the German soldiers arriving in the city?
DM No, I didn’t see that. I wasn’t supposed to get out of bed, but of course I was curious and I looked out the window, and all I saw were people. We were on a side street that was right off a fairly main thoroughfare, so I couldn’t see anything other than people streaming in that direction.
JJM How old were you at the time?
DM I was eight years old.
JJM Did you have any understanding about Nazi’s at that age?
DM An eight-year-old would not have a very sophisticated view, but yes, I actually did. You couldn’t help but be aware of them, because news of them was on the radio, and I heard Hitler speaking on the radio as well. I knew about the Anti-Semitism. Even before their takeover of Austria, Nazi’s were there, wearing swastika armbands and everything. It was a pretty tangible thing, for sure.
JJM Your family then moved to Denmark?
DM My mother and I did, yes. My father suspected things were going to be bad when Hitler first came to power, and applied for an American visa in 1933. He was a writer, and wrote some anti-Nazi things, so the moment the Nazis arrived, he had to get out, and was able to get on one of the last trains to France. I was sick and couldnt be moved. While we were separated, it was a good thing we couldnt get into France, because if we had wound up there where my father had some rather unpleasant adventures it wouldnt have been good for us at all, and I might not even be here talking to you. Eventually, because my mother was Danish by birth, she was able to move me to Denmark. It was difficult to just get out of Austria, because many countries wouldnt even take people. Meanwhile, my father eventually managed to make his way to Morocco, and then to Portugal, until his visa came through. He moved to the United States in April of 1941.
JJM And you lived in Sweden as well
DM Yes. The Germans came to Denmark in 1940, while my mother and I were living there, but they didnt do anything drastic until 1943. At that time, the Danes got everybody to Sweden, which was a neutral country, and we wound up living there until the end of the war for about a year-and-a-half. We moved back to Denmark and waited for my father to send for us, which he did in 1946, when he became an American citizen. We were reunited and were very lucky because we had survived, which wasnt true for all members of my family.
JJM When you were living with your mother, you wrote that the main source of music was not the radio, which was for grown-ups to listen to news on, but the phonograph, with which I began a lifelong love affair as soon as I was old enough to master the mechanics of winding up the spring driven motor and making the turntable start and stop.” What was your first phonograph player?
DM It was actually my mothers, a portable 78 player. It was a German copy of what was an English HMV, and it was a good machine.
JJM Did your mother have a collection of albums that served as your introduction to music?
DM Yes. They were not real albums, since at that point in time, with the exception of classical music, only singles were issued. These were records she and her three siblings danced to as teenagers. They were not exactly jazz, but some of them were jazz-related, as I discovered later. The best recording was by Fred Rich on English Columbia, which had Singing in the Rain on one side and Nobody but You on the other. Rich was a bandleader who did not perform live very often he was on radio and had theater bands but he made a lot of records. He had a pool of freelance musicians in New York, and this particular record said the Dorsey Brothers Tommy and Jimmy were on it, as well as a trumpet player named Leo McConville. Although Jimmy was listed in the discography, it actually turned out to be a clarinet player I got to know by the name of Tony Parenti, who told me the recording of my mothers featured him and not Dorsey.
These were the typical records of the twenties, which were not jazz, but more like a peppy dance band that would state the theme, followed by a vocal. In this case there was a group vocal, sort of like the Paul Whiteman sound. A hot sequence with short solos would follow, and then the band would take it up. In retrospect, that turned out to be the first jazz I ever heard. Another recording I listened to at the time which was more like the real thing was a record by the British trumpet player Nat Gonella, who was like the English Louis Armstrong. He made tons of records in the thirties, and was very popular in Europe. He even had a few things released in the United States on Decca. His theme song was Georgia on My Mind. He was a great admirer of Louis, and in a sense copied him, although he had his own sound. So that was my exposure to jazz, which was pretty marginal.
JJM You wrote in your book about the experience of your mother taking you to see Fats Waller perform in Copenhagen in 1938. That must have left quite an impression on you as a young man. Can you talk a little about that?
DM At that time, I hadnt really seen very many black people, and I remember how physically impressive he was. He was big well over six feet tall and had a presence that I have since come to realize all great performers have. The concert opened with a session performed by a group of Danish jazz musicians, and he sat in with them. They eventually left the stage and he took over. He sat at the piano and played and sang and displayed these wonderful facial expressions. I didnt know more than a smattering of English words that I had picked up from listening to records or going to the movies, so I didnt understand most of what he was saying or what he was singing, but he communicated beautifully. What he communicated more than anything else was tremendous rhythm, the wonderful piano he played, and a very engaging singing style. The performance made a great impression on me.
JJM Do you remember talking to your mother about the concert afterwards?
DM I am sure I did. In later years I would remind her and tease her about how she started this whole thing.
JJM When you came to America in 1947, you wrote that you expected to hear an abundance of jazz on the radio, but were only able to find one jazz program, that of Symphony Sid Torin’s, down at the end of the dial. Were you surprised you couldn’t find more jazz on the radio?
DM Oh yes, I expected that there would be jazz all over the radio, but no such thing. If I had stayed on some of the stations that played Bing Crosby or the Andrews Sisters or Frankie Laine, I may have eventually heard someone like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw or Dorsey. But there wasnt really any jazz it was all pop music and a little bit of classical. When I finally found Sid Torin, that was it for me.
JJM Making the scene on Fifty-second Street is virtually every jazz fans dream, and you were fortunate to take in some amazing performances there, although you say that by the time you got there it was on its way down
DM Yes, that was the common wisdom. Once I got to know people who were hip to the Street, they would say, Ah, you should have been here three or five years ago, because there was more going on. But there was plenty still going on.
JJM Do you recall any early impressions of it?
DM Fifty-second Street was a row of brownstones, basically. The first time I saw it, it was actually shorter than I expected it to be. The clubs were smaller and a little funkier than I imagined, but as I found out, that was part of its charm. There was so much going on all the time. I remember seeing Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces for the first time, which was really something. When I saw him I wasnt, as yet, really in tune to bebop, but Parker played beautiful ballads and was very easy to digest.
Before hearing Bird with Miles, I saw Gerry Mulligan with an all-star band that would have probably included people like Brew Moore who I got to know very well later on Red Rodney and Kai Winding. It was a band with several horns. It wasnt until later that I realized that at this particular time these players were all strung out on drugs. I remember being amazed at how pale they all looked. Across the street from there was Jimmy Ryans, which was the traditional place, where I saw Hot Lips Page for the first time, and Sidney Bechet, who was just tremendous. One night in 1949 or so, a friend of mine and I and our dates wound up closing the joint. At that time, the clubs were open until three or four in the morning, and the four of us were the only ones there. Sidney had a quartet that night, with Vic Dickenson on trombone, Lloyd Phillips on piano, and Kansas Fields on drums. At one point, Sidney sat down, pulled up a chair, and put his feet up so he could stretch his legs. He closed his eyes and played a slow blues for about fifteen minutes. It was so marvelous just one of those great experiences.
JJM How did you begin your career as a critic?
DM When I first started hanging out with musicians and began getting into the music, if anyone suggested to me that I would one day become a critic, I probably would have sneered at them. At the time, I didn’t like most of what I was reading about the music. In the late forties, there was a lot of sniping back and forth between the traditionalists the “moldy figs” and the modernists who embraced bebop. There was always a lot of controversy, and it seemed to me and to many of the musicians that these opinions had nothing to do with what was really important, which was the music. Whether a person enjoyed the music of Sidney Bechet, Hot Lips Page, Pee Wee Russell and Wild Bill Davison, or that of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Dillespie, it didn’t seem necessary to take sides. I didn’t care for all that came out of this, and I also felt that the record reviews were very supercilious and stupid. So, I didn’t like most jazz criticism, and I certainly didn’t think that I would become a jazz critic.
As I write in the book, I don’t like the word “critic” very much. I look at myself more as an advocate for the music than as a critic. When a person becomes a working journalist, he does the work of a reporter, an interviewer, and a reviewer, and talking about a journalist who writes about jazz as a “critic” always seems to be limiting.
JJM Yes, that’s a pretty important observation.
DM In the early fifties I worked as a copy boy at the New York Times, a job my father helped me get through his friendship with Al Hirschfeld, the great cartoonist. When the Korean conflict arose, I was drafted and subsequently trained at Fort Benning, Georgia. Because our unit didn’t perform particularly well during training, instead of being shipped to Korea, we were sent to Germany.
DM Yes, and it was odd to be back in Europe, and especially in Germany, of all places, but I was lucky to be there rather than Korea. When I came back to the States, I decided to go to school on the GI Bill, and attended Brandeis University, which had only been in existence for five years, and was a small college at the time. There were some jazz-minded kids there a smattering of jazz fans. I was always interested in writing and having a career in journalism, but I wasn’t connecting this with my interest in jazz. I became editor of the school paper, and a small group of jazz fans decided to use some student activity money for the purpose of bringing jazz musicians to campus. After all, the money was being used for pop and classical music, why not jazz?
At the time, George Wein operated his Boston nightclub, Storyville, and we were going there quite a lot. We decided to try to bring Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer to campus on a Saturday afternoon, and with George’s help, were able to do so. In order to create interest in the performance, I wrote it up in the paper the week before, and afterwards, I reviewed it. We did this again with Art Tatum, who did a solo concert for us on campus. Afterwards, when we drove him back to Boston, he told us that was the first time he had done a solo recital, which was totally flabbergasting. He was beautiful, and I wrote something about him. I then decided to write something about jazz in general. Nat Hentoff, who was Down Beat‘s Boston correspondent then, was the first jazz writer I really liked. We invited him to give a lecture on jazz, which I wrote about in the school paper as well. I showed some of my work to Nat, who thought it was good and encouraged me to write more. So, that is how I got started.
JJM You wrote, “My most enthusiastic early readers were my musician friends.” Was it difficult to be a critic when you had so many close personal friendships with musicians?
DM My earliest professional gig in jazz was writing a monthly newsletter from New York for the British magazine Jazz Journal, and initially I primarily wrote about people I knew and liked, and who were not getting a lot of publicity. This would have included many of the mainstream players of the era. This involved more reporting rather than critical writing, so it didnt affect friendships I had with musicians.
I was interested in writing about situations musicians found themselves in due to their work, like playing for fashion shows, or standing up single-file above the bar at the Metropole in Times Square. I was very much involved with some of the older players who dont seem so old today, when people like Frank Wess, Joe Wilder, and Hank Jones who are now in their eighties continue to play beautifully. In the fifties, however, people in their sixties seemed ancient, because jazz wasnt that old yet itself. A guy like Zutty Singleton, whom I was very fond of, seemed really old. So, I liked many of the older guys, and I thought they were being neglected by much of the jazz press. Nat Hentoff was one of the few exceptions, and he did a wonderful interview with Coleman Hawkins, and a beautiful one with Lester Young, which was not an easy interview. He also reviewed good records that were otherwise pretty much ignored. I had that particular angle as well, but then things began to change. I was writing more and getting assignments, and freelancing pretty much about everything.
JJM A common theme within your career is to dispute widely held opinions that works of prominent performers had declined. You championed the later work of Lester Young and Bessie Smith, and most obviously that of Louis Armstrong. The books editor, Sheldon Meyer, wrote, “Morgenstern himself has had a profound effect upon the way Armstrong is perceived today.” In the liner notes for an Armstrong reissue, you wrote of how Armstrong’s playing with his big band revealed the way his “mastery of his instrument and musical imagination continued to grow. What we encounter here is jazz’s first and greatest virtuoso and master improviser in the process of flowering and self-discovery.” What was the common view of Armstrongs post Hot Five and Hot Seven work prior to your essay?
DM If you look at a book like Gunther Schullers Early Jazz, which was an uncommonly perceptive and knowledgeable approach to that music, you will see that even he begins to talk about his decline. That book really only covered music into the early thirties, so of course he concentrated on the Hot Five and the King Oliver period. While he said wonderful things about Louis which only a musical scholar like Gunther can really put into words I do take issue with him in an essay included in the book when he said that Armstrongs big band work of the thirties was more cliched. According to Gunther, all of the big band records were sort of set; he would play a chorus in front, then he would sing, then he would take it out and climb to a high note. In other words, it became sort of cut and dried. He also overlooks how Louiss trumpet mastery progressed and became more profound during this time. So I took issue with that.
The jazz press generally looked at Armstrongs greatest work as being the recordings of the twenties with the Hot Five. In part, this was due to the influence of the moldy fig critics people like Rudi Blesh who dismissed the later recordings Armstrong made of songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen. We know these writers now to be great geniuses of music, but in those days, much of their material was categorized as Tin Pan Alley, and Blesh felt these songs were inferior to those created by the traditional jazz players of New Orleans, even though that material was popular songs of the day as well. A tune like “High Society, for example which was sort of emblematic of New Orleans jazz was originally written by a Yale University student for a band of banjos and mandolin, then transcribed for a brass band by an arranger in New York. So, it was basically just a brass band piece that was adapted with a beat put to it. It was not as if Louis betrayed his heritage by recording great ballads like “Stardust”, “Body and Soul” and others that he basically introduced to jazz. That was a great thing about him in many cases he was the first jazz musician to record these songs that eventually became evergreens. That also was not recognized.
There was a lingering hangover that Armstrong with the Hot Five was the real Armstrong, and that later on he sold out to Tin Pan Alley and commercialism. When Armstrong made a monster hit out of Mack the Knife with the All-Stars, or dared to sing Blueberry Hill, which he did well before Fats Domino it caused some writers to look at Louis with a strange perspective. John Wilson, the critic for the New York Times, was perhaps the leading dismisser of Armstrongs All-Stars, saying that Louis was an entertainer who didnt necessarily have anything to do with jazz anymore. How anybody could say that was unbelievable to me. When Louis sneezed it was jazz! It is not possible to look at this man any other way, but there are all things that have to do with perceptions by people like John, who by the way was a very nice man, with a sense of humor that somehow never showed up in his writings.
JJM Your view on Armstrongs music of this period then led to some work for you…
DM Yes. When Columbia began reissuing his recordings, since it was known I was an advocate for that particular aspect of Louis, I got the liner note gig.
JJM Would you consider this view on Armstrong’s later work your proudest achievement?
DM Sheldon Meyer, the book’s editor, was nice enough to say that it was, and there are others who have said that they had a better appreciation for his music of the thirties because of my work. Much of it had pretty much been neglected and not even reissued until then, so yes, I am very proud of this. Later on, when I worked at Down Beat as New York editor, and then editor, I always seemed to be defending Louis against people like Wilson.
JJM You were a great advocate of Ellington’s as well
DM Yes, I was, and Sheldon decided to put my essays on Louis and Duke together, at the beginning of the book, which made a lot of sense. Now, in the post-Wynton Marsalis era, Ellington is recognized as being the greatest American composer. I am not comfortable saying that, because it isn’t a good way to categorize Duke. However, he was certainly the greatest composer of American jazz, and the greatest bandleader who had the most wonderful band. During his lifetime, though, he was often disregarded and considered to be past his prime which is also what was being said about Louis, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. People were always comparing their contemporary work to what they did in the past, which is a terrible burden to put on an artist. Because of the existence of records, musicians always have to confront their own past, and it is not fair or appropriate, because people change. Circumstances certainly change over time, and they may change their thinking about what they are creating. Ellington’s Blanton-Webster band of 1940 – 1942 was marvelous, but must his work constantly be compared to what that band was creating, during that particular acknowledged peak? The thing that is important to remember is that there were peaks after the Blanton-Webster period, just as there were peaks before.
JJM As you say, a major part of your work collected in Living With Jazz are your essays on Armstrong and Ellington. There is a consensus among jazz fans and historians that no definitive biography has ever been written about either of them. Does it make you wish you had done that?
DM I have been working full time in various ways for many years now, including being at the Institute of Jazz Studies almost thirty. To write a biography deserving of Louis or Duke requires the necessary time. A lot of the stuff I have written about Louis probably adds up to a good deal of biographical material. Not all that I have written about him is in the book there are other things as well. But yes, maybe it was something that I should have done. I certainly could have done a better job than James Lincoln Collier, who, despite his faults, acknowledges me for drawing attention to Louis’s big band period. Terry Teachout has started working on an Armstrong biography, and I have hopes that will turn out well.
JJM For this portion of the interview, I thought it would be interesting to get your quick one minute reaction to a handful of artists I will name who, in one way or another, have influenced the world of music in the last eighty years. I will just read a performer’s name, and you tell me the first thing that comes into your head. The first name is Paul Whiteman.
DM Paul Whiteman is beginning to be recognized as a pretty important figure in jazz. He was handicapped by this title of “King of Jazz,” which he never asked for. He made major contributions in many ways beyond just hiring Bix Beiderbecke, and that is beginning to be recognized. Believe it or not, Jazz at Lincoln Center did a tribute to Whiteman in February of this year. Whiteman was the first leader to ever hire a female vocalist, Mildred Bailey. So, Whiteman is a major figure in American music. He certainly doesn’t belong exclusively to jazz, but he was a big man.
JJM Don Redman.
DM Redman should get the credit that usually goes to Fletcher Henderson. People say that Henderson was the first great arranger in jazz, but that is bullshit. Henderson didn’t really arrange anything until after Don Redman left his band. Redman is the one who laid the foundation for arranging, along with Bill Challis, who wrote for Whiteman. They laid the foundation for big band jazz. Fletcher came along a little later, which is not to say he didn’t create great music.
JJM Benny Carter.
DM Carter was a marvel. He was such an unbelievable multiple talent that everything he did, he did sensationally well. He was a great arranger, a great alto player, and a wonderful trumpet player. He gave up the clarinet, unfortunately, but while he was playing it he was one of the greatest clarinet players. He was an amazing man, and he had an amazing career. I was very fortunate that I got to know Benny. He was a wonderful, wonderful man.
JJM John Hammond.
DM Hammond is an interesting proposition. I could talk about John for a long time. John did a lot of wonderful things, but John also did some things that were not so wonderful. He was in a position at times to make or break an artist. His relationship with Billie Holiday was kind of strange, for example. John was a unique guy in a position to really do what he wanted because he wasn’t dependent on anyone. He was a man of independent means, and he accomplished some wonderful things, but he was a strange duck.
JJM Peggy Lee.
DM Peggy was a wonderful singer. She doesn’t belong exclusively to jazz, but she could probably do as good a job in singing jazz as just about anybody. She was a very intelligent singer. She really knew what to do with a piece of material, whether it was something as unlikely as “Fever,” which came from Little Willie John, or a sophisticated Great American Songbook song. She was very special.
JJM Bud Powell.
DM Bud Powell’s contributions to bebop are underestimated. If you mention Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the next person out of your mouth should be Bud Powell. Bud mastered that language on the piano, and he contributed things harmonically and rhythmically that became an indelible part of the bebop textbook.
JJM John Coltrane.
DM John is a mystery to me. He was the last enormous influence in jazz. When we talk about people in the history of jazz who have had tremendous influence, they are Armstrong, Parker, Lester Young, and John Coltrane. But to me, John is the only one of the four whose influence was not necessarily all a positive one. He was a fascinating figure and a constant seeker who was never satisfied with anything he did. But, other people tried to absorb what he was doing, and it took them to places that were not necessarily that productive. So, his influence, while it was huge, and it is still there, may not have been for the best. But he is a fascinating figure, and his own contribution is without question a tremendous one.
JJM Art Pepper.
DM Art Pepper was a kind of quintessential jazz player. I would like to divorce him from his notoriety, because it was amazing what he was able to accomplish in spite of his life long drug habit. He was a tremendous improviser in its true sense. Improvisation is a word that is often misused or misunderstood, but Art was an improviser who had a tremendously fertile mind.
JJM Chet Baker.
DM Well, Chet We have this most recent book about him, which has been met with approval by some, and disapproval by others. To talk about Chet, coming right on the heels of Art…Art probably did a better job of handling his habit than Chet did, and it is unfortunate how his life came to an end. There were moments when Chet could do beautiful things. There really isn’t such a thing as a “natural,” but in a way that is what he was. He had a natural gift he certainly wasn’t musically disciplined. It is just totally surprising that he was able to go on as long as he did. Of course, a lot of his recordings especially from the later years are as a result of his willingness to record for just about anybody at the drop of a needle.
JJM Wayne Shorter.
DM Wayne is a great musical mind. He is fascinating, and you never know what he is going to come up with next. He has done beautiful things. He was an absolute, wonderful partner to Miles. I loved that group which was, in a way, its peak. Wayne is a fascinating musician, a great composer and a great player. He is also an odd person in many ways. We now have Michelle Mercer’s book about him, which tells us not so much about his music, but a lot about what he likes and who he is.
JJM Wynton Marsalis.
DM I got to know Wynton early on in his career. When he first came on the scene, I was still very actively involved with NARAS, the recording academy. Wynton’s first big breakthrough, in a way, was when he won those two Grammy’s, one for jazz and the other for classical. He was pretty young then, but he already had a brilliant mind. I will never forget what it meant for me to hear a young black man publicly acknowledge the greatness and the importance of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. That was revelatory. Wynton has done amazing things. He has been a controversial figure, and I am not sure I have been in agreement with everything he’s done musically, but he played an enormously important role in bringing jazz into the cultural mainstream, and in a way it had never been accepted before. Jazz at Lincoln Center is really a triumph, of sorts, and it is an incredible accomplishment. I think Wynton has grown along with what he has helped grow, and it is clear that he is a much more broad minded person now than he was when he first started. When you are twenty-something years old, your mind is more set than when you’re forty-something.
JJM I can’t let a jazz historian like you get away without posing this question. If you could have attended one jazz concert in history that you missed out on, what would it have been?
DM Oh, that is a tough question, because there are just so many things. One event that would have been fascinating to attend was the Carnival of Swing on Randall’s Island in 1938. This was really the first big outdoor jazz festival, although it wasn’t called that then. It is an event that is not sufficiently remembered. It was sponsored by the Daily News and by Martin Block, who was basically the first important radio personality you could say he was the first disc jockey. I believe there were twenty-four different groups, including the Count Basie band at its peak with Lester Young, and there was Duke Ellington playing Crescendo and Dimunedo in Blue, with the people dancing in the aisles to the point the cops had to calm them down. There was Stuff Smith, and there was John Kirby, and there was Hot Lips Page, and there was Roy Eldridge. This event led to a whole new way of presenting jazz, and it would have been something to see.
But there are so many other events that would have been amazing to attend as well. I would have liked being at the Lincoln Gardens the night Louis Armstrong joined King Oliver, or to have been at some of the jam sessions in Kansas City, where Lester Young would play Honeysuckle Rose for forty-five minutes, and to see Charlie Parker there as well. There are just so many things to think of, but I am lucky to have seen some of the great things I have during my career.
JJM Is there any other kind of work you wish you spent more time on during your career?
DM I remember Al Hirschfeld once told an interviewer that you can’t plan anything in life. Things just happen. While I have been in radio, a journalist, a teacher, an historian, and a concert and television producer, something I would have liked to do more of is produce records. I have produced reissues, but not any issued studio recordings.
JJM Dan, one last question for you. In a 1967 profile of the bassist Charlie Haden, you wrote, “Haden is trying to find some way to be creative in his art and make a living from a side effect from that.” Could it be said that you accomplished this during your own career?
DM Well, that is very kind of you to suggest. That is a very flattering way of putting it, and if that is what came out of my career, it would please me no end.
“My most enthusiastic early readers were my musician friends, and one thing led to another. What has served me best, I hope, is that I learned about the music not from books but from the people who created it, directly and indirectly. The greatest compliment I ever got was from Louis Armstrong. I had sent him an advance copy of the special issue of Down Beat we had prepared for his seventieth birthday, and for which he had gathered warm greetings from more than eighty musicians, spanning the length and breadth of the music. Within days, a letter arrived in that familiar hand (Pops always addressed his personal envelopes himself). ‘I received the magazine,’ it began, ‘and it knocked me on my ass!’ No raves from critics could ever top that.”
– Dan Morgenstern
Living With Jazz,
About Dan Morgenstern
Dan Morgenstern was raised in Vienna and Copehnagen and came to the United States in 1947. He has served as editor of Metronome, Jazz, and Down Beat and has won six Grammy Awards for Best Album Notes. Since 1976 he has been the director of Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies, one of the world’s largest archival collections of jazz materials. He lives in New Jersey.
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
DM As a boy, I saw the films Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Robin Hood was a terrific movie I must have seen it three times and I still like it. As a result, I was an Errol Flynn fan, who I thought was a dashing figure. As for a musician I admired, I saw Fats Waller perform when I was not quite nine years old, and he made a huge impression on me. So, my hero would be a cross between Fats and Errol Flynn. (I also had a big crush on Olivia De Havilland at the time, but that probably doesn’t qualify her as a hero. She’s still very much alive and still looks great, so I had a good eye, I guess.)
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This interview took place on February 4, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our conversation with critic Gary Giddins on jazz criticism