Interview by Molly Murphy with Katja von Schuttenbach
October 25, 2006
Edited by Don Ball, NEA
SEEING FATS WALLER
Q: I find that a lot of people who are involved in music usually had some formative experience when they were a child where they either heard a recording or they heard a live concert and it really resonated with them. Did you have any experiences like that, any live concert that you saw as a kid?
Dan Morgenstern: Well that's easy, because as you know, I grew up in Europe where there wasn't exactly an abundance of live jazz, and of course it more or less terminated when World War Two broke out. But luckily Fats Waller came to Copenhagen in the fall of 1938, shortly after I had arrived there. And my mother, God bless her, got tickets for one of Fat's several concerts. And seeing Fats Waller in the flesh -- and there was a lot of flesh there -- was quite an amazing experience. I forget -- I was not quite 9 years old, but old enough to really be impressed by this wonderful, vibrant pianist. He did a solo act. He didn't have his combo with him so he just played piano and sang, and he was remarkable—a remarkable experience.
Q: So was it his presence or was it what he was playing? Was it the sound of the music?
Dan Morgenstern: No, it was pretty much everything; Fats was huge. Also, at that point in time, I hadn't seen too many black people. In Vienna where I had been before that, I think there was a very old lady who I used to see in the street. I think she was somebody's widow or whatever. But, you know, it was very rare. And naturally I'd see movies and so on. But he was really the first African American that I was exposed to at any great length and proximity, and he was an amazing performer. As we know, unfortunately there isn't enough of him on film, but there is sufficient to give you an impression of what he was like. He was a very, very vibrant performer; he had a very expressive face. He used to move his eyebrows up and down, and he was very funny. I mean, he would do serious stuff too, did some serious playing, but he was very funny, and certainly that was entertaining for a young kid. But most of all I think it was his beat because he had fabulous time. And I liked music anyway; I mean I had already struggled with the violin. I was taking violin lessons, and I had been exposed to quite a bit of live music, although most of it was classical, but also some entertainment stuff. And I already liked records. I had the little beginnings of a record collection.
Q: So had you heard any American jazz?
Dan Morgenstern: Yes, on records. There wasn't much on radio, but once I got to Denmark, there was more there, needless to say, than in Austria or on German radio under the Nazis. My mother and her younger siblings had some dance records and stuff, which they had when they were teenagers, and that was mostly from the '20s, but some of it turned out in retrospect to be jazzy.
This is Swing Era, you know, this is 1938. And the Swing Era was definitely resonant in Europe as well. So very shortly after that, the Mills Brothers came to Copenhagen and I saw them, and they may not be strictly jazz but they were very hip actually. And then the Hot Quintet of the Hot Club of France with Stéphane Grappelli -- who since I was taking violin lessons he should have been the one I was most impressed with -- but I was most impressed with Django [Reinhardt, jazz guitarist]. Django had such terrific time and his solos were really like very dramatic statements. But from then on I was more or less hooked.
Q: Do you remember from those early days of your record collecting what your most treasured possession was in that collection?
Dan Morgenstern: Well I think after I heard Fats Waller, naturally, I had to have to some Fats Waller records. But actually one of my favorites when I was a kid was Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald; there's a thing called "The Dipsy Doodle," which is something that would appeal to a kid who didn't know that much English, and it had really nonsense lyrics with "The cow jumped over the moon," and stuff like that. But the thing about that record was that after Ella's vocal -- and Ella, of course, was barely out of her teens at that point in time herself -- there was a terrific trombone solo by Sandy Williams which got to me. And then there was the Benny Goodman Quartet. I had a record which related to Fats because one side was "Handful of Keys," which was a great Fats Waller composition, performed by the quartet, with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, and Teddy did a great piano solo in that. But the other side was actually an Italian little ditty called "Vienne." So these were things that I liked. And then not too much later, I was at a boarding school in Denmark and I had my little record collection and the older kids wanted to borrow my records when they wanted to have a little dance or something on the weekend. And I said, "You can have my records but I come with them"; you know, because I wouldn't let them out of my hands. So then I got to hobnob with the older kids there and I had a crush on one of the girls...
Q: You have mentioned that your first night in New York City, the spring of 1947, you saw Dizzy Gillespie on your very first night.
Dan Morgenstern: No, I didn't see Dizzy on my first night in New York, but on my first night in New York I listened to the radio and I had this mistaken impression that I would find a lot of jazz on the radio. This, of course, is in the days when it was AM only -- 1947. And I finally found something at the tail end of the dial that was Symphony Sid. Symphony Sid was not yet as famous as he became later, but there was Symphony Sid, and at that time I was sure he was black because he cultivated that. I heard a little bit of something and then he talked and he did commercials, which I had no relationship to at that time. And then he played Dizzy's "I Can't Get Started." And I knew the tune, I knew the tune from Bunny Berrigan's famous record, which I definitely had heard a number of times. Also Billie Holiday had recorded it. But Dizzy's version was very different and it sounded weird to me because of all the dissonant background. It's a beautiful record, which is all Dizzy. He takes it much slower than Berrigan did, and sort of turns it into a dirge. So that was really my introduction to bebop.
There was some hint of bebop in Denmark, but because the bebop records were on the small labels, like Savoir and Music Craft and so on, those were not really imported, and it was still not too long after the war. But there was a record store in Copenhagen that had one of the Music Craft's [albums], and they would play it for you, but you had to pay the equivalent of it. You couldn't buy it, but you could listen to it; you'd pay the equivalent of about five bucks to hear it. So you could go with some friends and chip in to hear it. But that wasn't enough to give me any idea of what it was. In my very brief appearance in Ken Burns' Jazz, I say that when I first came to New York, unlike most people who wanted to see The Empire State Building or something like that, I wanted to see 52nd Street.
Q: Had you heard Symphony Sid live?
Dan Morgenstern: Symphony Sid at the time when I first heard him was not yet doing live broadcasts but he started very soon. I think this was '47; by '48 he was broadcasting from The Royal Roost, which was the predecessor of Birdland; it's actually owned by the same people and it was just down the street a bit—it was on 47th and 7th. Symphony Sid dubbed it the Metropolitan Bopera House. And then, you know, Birdland of course was named for Charlie Parker. But yes, he broadcast from The Roost. It wasn't live every night, if I remember it, but there'd be a segment that was live. And then once Birdland opened he had a booth there and was a fixture there.
Sid wasn't exactly a master of the English language and sometimes he messed up the musicians' names too, and then he would apologize. Most of the time he was really, you know, pretty loaded. But he had a great radio voice, a wonderful radio voice. And he never messed up the commercials. Those he did right.
He was a character, Sid was. John Hammond told me that he first met Symphony Sid in the early '30s when Sid was not yet "Symphony" but Sid Torin and was a clerk in a record store on 14th Street, which John would frequent because they had a lot of used 78s that were race records; you know, blues and jazz, Paramount, Sony. And he said that Sid used to save the Paramounts for John. So he had quite a background in pre-bop.
CRITICS AND ADVOCATES
Q: I read that before you even started a career in writing about jazz and teaching about jazz, that your biggest pleasure was to hang out around the musicians. And you made some very famous musician friends early on.
Dan Morgenstern: Well I had no idea that I was going to wind up being involved in jazz as any kind of professional person. I was a fan, but I was a pretty dedicated fan, and actually to the chagrin of my parents I hung out a lot. I had a job; I wanted to be a journalist. Actually my first ambition was to be a movie director, but my father who had already spent a year and a half of his American life living in L.A. said no. He had friends there and I said, "I want to go to Hollywood; you know people there." And he said, "No." He said, "If you go to California you'll get the wrong idea of what this country is all about." He didn't want me to spend my formative American years in Hollywood. So anyway I had a job at Time/Life. They had something called The March of Time. When I went to see a very nice man there, he said there's something called television that has just come on the scene and he said within a year or two we'll be out of business. The March of Time was a weekly news documentary that Time/Life produced. And he was right. Those of you who know Citizen Kane will know that there's a satire sort of on The March of Time with Xanadu and Charles Foster Kane who created it, and so on. So anyway I wound up with Time/Life and I spent most of my money, what little money I was making, on records and on hanging out in jazz clubs, which you could do then for relatively little money if you'd learned how to nurse a beer and stuff like that.
I got to know quite a few musicians and I became very friendly with an unknown, unsung, unrecorded trumpet player named Nat Lorber; everybody called him Face. Musicians were very fond of him. At the time he was kind of a protégé of Hot Lips Page, who was a wonderful trumpet player and singer, one of the greatest blues singers ever. With Nat, after I met Lips, we'd go to Harlem at the after-hours scene, and then there was downtown in the Village, there was a lot of jazz, and of course there was 52nd Street. So I got to know a lot of musicians and I absorbed quite a bit. Nat Hentoff, in his memoirs about growing up in Boston, he has a chapter called "Night School at the Savoy." The Savoy was a club in Boston. Well my night school was that hanging out and it turned out to be a very important experience because I also learned to hate jazz critics. No, I would read this stuff and I would say, well, you know, what has this got to do with [the music]? All the big warfare that was going on then between bebop and so called moldy figs who were traditional fans or whatnot. But the musicians and the music didn't reflect all that.
Q: You said that you were wary of critics, but I know you admired Nat Hentoff's writing. So what in Nat's writing appealed to you and what did you take to put into your own style that was not like what you had read before and that you didn't like as much?
Dan Morgenstern: Well in spite of my general aversion to critics, and not to all critics, I found stuff. Naturally I learned from reading writing about jazz, and I wouldn't dismiss everybody. But somebody who seemed different to me was Nat Hentoff who was then Down Beat's Boston correspondent but also had started doing quite a lot of liner notes. And it was his liner notes, most of them for Norman Grantz, that really impressed me. He'd written about Roy Eldridge and other people that I liked a lot. So we invited him to come to Brandeis and give a talk about jazz. And he also had a very good radio program in Boston at the time, which covered everything from classical to jazz, on what was then very early FM. And so I showed him some things I had written for the school paper and he said, "Well you should write more."
Nat's approach was not one of always setting up a comparison, of shunting people into some kind of historical ghetto, so to speak. I remember a typical example: there was a review in Down Beat of a fine record under Illinois Jacquet's name and was Illinois and Roy [Eldridge], and [the review] dismissed this record saying, this would've been great 15 years ago but these guys said what they had to say. I hated that kind of stuff. And Nat was different. Nat was very open and appreciated all kinds of music from traditional to contemporary, and gave it all a fair shake, and he had good ears. That was what I appreciated.
Q: You think of yourself more as an advocate than a critic, as far as terminology.
Dan Morgenstern: I never liked to be called a critic because I did a lot of writing, I started as a writer, but fairly early in my career as a jazz journalist I became an editor. I never really relished the term critic because I think very little of what you find in the average jazz writing for periodicals and newspapers and so on could really be called criticism. It's reviewing. Reviewing is not the same as criticism. There are some very fine jazz critics; Martin Williams was a superb jazz critic. Whitney Balliett was a superb interviewer, and I think Whitney Balliett is a fine critic, but I think his main contribution has been that he's a brilliant interviewer who knows how to really get something out of people. But I always considered myself more of a reporter than a critic, and I think what I really wanted to do, if I was interviewing a musician, I wanted to let him or her speak for themselves rather than imposing my own opinion on them. And as an editor I'd try to be as fair as possible to all deserving artists. And an advocate is something that I'm very pleased about, to be called a jazz advocate, because after I stopped being primarily a writer, editor, journalist, I moved into another realm with the Institute, which was something that was totally unexpected to me but turned out to be a very fortuitous event. I've been there for over 30 years now and it's been a great experience to really work on preserving and making accessible the legacy of this wonderful music.
Q: Do you sort of realize the impact that you've had on listeners and on helping them learn about the music and appreciate the music?
Dan Morgenstern: Initially, when I was still a little younger, I would be taken aback somewhat by being approached by some person, male or female, in their 40s telling me how much they were influenced by reading my Down Beat record reviews and how they went out and got something and then really became fans of a particular artist. That would make me very happy. And nowadays -- when you do radio, you never know who's out there listening -- I really get a kick out of when one of my musician friends would tell me, "Oh, I was driving home from the airport and I caught your show [Jazz from the Archives] about so and so..." You know, that's great. That's when you know that you're reaching somebody. It's nice to sometimes get a letter from somebody out of the clear blue sky just thanking you for whatever it is. That's very gratifying, it is indeed.
Q: You organized a concert with Art Tatum in Boston.
Dan Morgenstern: Let's see, I got drafted, I was in the Army, and the Army sent me back to Europe. I was in Germany for most of my two years, and then I came back. There was the G.I. Bill, so I decided to go back to school. European education is different from American education, so I was not interested really in continuing my studies in something that seemed very elementary to me. But then I decided that I should really take advantage of this. So I wound up at Brandeis where my father had friends. That was a very new school then. In fact when I got there in January '53, the first class had just graduated, the Class of '52. So, you know, it was a small school and it had a very good faculty. I wound up eventually becoming editor of the school paper, but I had to use my influence. There was a handful of jazz fans, and there was some money for cultural presentations on campus, but nobody was doing any jazz.
So Art Tatum was at Storyville and I'd gotten to know George Wein a little bit. Newport had just started; I think this was in '55. The first group we brought in was Stan Getz, a nice group with Bob Brookmeyer and so on. But then there was Tatum and that was great because he was working with a trio then, had been working with a trio for many years. But I wanted him solo and he was only too happy to do that. So we got him on a Saturday afternoon, and got the best piano on campus and had it tuned and everything. And he gave a wonderful concert. And I think on an experience of driving him back to Boston; we were talking, you know, to thank him for doing this, and he said, "I should thank you because this is the first time I've done a solo concert all by myself." And he said, "I've played solo on a bill with other attractions but I've never done a complete solo recital." And I think in retrospect that may be one of the things that got me to eventually become involved in the way that I did because that was a serious, serious injustice. And, you know, Art died just barely a little more than a year after that. And he should have had, by all that, should have had a brilliant solo career. But the times were not right for that. And we're lucky that Norman Grantz recorded him so much, and other people, that he did get recorded as much as he did.
THE INSTITUTE OF JAZZ STUDIES
Q: Tell us a little bit about The Institute of Jazz Studies.
Dan Morgenstern: Well the Institute is something that I could talk about for hours. Basically the Institute is a very large collection of all kinds of materials related to the music, and it is probably -- although we don't like to claim this unequivocally -- the largest collection of this kind of materials under one roof. Certainly the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian have tons of stuff, but it's not broken out specifically in the category. We also believe in making materials that we have accessible; we believe in access not in squirreling it away. We believe in preservation, which is very important.
The collection came to Rutgers in 1967. It was founded by Marshall Sterns, who was one of the first really serious American jazz scholars. I don't think Marshall, although he did write reviews and stuff, would have called himself a critic. He certainly was a jazz advocate, but he accumulated this wonderful collection, which was housed in his big apartment in Greenwich Village. He was an English professor by trade; he was a jazz scholar by avocation. And he decided to incorporate the collection as the Institute of Jazz Studies, as a nonprofit, and open it by appointment to people who wanted to do jazz research because there was no place where you could do that then. This was in 1952. And at the same time he began to actively solicit donations and contributions too. He had a very impressive Board of Advisors and so on. Marshall was active as a lecturer. He was active as an advisor to the State Department, once the State Department got into using jazz as a cultural weapon in the Cold War, notably with people like Armstrong and Ellington. Then Marshall, before his death, had looked for an institution to take it over, and by the time of the Civil Rights movement and the opening up of Black Studies in colleges and universities, the atmosphere had changed and became more receptive to jazz. Nevertheless, though Marshall had originally offered it to Fisk and Howard, they turned it down at the time because there was still some cultural resistance to jazz and blues among middle-class blacks. So it came to Rutgers because Rutgers then had a president named Mason Gross whose real interest was American popular culture. He even had a television show on what was then called Educational Television about that very subject. So there were people who had his ear who knew Marshall and the value of this collection. So he made arrangements for it to be transferred to Rutgers, and he had expected to have an orderly transition over a period of time, but then suddenly Marshall dropped dead of a massive heart attack. He was only 58-years-old, and tall and thin and didn't look like a likely candidate for that, but...
So it came to Rutgers and they weren't really prepared for it. By 1976, they had hired a part-time curator, and that was Ed Berger, and then they hired me and I was the first one to have the title of Director. There had been Chris White, the bassist, who was a faculty member in the Music Faculty at Rutgers, and had the title of Executive Director, but he was really mainly a music professor. So it was a part-time thing for him. So I became the first full-time Director of this. And my only staff was Ed half-time. So Ed converted to full-time after awhile, and then we started plotting to do things like trying to get some grants and so on. So it moved along. And it was Ed and I and Vincent Pelote -- who was then a Music major. The Music Department was on the same floor, right opposite the Institute at the time, and Vincent was a volunteer. But we snared him and sent him to Library School, and then he became our librarian. So the three of us have been together for 30 years now, and added other people. And the collection has grown about six-fold since it came to Rutgers. It's been a very, very gratifying experience.
There was the Oral History Project, which was funded by NEA, and we have lots of treasures, including musical instruments that belonged to famous musicians. We have Lester Young's horn, which Marshall got already from him, the one that he used with Basie. And along with that we have a fake gardenia that belonged to Billie Holiday, and they sort of make a nice couple. And we have Ben Webster and we have Roy Eldridge and we even have a Miles Davis green trumpet, but it's a trumpet in C; it's got his name on it, but I don't think he used it very much. And we have manuscripts, beautiful Armstrong handwritten manuscripts, and letters typed in green ribbon on yellow paper, it says Satchmo on top, and a 13-page letter to Leonard Feather, single spaced.
BILLIE, SATCHMO, AND HOT LIPS
Q: Hot Lips Page, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong: would you mind addressing each of those musicians and just talking about what qualities you love in their playing, maybe as though you're writing liner notes to kind of a general audience?
Dan Morgenstern: Billie Holiday had a kind of magic with a song. She was greatly inspired by Louis Armstrong, and by Bessie Smith she said, but Louis was the outstanding influence on her. Carmen McRae, who knew Billie very well, said that the only time that Billie Holliday was really at ease with herself and with the world was when she was singing, when she was performing. She did not have a happy life, as we know, but she immersed herself totally in her music and that had a kind of magic quality. So if you caught Billie live and she was on form, it was quite something, it would really pull you in. And what she could do with a song, a popular song -- I'll give you a for instance. There's a beautiful recording, a fairly late Billie, her with Oscar Peterson, doing "These Foolish Things." It's just something that transforms that into real poetry; it's mostly the emotional content that gets you.
When I was at Brandeis on the G.I. Bill, and I think I had blown most of my monthly allowance in taking my first girlfriend at Brandeis to see Billie Holiday at a club in Boston -- it kept having fires; it closed periodically because I think management had something to do with that, so they could collect some insurance. Anyway, this was in 1953, which is supposed to be already Billie's declining period. But she was in wonderful form. So I'd expected to be there for one set; Flip Phillips was opposite her with a very nice quartet; so that didn't hurt. But we decided after the first set -- it was on a weekend so there were three sets -- we had to stay for the second set. And then we decided we had to stay for the third set too. My lady friend, who had never seen Billie and knew very little about jazz, was totally transfixed by her. (She was quite a good poet actually, this lady, and she later became a French professor.) She was totally taken with Billie, and of course I was too. I had seen Billie before, but she was in rare form. So we stayed for the third set. When Billie was beginning to get ready for the third set, and we were sitting up front, she saw that we were still there. So she came over to the table and sat down with us and of course I said, "Miss Holiday, can I buy you a drink?" and she said, "No, let me buy you one." She wanted to know why we were still there. And of course we told her how much we loved her, and it was quite an experience.
Louis could take any kind of material, no matter how tawdry, and he could transform it into something that had artistic, emotional meaning. And the best example of that maybe is "Hello Dolly," which is a trifle, it's nothing. Even he had forgotten that after he recorded it, and then once the record came out everybody started asking for it, and he'd scratch his head and ask his trombonist and friend, Trummy Young, "What's Dolly? Oh, that's that record we made a few months ago." So then they had to go out and get it to relearn it. But, you know, he put so much into that, even if it's a piece of fluff, and he forgot it the moment after he'd done it. Then, of course, he thrived on it. He could just walk out on stage in front of several thousand people and immediately establish intimate rapport with them. And then there was the sound of his horn, which as well as it was captured by a recording device, I think anyone who really knows music -- and this is true of classical musicians and of singers, opera singers -- knows you can't really replicate what that sound is like live, and Louis's trumpet sound was just astonishing. It was so deep and dense and it just went right through you.
Hot Lips Page was greatly inspired by Louis Armstrong, but he had his own thing. Lips was from Texas and he had some of that Texas blues quality. He was a master at jam sessions, which has more or less vanished. Well, we still have sessions occasionally but not like there used to be. He just knew how to spark a jam session. He would sort of without doing anything in the way of asserting himself in any kind of unpleasant way, he just sort of took over because he had so much experience. And he was a master at setting riffs. Actually we do know that he's responsible for the brass portions of the famous "One O'Clock Jump." A man named Buster Smith who had worked with him in The Blue Devils, a famous band from the Midwest in the '20's, did the reeds part and Lips did the brass part. So he was a master at setting riffs. He could do that for a half an hour, setting different riffs behind all the soloists and things. He was also like his friend Count Basie and they had worked together in Kansas City; he was a master of setting tempos. But again what was unique about Lips was the quality he had as a communicator. And he was a master at working a plunger with the trumpet and growling. He died much too young. If he had lived just a little longer he would have benefited greatly from the increasing popularity with a wider and whiter audience for the blues that benefited B.B. King and, most of all, Ray Charles. Lips could've held his own with Ray Charles. And once that music really came into full focus and had a resonance in the marketplace, Lips would've been a great star. But unfortunately he didn't live to experience that.