Since 1958, Dan Morgenstern has written extensively about virtually every major jazz artist and their recordings. His album liner notes are legendary— diligently imparting details about musicians and their art in a writing style that's both inviting and informative.
Few can match Dan's deft ability to educate and entertain. I think it's fair to say that his album liner notes rise to the same level of creative intensity and delight as the artists he's writing about. There's nothing quite like listening to, say, The Complete EmArcy Recordings of Clifford Brown, while reading and thinking about what Dan is relating in the notes. You always know more when Dan is guiding you through the music.
The trick, Dan says, is blending the right mix of biographical information with overlooked details about the music you're listening to. In effect, Dan specializes in storytelling, which is all but a lost art in any form of writing today.
Considering Dan's prolific output, it's hard to know how he gets so much done, since his day job is director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. In addition to winning seven Grammys for album liner notes—including one this year for a Fats Waller box—Dan was named a 2007 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. If you write about jazz, Dan is an inspiration.
In this second installment of my two-part interview with Dan, he talks about the rise of drugs in jazz—and the factors that allowed rock to replace jazz as America's most popular music. Dan also recommends seven essential jazz CDs—and names three jazz artists who he says deserve greater recognition:
JazzWax: Dan, why did so many jazz artists turn to drugs in the 1940s and 1950s? Was it fear of improvising in front of live, critical audiences?
Dan Morgenstern: That anxiety played a role, but there were many other factors. Drugs in jazz probably started during World War II, with the easy accessibility of morphine. Before World War II, there was little drug availability or drug use among jazz musicians. There was plenty of pot smoking and drinking, since many musicians during prohibition played in speakeasies. Playing jazz is very strenuous and challenging, and booze and pot were there to take the edge off.
JW: What role did World War II play?
DM: Hard-core drug use started after guys who had become addicted to morphine came out of the service. Maybe they had received a shot of morphine for pain or illness and got used to it. If you were in the war, there were always ways to get more morphine from medics to ease such problems. As these servicemen were discharged, they returned to society. It takes only one or two people to get anything started.
Charlie Parker was the one who got the drug scene started in jazz, and his talent and drug use affected a lot of younger players who admired him. They thought using drugs would help them play better, even though Parker discouraged other musicians from using drugs. Drug use also was a social thing for musicians at the time. It had to do with the feeling of being an outsider, of not being accepted by the public, and being in an insular, closed community of musicians.
JW: But there were reasons for drug use other than trying to be like Bird, yes?
DM: Other musicians used drugs so that when they played in a club situation, they could distance themselves from the tension of performing and close themselves off from mainstream audiences. Everyone who started taking drugs thought they could deal with it. No one took drugs thinking they would ever get hooked. But most of them did, and many died too soon.
JW: You were the editor of Metronome, Jazz and Down Beat magazines in the 1960s when rock took hold. How did that happen?
DM: Jazz was already facing problems by the time rock really started to win over large numbers of young listeners starting in 1964. There was a time in this country when jazz was part of the popular music mainstream. It was played by big bands, and people danced to it. People who weren’t really jazz fans consumed the music and enjoyed it. In addition, great American composers wrote terrific songs for shows that were easily adapted by jazz bands.
JW: What changed?
DM: During and after World War II, jazz became more complex—and more demanding for the listener. Audiences began to shrink. Even within the jazz-listening fan base, there was a deep split between the 'moldy figs,' who loved swing, and the radical bepoppers. The rivalry between these two camps became quite intense, and the battle turned off many people unnecessarily and made them less open minded to the new jazz.
JW: How did jazz lose its young fans?
DM: Jazz musicians stopped playing for dancers, and they lost gigs—and an even larger slice of their audience. By the early 1950s, R&B, followed by rock in the early 1960s, started capturing more young listeners who wanted music to dance to and no longer identified with jazz. Also, a racist attitude toward jazz was emerging that didn’t exist before. By 1964, jazz was already weakened by internal and external changes, and it didn’t take much for rock to become more popular, especially with teens.
JW: How were jazz magazines affected?
DM: In 1967, when I took over as editor of Down Beat, the magazine was being reshaped by these changes. Curiously, the pressures we faced at the magazine didn’t come from our jazz readership. Circulation was flat but it wasn’t declining. Instead, it was the advertiser base that was changing. As rock records became hot sellers, record companies devoted fewer ad dollars to their jazz labels. We became more dependent on ads from the makers of instruments and accessories.
JW: What was the result?
DM: Advertisers put pressure on us to feature more rock coverage in our pages. We had no choice but to make changes. After all, a magazine pays its bills with advertisers’ dollars, not subscription checks. But when we tried to cover rock seriously, our jazz readers threatened to cancel. So we tried to find people who could write about rock intelligently. And we covered bands like Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago that were influenced by jazz. Eventually readers came around.
JW: Which jazz albums still move you most today?
DM: I listen to a lot of contemporary recordings as well as reissues. One of the most exciting new albums I’ve heard is Kids: Duets Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with Hank Jones and Joe Lovano. It’s incredible music.
But what I keep coming back to when I reach for a CD is the music I grew up with in the 1930s and 1940s. These recordings are musts for anyone's collection:
The Tatum Group Masterpiece (Pablo) are fantastic. They capture Art Tatum with Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and many other superb musicians. You can buy the recordings as individual CDs—or as a box, The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces. The box is out of print but is probably available used online.
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald together are extraordinary. The best of their Verve recordings are available on a single CD—The Best of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Polygram). Or you can buy The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Polygram) on a three-CD set. The sessions combine the most beautiful American songs with the most beautiful treatments. And Louis is so great on there.
Count Basie’s recordings with Lester Young still swing. This material includes Basie’s output for the Decca and Columbia labels. You’ll find these recordings on Count Basie: Complete Original American Decca Recordings (Definitive Classics) and Count Basie: The Complete 1936-1941 Columbia Recordings (Definitive Spain).
And finally, Charlie Parker's Savoy and Dial recordings are fantastic. All of these sessions have been combined on several different boxes, including Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes (Savoy).
JW: What three jazz musicians have been overlooked and are worthy of greater listener attention?
DM: I’d have to say clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, pianist Jimmy Rowles, and Tony Fruscella, a wonderfully fluid trumpet player who had terrible trouble with narcotics. He left the jazz scene in the 1960s and died young in 1969. Fruscella’s recordings with Stan Getz in 1955 and his Atlantic album, Tony Fruscella, are excellent. They are available separately—or together on the box, Tony Fruscella: The Complete Works (Jazz Factory).