News flash: A two-CD set featuring 24 never-before released Louis Armstrong recordings from 1937 are coming from Music Masters early next year.
Even better news—Dan is writing the album's liner notes.
For those unfamiliar with Dan, he humbly describes himself as a "jazz advocate." In truth, he's one of the nation's most respected jazz historians and authors as well as an archivist, editor and educator who has been active in jazz since 1958. As director of Rutgers' Institute of Jazz Studies, he is responsible for the world's largest collection of jazz-related materials. In addition to being jazz's man of letters, the 78-year-old Morgenstern is a genuinely nice guy with an unbridled passion for the joy jazz brings.
Dan has written and contributed to dozens of jazz books—including Living With Jazz and Jazz People—and has won seven Grammys for his album liner notes. He is the former editor of Metronome, Jazz and Down Beat magazines, and a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (Phil Woods, Frank Wess, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Curtis Fuller, Ramsey Lewis and Jimmy Scott were the other 2007 Jazz Masters named).
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Dan, we spoke about the soon-to-arrive Louis Armstrong collection, what it takes to write liner notes, a couple of dicey moments with jazz musicians over the years, and why critics must remain objective:
JazzWax: Dan, you’ve won seven Grammys for your album liner notes. What are you working on now?
Dan Morgenstern: I’m writing the liner notes for a double CD of Louis Armstrong recordings from a 1937 NBC radio show. It’s a very exciting set. Many of the 24 tracks on the first CD have never been released before in any format—not even as bootlegs. The second CD features home recordings from Louis’ private tapes, including some music and conversation. The set is due early next year from Music Masters and will feature great big-band material. Some of the songs in the set were never recorded by Armstrong—not before 1937 or after.
JW: Where were these recordings hiding?
DM: They were in Armstrong’s own personal collection in the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College. The masters were Louis' private recordings of a weekly radio show he hosted in the spring of 1937.
The recordings were taken off the air and cut onto 12-inch acetate discs. For three months in 1937, Armstrong was the temporary replacement for singer Rudy Vallee, who was on holiday in Britain. Louis subbing for Rudy Vallee isn’t as surprising as you’d think. Vallee was a big fan of Louis’ and even wrote the introduction to Louis’ first autobiography in 1936, Swing That Music.
In 1937, Vallee had a longstanding weekly radio show on the NBC radio network that was sponsored by Fleischmann’s Yeast. When Louis took over the show it was called Harlem and featured Louis and his band, a comedy team and changing cast of musical guests. These recordings represent the first time a black artist was host of a nationally sponsored radio show. The sound quality is excellent thanks to a fine restoration job by Doug Pomeroy. What has been eliminated for this CD set is the show banter. You just hear Louis and his band.
JW: How do you approach writing liner notes?
DM: As a writer, the most important challenge I face is to say something that will enhance the listeners’ enjoyment of the music. The key is the right mix of biographical and musical information and what’s taking place on the recordings. For the biographical section, I like to write about what the artist was doing at the time the recordings were made. As for the performances, I always try to write about things that the listener might not immediately notice.
JW: Is it still a thrill to see your notes on an album?
DM: Oh, yes. One of my great pleasures as a writer in general is for someone to tell me that something I wrote—a book, an article, liner notes—exposed them to a specific artist or jazz in general. These days, I usually hear this from people of a certain age [laughs].
Recently someone came up to me and said, 'When I was in college I read your Down Beat review of Dexter Gordon’s The Panther and it opened a lifelong involvement in jazz.' That was gratifying to me. Disc jockeys also tell me that they find my liner notes useful because the notes tell them who's soloing on tracks, if a song is slow or fast, and other details helpful in programming.
JW: What about research?
DM: I often do quite a bit of research on the artist and the moment in time when the recordings were made. I have an advantage, in that I’m here at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, where reference materials are at my fingertips. If I’m doing the liner notes for an album of a contemporary musician, then I want to interview the artist and/or people who know the artist well.
JW: Did you ever write a review or interview that angered a jazz musician?
DM: Actually, I’ve been kind of lucky in that regard. I’ve always tried to be careful not to misrepresent what musicians say for the sake of a catchy headline. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, that was difficult, since magazines were trying to stand out and anything controversial made for good copy.
When I spoke with jazz musicians back then, invariably something would be said during the interview that was an aside or said in a certain context. If I had taken those comments out of context and put them in print to boost a magazine’s visibility, it would have annoyed or frustrated the artist, which is unfair.
JW: No one ever became angry?
DM: There were only two instances. The first occurred in the 1960s, after I reviewed the Newport Jazz Festival and noted that Elvin Jones’ drumming was too loud. The next time I saw Elvin, he cornered me. He was big and could look fierce with those funny teeth that made him look like a dragon. After he expressed his displeasure, I told him that he indeed sounded loud and that maybe he wasn’t aware that the people doing the sound put too much juice on the drums and that I probably should have worded it that way. Elvin understood. Afterward we were the best of friends again. I’ve found that artists don’t bear grudges when you explain to them why you were critical.
JW: What was the second instance?
DM: It occurred in May 1965, when George Russell returned to New York between stays in Europe. We talked about what was going on in contemporary jazz here and abroad. George was a serious composer who had developed his own concept of Lydian tonality and was an intellectual about the concept of freedom in jazz. During the interview, he expressed certain reservations about the new free-form jazz. After his comments appeared in Down Beat, some avant-garde jazz musicians must have hit on him, complaining that it was hard enough to attract audiences without those kind of remarks.
JW: Why, what happened?
DM: To appear politically correct, George accused me in a letter to the Down Beat editor of misquoting him, which wasn’t true. I was pretty upset about it, and my editor, Don DeMichael, backed me up when printing George's letter. It's all water under the bridge now.
JW: Did you ever worry that becoming too close with jazz musicians could compromise your objectivity?
DM: You have to be very careful not to let the bonds between you and musicians cloud what you’re saying. If you’re a writer, your responsibility always is to the reader or listener. If you shortchange your audience, you’ll lose your credibility. I tried to avoid such conflicts by simply not writing about bad performances unless I had to. At that point, I’d always frame my remarks by saying that the artist didn’t have a particularly good night rather than completely trashing him.
JW: Isn't that pulling your punches?
DM: Not at all. It's being honest. As a writer, you always want to remain a certain distance from the artist so your objectivity isn't clouded. Or you need to be frank upfront with the reader by saying from the outset, 'This is someone I know well.' Again, how the reader perceives you and your agenda means everything to your integrity and reputation.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Dan Morgenstern talks about the rise of drugs in jazz after World War II, the factors that allowed rock to overtake jazz's popularity with younger listeners, the CDs he reaches for first when he has down time—and three underappreciated jazz musicians who require a fresh listen.
JazzWax list: Dan Morgenstern won Grammys for the following albums:
- 2007—If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! (Fats Waller)
- 1995—Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man 1923-1934
- 1991—Brownie: The Complete EmArcy Recordings of Clifford Brown
- 1982—Erroll Garner: Master of the Keyboard
- 1977—The Changing Face of Harlem: The Savoy Sessions (various artists)
- 1975—The Hawk Flies (Coleman Hawkins)
- 1974—God Is In the House (Art Tatum)
JazzWax video clip: To see a fabulous video biography of Dan Morgenstern prepared by the National Endowment for the Arts, go here, scroll to the yellow "watch video" link and click on it.