Dan Morgenstern is an eight-time Grammy winner for his work on album notes such as Art Tatum’s God is in the House (1973, Morgenstern’s first Grammy) and, most recently for the 2010 anthology, The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions [1935-1946].
Today in a 2pm talk presented by the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, the esteemed NEA Jazz Master talked about his life and many rich experiences with the music and musicians over the last several decades.
Morgenstern was born in Germany and spent his young life in Austria, Denmark, and Sweden before moving to the US in 1947. “As you know,” he began his talk, “I started out in some people call ‘the other side of the pond’ “. He recalled his young “lightbulb” moment being a Fats Waller concert his mother took him to in Copenhagen. “Fats had those eyebrows – plus he was singing in English. I couldn’t understand most of what he said but the message came across.”
He said he began seriously collecting jazz records at age 15, during his school years away from home: “Sweden was very jazz-minded, there was a lot of jazz on the radio.” Another formative experience came late in 1946 when an American jazz band came to visit Copenhagen – the first, since the end of the second World War. Don Redman was the bandleader of a group that also included a very young hotshot pianist…named Billy Taylor. Shortly after that memorable concert, Morgenstern moved to the US. He was 18 years old. And, yes, there’s a good quote about that too: “Most people when they come to New York want to see Times Square. I wanted to see 52nd Street.” The heart of Manhattan jazz was calling to him, even as a teenager.
New York’s jazz scene did not disappoint, it didn’t take the young man long to establish a friendship with trumpeter and bandleader Hot Lips Page, by then a fixture of the city’s club scene. “Hot Lips knew Harlem like the back of his hand. He knew all of the music places, both legal and…after hours.”
The whole afternoon went like that, with Morgenstern relating story after interesting first-hand story about the people, places and times that form the very foundation of jazz music and culture. He’s been there in one way or the other for it all since the 1940s. Another good one was the story of his first introduction to Louis Armstrong. It was backstage, in Armstrong’s dressing room, with several other people in the room. Someone handed Armstrong “a beautifully wrapped rose, with the message that it was a gift from (the actress) Tallulah Bankhead. He extracted from it a perfectly rolled joint.”
It was also a real treat at the end of the talk for Morgenstern to be joined by Discover Jazz Festival critic-in-residence Bob Blumenthal for a Q&A session, wherein Blumenthal shared many of his own charming anecdotes and recollections.
Among the best was his first encounter with Charles Mingus, as a young reporter hoping to interview the legendary bassist/composer/bandleader. Blumenthan recalled entering the Boston club where Mingus and his band were reported to be rehearsing for their upcoming week-long engagement. “I walked in and saw the band sitting at the bar. So I walked up to Mingus and very timidly tapped him on the elbow and said, “Mr. Mingus I’d like to interview you.” Mingus turned around and snapped, “SHIT man, can’t you see we’re rehearsing?” ” Which would be a pretty hilarious story in itself, even if it stopped there.
But it didn’t.
Turns out the band had been talking over the the new charts they were learning, a process of transformation that Blumenthal stuck around and witnessed for the next several hours. He now describes that afternoon as one of the top five musical experiences of his life. And, at the end when it was over? He walked out of the club “with an aura around my head, the kind you get sometimes with an experience like that” and just a moment later he felt the tap on his shoulder. It was Mingus: “aren’t you the young man who wanted the interview? Do you still want to talk to me?”
And, in a final revealing moment, Blumenthal asked what made Morgenstern want to become a writer. The answer took some time to unfold but it soon came out that he was disenchanted with much of the existing writing on the music he loved. “To some extent I started writing about jazz because I hated so much of what I was reading.”
I spoke with Mr. Morgenstern after the discussion and he mentioned he had another obligation and would be needing to leave Vermont in the next day or so. It was his first time visiting the Discover Jazz Festival, and he mentioned he’d love to come back next year and plan on spending more time. I really hope he does.
Bob Blumenthal will be here all week leading the various “Meet the Artist” sessions tomorrow (@5:30pm with saxophonist JD Allen); Tuesday (@5:30pm with vocalists Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan); Thursday (@5:30pm with pianist/composer/bandleader Myra Melford); and Friday (@6:30pm with bandleader/percussionist Poncho Sanchez and trumpeter Terence Blanchard).