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Introduction: The Invisible Giant

Terry Teachout

Within the world of jazz, Dan Morgenstern’s name is universally known, not merely as a critic, reporter, and editor but also as the man primarily responsible for the emergence of the Institute of Jazz Studies as the world’s most important jazz archive. Every jazz scholar esteems his work, and many have profited personally from his guidance. It is impossible to sensibly discuss jazz journalism and scholarship in the twentieth century and beyond without making prominent mention of him.

Yet outside that world, Morgenstern is all but unknown. He almost never publishes in the mainstream media and is mentioned or quoted there infrequently. His name has appeared in The New York Times on only 43 occasions since 2000, usually either in passing or in the obituaries of older jazz musicians, the writers of which occasionally call upon him to supply a trenchant summary comment. Not even his seven Grammy awards have penetrated the consciousness of the cultural commentariat, and when he received an NEA Jazz Masters honor in 2007, few but his colleagues knew why.

While the gap between Morgenstern’s achievement and his réclame is distressingly wide, there is nothing surprising about it. Part of the problem, as all who know him can attest, is that he is that rarity of rarities, a genuinely modest man. “Honors go to those who want them,” Michael Oakeshott once observed, and Dan Morgenstern has never sought any form of recognition for his lifelong labors in the vineyard of jazz. Not until 2004 did he bother to publish a volume of his writings about jazz, and it is characteristic that the idea for Living With Jazz came not from Morgenstern himself but from editor Sheldon Meyer, who understood how important it was to collect his occasional pieces. Left to his own devices, Morgenstern would doubtless have allowed them to molder in his scrapbooks.

But Morgenstern’s modesty is not the only reason why he is not as widely known as his achievements merit. It is also a sign of the increasingly marginal position of jazz in the larger world of American art and culture. If jazz had a cultural standing in this country that was commensurate with its historic significance, then Dan Morgenstern would be at least as well known as, say, Edmund Wilson or Pauline Kael. Instead, he is an invisible giant, content to labor in the shadows.

Born in Munich in 1929, Morgenstern grew up in Vienna, the child of an artistically cultivated family of Central European Jews. His father, the novelist Soma Morgenstern, was a cultural feuilletonist for the Frankfurter Zeitung who at one time worked for Max Reinhardt, the great theater director; and Alban Berg, a friend of the family, gave him a recording of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik for his sixth birthday. Under other circumstances he might well have ended up playing violin in a symphony orchestra, but Hitler intervened, and in 1938, the Morgensterns, having been tipped off that Soma figured prominently on the Gestapo’s blacklist, escaped the wrath of the Nazis by fleeing to Denmark.

Later that year, Morgenstern heard Fats Waller playing a concert in Copenhagen, a youthful encounter that was to prove fateful:

Seeing Fats Waller in the flesh — and there was a lot of flesh there — was quite an amazing experience. [...] I was not quite nine 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. [1]

He promptly began to collect jazz 78s, and not long afterward he heard live performances by the Mills Brothers and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. From then on his interest in jazz grew into a consuming passion.

In 1943, Morgenstern and his mother were smuggled into Sweden by the Danish underground. His father, who was temporarily interned in Vichy France, eventually made his way to the United States, where he was reunited with his family after the war. By then Morgenstern had heard a considerable amount of jazz, both on record and on the radio, and by the time he arrived in New York in 1947, he was both eager and thoroughly prepared to immerse himself in the 52nd Street scene. Because of his European background, he was more readily accepted by black musicians who might otherwise have been unwilling to talk openly to a white man, and by the early Fifties, when he began to write about jazz, he was on friendly terms with many celebrated jazz musicians, most notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Hot Lips Page.

The singular catholicity of taste that would be a hallmark of Morgenstern’s writing — he has written with discerning enthusiasm about everyone from Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor — was rooted in these friendships and acquaintances. At a time when jazz fans were bitterly divided between “moldy figs” and so-called progressives, he believed deeply that traditional jazz and bebop were both valid forms of musical expression:

This is another thing that I owe to hanging out with musicians. There was this stupid warfare going on between traditionalists and progressives. But I found out very quickly that musicians didn’t think like that.... Needless to say, there were musicians who were limited in their outlook, but that was relatively rare. You would find musicians who did not approve of certain things that went along with a style like bebop, which would have to do with social attitudes and their economic consequences, as far as these musicians were concerned. But there were not musical prejudices. [2]

Starting in the Fifties, Morgenstern became a sometime impresario, presenting such noteworthy events as the only public solo recital ever given by Art Tatum and the 1964 concert by Earl Hines that was responsible for reviving the pianist’s then-dormant career. But his true métier was as a writer and editor, and in 1959 he joined the staff of Metronome, becoming the magazine’s editor a year or so later. From there he went to Down Beat, which he edited with distinction from 1967 to 1973. At a time of near-convulsive musical and cultural turmoil, his openness to the widest possible range of musical styles was noteworthy, and had he written nothing during that time, he would still be remembered as a key figure in the world of jazz journalism. But he simultaneously continued his writing career, producing an astonishingly large number of essays, articles, and reviews, some of the best of which are collected in Living With Jazz.

Though he wrote fluently in all genres, Morgenstern appears in retrospect to have done his most consequential work in the field of liner notes. A case in point is the miniature essay that he wrote to accompany Decca’s Louis Armstrong: Rare Items, a 1967 album devoted to Armstrong’s big-band sides. “Musicians and dyed-in-the-wool Armstrong devotees...more often than not will cite examples of Louis’ big band work when asked about their favorites,” he said, astutely going on to praise “Ev’ntide”, “Jubilee”, “Skeleton In The Closet”, the first version of “Swing That Music”, and the 1938 remake of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” as “miniature concerti for trumpet (and sometimes also voice) and orchestra, but miniature only in size; the conception is grand.” [3] Written at a time when Armstrong’s middle-period work was widely dismissed as inferior to the masterpieces of his youth, this essay would rightly come to be seen as prescient. It is to the Armstrong literature what Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to Viking’s 1946 Portable Faulkner was to the William Faulkner literature: the first step in the revaluation of a major artist whose work was not properly understood or sufficiently appreciated by the critics of his own time. [4]

In 1976, Morgenstern left journalism to take on the herculean task of transforming Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies from a moribund depository into what it is today, a veritable Mecca for jazz scholars from around the world. As Michael Fitzgerald observes in his contribution to this volume, “Morgenstern’s tenure at IJS, from 1976 to 2011, essentially defined the state of the jazz archives in the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century.” [5] Had it not been for his assiduous efforts, jazz scholarship today would be an infinitely more laborious task.

Every contributor to this volume has personal knowledge of Dan Morgenstern’s comprehensive knowledge and infinite generosity. Rather than allow it to become a heartfelt but repetitive assemblage of personal tributes, perhaps I may be allowed to speak for us all in describing what he did for me.

When I started work on Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, my 2009 biography, I knew that it would be essential for me to interview Dan, whose longstanding friendship with Armstrong is chronicled in Ricky Riccardi’s essay. I also knew that his help in picking my way through the labyrinth of Armstrong-related documents in the collection of the IJS would be indispensable. What I did not expect — what, indeed, was beyond my wildest dreams — was that Dan would then offer to read the manuscript of Pops, and would comment on every page in painstaking and illuminating detail. The brief acknowledgement of his contribution to Pops that appears in the book’s afterword only hints at the magnitude of his contribution.

Even more, if possible, do I treasure the opportunity to have spoken with Dan at length about the life, work, and character of his friend, whom I am not old enough to have met, much less to have known intimately. It is in large part because of what he told me that Pops became something more than a mere synthesis of the existing primary and secondary source material on Armstrong. If I succeeded in conveying the smallest part of Armstrong’s personality in the pages of my book, I owe it to Dan.

Mine is, as I say, a common enough story, but Dan Morgenstern’s collegiality is uncommon to the highest degree. This Festschrift is a tribute not merely to his significance, but to — if I may say so — his goodness. He has been everywhere and known everyone; he gives the uncanny impression of remembering everything that he saw and heard along the way; and he is touchingly eager to share his knowledge with all who care to learn from it. Not all great men are good, but Dan Morgenstern is both. We who know well what he has given to jazz are proud to do honor to one who has never shown any sign of wanting it.


[1] Dan Morgenstern, “Lifetime Honors: National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Interview.” Interview by Molly Murphy with Katja von Schuttenbach, October 25, 2006.

[2] Dan Morgenstern, “Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program NEA Jazz Master Interview.” Interview by Edward Berger, March 28–29, 2007. Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Dan Morgenstern, liner notes to Louis Armstrong: Rare Items, 1935–1944 (Decca DL 9225, 1967, 33 rpm).

[4] The absence of these notes from Living With Jazz is one of the few regrettable lacunae in an otherwise impeccably edited volume.

[5] Michael Fitzgerald, “Reflecting on Jazz Archives: Past, Present, and Future,” Current Research in Jazz 4, 2012.

Author Information: 
Terry Teachout is author of five books, including Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). He writes for The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and his blog About Last Night. He is currently writing a biography of Duke Ellington, to be published in 2014. He was awarded a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship to assist with this work.

Within the world of jazz, Dan Morgenstern’s name is universally known. It is impossible to sensibly discuss jazz journalism and scholarship in the twentieth century and beyond without making prominent mention of him. Yet outside that world, Morgenstern is all but unknown. He is an invisible giant, content to labor in the shadows.

Dan Morgenstern

How to cite this article:

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