End of an Era

On Wednesday night, the Gully Low Jazz Band dedicated their performance at Birdland Jazz Club to author, critic, and archivist Dan Morgenstern, in honor of his 82nd birthday. Morgenstern has been writing about jazz since 1958, when he began contributing a regular column to a British publication, Jazz Journal. From 1961 to 1973, he was the editor of three major publications—Metronome, Jazz (Bob Theile’s second version), and DownBeat magazines—overseeing the publication of such items as Leonard Feather’s controversial, yet iconic, “Blindfold Tests.” Since leaving the world of magazine editing, he has become an esteemed writer of album liner notes that have earned him eight Grammy Awards.

Morgenstern’s voluminous knowledge of jazz is just a part of his obsession with the genre, but one that made him a natural to assume the directorship of the Institute of Jazz Studies in 1976. That was the year before I moved to New York, and it’s also when I saw his first book, Jazz People (newly published at the time), while I was working in the Pacific Northwest (I’m not sure if it was in Juneau or Portland). I was working with tenor saxophonist Jim Pepper, and we talked about it briefly. Pepper wasn’t very much into books about jazz (a lot of jazz musicians aren’t), but we both agreed that Jazz People was much better than the Jazz Masters series. I liked that there were really good photographs of the musicians discussed and that Morgenstern made an effort to put his subjects into a sociological context, rather than presenting disembodied biographies, as if he cared about their place in society.

It wasn’t until I decided to earn a graduate degree in jazz history that I got to meet Morgenstern at the Institute. I had posted on one of the Rutgers’ message boards that I was writing my thesis on Jim Pepper and within a few hours Dan responded to it with information about all the available vinyl the Institute had that included Pepper’s performances. I thought that was pretty cool. The next time we met was in person at the Institute when I was looking through issues of Jazz magazine (Pepper was interviewed a few times in that magazine in the ‘60s and won one of their critics’ polls), when Dan appeared. He told me he used to work at the magazine, so I figured I’d ask him a few questions about the interview I was looking at. His brief answer, delivered like a friendly resident giving directions to a tourist, described a relationship between music journalism and music production that changed my thinking about the subject forever. There are times when I’m playing a solo and I find myself, in my head, leafing through the aging paper of these publications bound together by year and with their faint smell of mildew trying to evolve, while Morgenstern’s calm, measured delivery distilled the jazz community into a paragraph.

It was when Dan came to speak at one of Dr. Lewis Porter’s classes on historiography research that I learned he was born in Germany in the year that the stock market crash in America imploded the Weimar Republic and set the stage for the rise of the Third Reich. The Morgensterns were Jewish and relocated several times during WWII. In his book, Living with Jazz, Morgenstern alluded to how the genocidal attitudes of Hitler’s regime towards Jews, black people, and jazz contributed to his lifelong dedication to preserving the music’s history and championing its artists. He first heard live jazz played by Fats Waller in 1938, after his family relocated to Copenhagen and jazz records were a mainstay in his parents’ collection (although a friend of his father, composer Alban Berg, gave him a recording of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for his sixth birthday).

I couldn’t go to Dan’s birthday party because I’ve been auditing a class at Rutgers that takes up the same time slot as the Gully Low’s weekly appearance at Birdland. When I got home, I figured I’d send him a greeting over one of the jazz message boards. Imagine my surprise when I looked at my email and found a notice that Dan Morgenstern is retiring as director of Institute of Jazz Studies. He says he’s been in the position long enough and has another book he wants to write. This follows the retirement of the Institute’s assistant director, Ed Berger, who also left to write a book on Benny Carter. The position will be filled by Vincent Pelote, who started his association with the Institute while he was a student at Rutgers in the ‘90s, and was part of the Institute’s move to its current location. So the Institute’s administrative leadership is in good hands, which is reassuring. But the Round Table sessions and lunch time around the Quad won’t be the same, nor will leafing through old volumes of DownBeat knowing that the connection to the back room that published the issue in hand isn’t there to describe who-was-where-with-what.

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