Morgenstern speaks on jazz oral history

By Jack Cartwright '15

Jazzing it up, the Couper Lecture Series borught Dan Morgenstern, a jazz historian, author and eight-time Grammy Award winner to discuss his career, changes in musical acquisitions and usage of special collections.

Introducing Morgenstern was Monk Rowe, Lecturer in Music and the Joe Williams Director of the Jazz Archive.  Rowe’s introduction of Morgenstern was especially fitting given the collections of interviews with jazz musicians, arrangers, writers and critics the Hamilton College Jazz Archive houses.

Morgenstern’83 has spent his entire career in the jazz industry. He recently retired as director of Rutgers-Newark’s Institute of Jazz Studies where he worked since 1976.  A native German, Morgenstern moved to the United States and attended Brandeis University in Waltham, MA.  Following his graduation, he became editor of Jazz Journal in 1958.  He later was the editor for many other magazines including Metronome, Jazz and Down Beat.  His eight Grammy Awards are a result of his writing of liner notes, or the booklets that come along with music albums.

The main topic of discussion at the lecture was Morgenstern’s involvement in an 11-year project to record the oral history of hundreds of jazz musicians through the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Oral History Project, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Running from 1972-1983, the project captured the oral histories of 120 jazz musicians.

Highlighting the relatively new study of jazz, Morgenstern underscored that jazz was not taken seriously as a musical genre.  “It [Jazz] is now a music that is studied all over the globe,” said Morgenstern.  “But, things were different at one time.”

In fact, the proposal to study jazz oral history was so disregarded that upon hearing about it, former Director of the Julliard School Peter Mennen was quoted saying, “Jazz? Why that’s a music played in nightclubs!”  Pointing out how wrong Mennen was about Jazz, Morgenstern chided the approximately 10 symphonies that Mennen wrote.  “[They] aren’t played by anyone today.”

The project was originally allocated just $5,000 to work with, so Morgenstern and his colleagues were faced with a tough decision.  “Instead of giving out $500 to ten people [musicians], we decided we would give it all to one person—we decided to give it to George Russell.”

Following the first interviews, they were able to decide what they needed to do to make the interviews better.  “The earliest interviews were disastrous, so we needed to make better matches [between the interviewers and interviewees],” he said.  “What resulted constitutes a wonderful record of what life was like for jazz musicians during an era that was exceptionally productive in terms of music activity.”

The organizers of the project ideally wanted five hours of recording from the musician, but he said some were more successful than others.  One interview lasted for 16 hours.  Other interviews were not very successful because the musicians were “too old” or “not all there,” he said.  He noted one particular interview that was a failure because a female jazz singer’s false teeth made it hard to understand on tape, drawing laughter from the audience.

The project interviewed bandleaders as well as players, but there were also able to find jazz musicians who were not very famous, but who knew a lot about jazz and were very active in the jazz community.  “Of the 120 musicians in this project, there is one survivor today,” said Morgenstern.  That man is 95 years old. 

Reflecting on the project and the interviews, he believes it was tremendously successful.

“Oral history is such a big part of jazz history,” Morgenstern said.  “Witout the testimonials of the musicians themselves, practically nothing would be known, particularly the earlier days of jazz.”

He talked specifically about what some of the unexpected things the authors talked about on tape.  “One of the things about these interviews is that a lot of stuff is revealed that wasn’t known before.  Stories about being on the road: funny stories, and terrible stories.”  He also noted that one of the things that the oral history captures is the fact that African Americans broke the color barrier, with musician Teddy Wilson, in jazz music, well before baseball did with Jackie Robinson.  “It’s too seldom mentioned that jazz came before baseball.”

Morgenstern, looking back on his career, said, “My long life has been blessed with having made friends with so many of the great musicians who create this wonderful music called jazz.”

Currently, the Rutgers-Newark Institute of Jazz Studies is digitizing these recordings, and they should be available soon.


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