Dan Morgenstern Living With Jazz, A Reader Pantheon Books
Dan Morgenstern is the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, a former editor and contributor for Down Beat , and author of Jazz People , one of the finest histories of jazz ever written. His shorter pieces - snapshots of the artists, the music, and the lifestyle - benefit from Morgenstern's close company with several musicians at many historic locales. A sampling of his work appears in the new collection Living With Jazz , a career overview filled with eyewitness accounts from the latter part of the 20th century. Morgenstern writes with the enthusiasm of a fan, an intellectual, and a storyteller well-versed in the craft.
Living With Jazz begins with a collection of pieces on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. From two excellent biographies (as informative and entertaining as any out there) to a few record reviews and culminating in a chronicle of the historic Great Summit, Morgenstern creates a complete portrait of these two greats by showing them from different angles. He is foremost a jazz fan, not afraid to display his preferences. He argues that Armstrong's big bands were just as good as the Hot Fives and Sevens, claims that Ellington is an underrated pianist, and in later selections all but declares Russell's Charlie Parker biography worthless.
Sections entitled "Profiles and Portraits" and "Liner Notes" give Morgenstern an opportunity to flesh out the personalities beyond the performances, describing not just the music that someone like Coleman Hawkins played but the manner in which he played it: "... his eyes would be closed, and on really fast tempos he would stomp his right foot from time to time, as if to kick himself into high gear, his breath intake becoming quite audible." And while reading liner notes without having the music accessible seems a little pointless, Morgenstern's prose is generally worth reading regardless. Many of his articles offer vignettes of artists at key junctures in their lives or serve as obituaries, but all will shed light on some favorite artists and inspire interest in previously neglected ones. (This reader sought out recordings by Oran "Hot Lips" Page and Dave McKenna after being captivated by Morgenstern's enthusiasm.)
Reading thoughtful and well-written material about favorite artists is always a pleasure, but it is the last few sections of Living With Jazz that hold the real rewards. Many will no doubt be drawn to an article chronicling the beginning of Mosaic Records and surprised by "Hot Chocolates," an overview of black musicals. Equally enthralling is a survey of the treatment of jazz in movies and television. Morgenstern comes to the conclusion (sadly, as we all do) that jazz gets short shrift and has never been handled all that well by either medium. The book closes with "In Defense of 'Commercialism'" in which Morgenstern declares that artists can successfully reach a popular audience without selling out, a bold argument that will surely ruffle a few feathers thirty years after its initial appearance.
Morgenstern is a man to envy. He had access to many of the jazz greats, most of whom are no longer with us. His writing is crisp and accessible, avoiding the pretentiousness of much jazz writing today. He is likely to inspire you to pull out an album you've neglected or search for an artist's recording that you've never heard. Like any collection, no reader will find everything in here of interest, but Morgenstern's writing is consistently satisfying. This is an essential volume of some of the best jazz writing ever produced, a tribute to the music and its recent history.