I first met Dan Morgenstern more than five years ago when I picked him up one Saturday morning outside his Journal Square apartment in Jersey City. Our destination was the Catskill Mountains home of the late George Handy, a genius experimental jazz composer/arranger from the 1940s' and 50s' with whom I had studied piano after getting out of the Army in 1970. Dan and I had never met until Handy's widow, Elaine, asked us to drive up together that day to discuss archiving his scores, albums, and memorabilia with the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark. Dan Morgenstern is the director of the Institute, where he oversees the world's largest collection of jazz-related material.
Our two-hour drive to the mountains, that included a few wrong turns, was like my own personal history of jazz, in fast time. During the duration of our trip, as I asked Dan about some of the jazz greats and not-so-well-known players he had met over the years, he recalled stories and memories about the many musicians he was "lucky enough to meet. We returned home to Jersey City that night; Dan had secured George Handy's collection for the Institute, preserving his legacy for future generations of music lovers. And it was a ride that opened my eyes to a man whose life is jazz; and who loves every moment of it.
Morgenstern, who is 77 years old, is widely considered one of the greatest advocates of the preservation and promotion of jazz music. For nearly half a century, he has relentlessly pursued his love of jazzand it is a loveas a jazz historian and archivist, author, editor and educator. He has been the editor of Downbeat Magazine and Metronome, he has written seminal books on jazz, and has won six Grammys for jazz album liner notes. Morgenstern's extensive knowledge of jazz led documentary film-maker Ken Burns to ask him to act as senior adviser to his 10-part PBS series, Jazz.
So it is more than fitting that Dan Morgenstern's latest honor is one of the most prestigious of his career. On January 12th, in New York City, he will be honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with its Jazz Master Fellowship Award for his work as an advocate of jazz. It's the jazz world's Pulitzer Prize. Morgenstern's reaction to this award is summed up in his typically humble manner. "I'm still somewhat overwhelmed at having been shown this great honor, but of course proud and delighted, especially so since this is in recognition of jazz advocacy. It's a blessing to have been able to make a living and a life involved with something one loves, and the music has never lost its magic. Jazz brings people together. It's America's gift to the world.
Morgenstern was born in Vienna but his Jewish family fled to Copenhagen ahead of the approaching German army during World War Two. His first real introduction to jazz was a true eye opener. "It was in Copenhagen in the fall of 1938 when my mother took me to see Fats Waller, and seeing Fats at nine-years-old was an experience. I knew very little English but that didn't matter because Fats was such a communicator and had such tremendous time, that it affected me in a way that I went out and got his records.
Morgenstern arrived in New York in 1947, and headed directly to 52nd Street (the jazz mecca of the world at that time) to hear the lions of jazz like saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie play at smoky clubs like Jimmy Ryan's and The Three Deuces. But it was after the Korean War when Morgenstern attended Brandeis University on the GI Bill that he began to write about jazz. "I became the editor of the school newspaper. But actually it was really about getting some of the student activity money so that I and a few others could promote jazz events at the university. At that time, jazz promoter George Wein [who later went on to produce the Newport Jazz Festival] was booking big acts for the well-known Boston jazz club, Storyville. Morgenstern and Wein made a deal.
Storyville's acts would play side gigs at Brandeis if the musicians agreed. Before long, Morgenstern was getting acts like saxophonist Stan Getz for the university. But it was the booking of Art Tatum, considered by many to be the greatest jazz pianist, which set Morgenstern's course on jazz journalism. Tatum was playing at Storyville with a trio but Morgenstern asked him to appear at Brandeis as a soloist. They got the best piano on campus. When he drove Tatum back to Boston that evening and thanked him for a great show, Tatum said, "No, I have to thank you because this was the first time I've ever done a solo concert. Dan Morgenstern learned he had a gift to shine a light on jazz. It has been his passion ever since.