Jazz journalist rewrites history with record-setting Grammy win
Dan Morgenstern remembers the first time the sounds of jazz music filled his ears. He was just 9 years old when he first encountered Fats Waller, a 1920s jazz pianist. Once his fingers hit the keys, Morgenstern knew he had found his passion.
"I didn't know a smattering of English — I didn't understand what he was singing about or talking about — but he was full of life, and he had tremendous beat with tremendous rhythm," said Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark. "That didn't turn me into a jazz fan over night, but it started something."
And it did start more than just something.
To date, jazz journalist Morgenstern, 80, has won eight Grammys for writing album notes for several jazz artists — more than any person has ever won in that particular category.
His most recent Grammy honors a seven-piece CD set discussing Louis Armstrong's career and music between 1935-1946 called "The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)," on Mosaic Records.
The album notes, which originated as liner notes on the back of records, aim to tell the listener more about the music and the artists, Morgenstern said. He has written more than 500.
"You want to involve the reader right away, which is something that would serve to make the record interesting and appealing," he said. "The thing about writing liner notes is that you want to enhance the listening experience and make music more accessible to the listener."
Morgenstern won his first Grammy in 1973 and has won a couple since then for every decade, along with several awards including the Deems Taylor Award in December 2007 — his third and second in a row — from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his liner notes on "If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!"
He also was named the 27th recipient of DownBeat magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, as well as a recipient of the Legacy Award from The Recording Academy.
"It's nice because it makes you feel that you're still with it. People still respond to what you do," he said.
Yet Morgenstern credits most of his success to the musicians.
"I've been lucky in the sense that I have some really good music to write about," he said. "The eight Grammys I won all involved good music, so if you have some good music to write about, then you're halfway there already."
Morgenstern's career stretches beyond just jazz writing. He was the editor for DownBeat magazine for seven years, has written jazz and theater reviews for The New York Post, was record-reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times and is currently the editor of the Annual Review of Jazz Studies and the monograph series Studies in Jazz, all while contributing to numerous books about jazz.
Josh Morgenstern, his son, said ever since he can remember his father has been winning countless awards for his work.
"He won so many of them when I was kid, [and] it has always been exciting," Josh Morgenstern said. "It's always exciting when he wins and it's great that he's able to keep getting that recognition."
Dan Morgenstern began his jazz writing career before 1962 when he wrote his first liner note, but his passion for writing was always present and popular in his family, as his father was a journalist in Europe.
But he never thought he would become a jazz journalist until he was offered a position with a British jazz journal.
"I became a journalist, but it didn't occur to me that I would get professionally involved in jazz," he said.
While he did not get paid much money, he remembers one thing the editor said that motivated him to contribute to the publication.
"He said something that stuck in my mind — it'll be good for the musicians," Morgenstern said.
He began his career in April 1947 upon arriving to New York City. Growing up in the World War II era, German-born Morgenstern spent much of his childhood traveling around Europe due to Nazi invasions.
Although he was born in Munich, he was raised in both Austria and Denmark. He did not set foot on German soil until he was 24 years old in the U.S. Army.
Morgenstern said when he first arrived in New York City, he had different aspirations than most European immigrants had at that time.
"Most people, when they come to New York for the first time, they want to see the Empire State Building, but I wanted to see 52nd Street," he said. "It is true — 52nd Street at that time was this long block ... where there were more jazz clubs in that stretch than anywhere else in the world. It was like the center of jazz."
Morgenstern describes the most memorable moment in his life as the day he met Armstrong in his dressing room in April 1947 at New York City's long-gone Roxy Theater.
"That led to a long friendly relationship, but meeting Louis for the first time, that was a terrific experience," he said. "He is, was, remains the greatest single figure in music."
Morgenstern said while he understands that many people think jazz music is losing its audience, he disagrees.
"I have to laugh because all of my lengthy life I've seen articles like that starting in the mid '50s: ‘Is jazz dying?,'" he said. "It's not going to die — there continues to be good, young upcoming musicians all the time, and there are young people who are interested in listening to the music."
He said the evolution of music has led to the merging of jazz, classical and rock music.
"You don't have to be interested in one kind of music, whether you're a player or a listener," Morgenstern said. "Music is still played and heard all over the world. The main thing is the music, and the music continues to be something that is very much alive."
Morgenstern's extensive knowledge of jazz has not only led him to win awards, but it also opened the door to opportunities other than writing.
His talent led Ken Burns to ask Morgenstern to act as senior adviser to his 10-part PBS series, "Jazz." He co-produces and co-hosts the institute's "Jazz from the Archives" program on WBGO-FM and co-hosts the monthly Jazz Research Roundtable at Rutgers-Newark.
Morgenstern has been working with the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark for almost 35 years. He is the first person to ever hold the title of director at the once completely graduate student-run facility.
"The institute is a wonderful collection and it was, [in the beginning], sort of an orphan at Rutgers because it was a free-standing unit," he said. "It wasn't part of the music department."
Morgenstern said the institute is known as the place with the most jazz material under one roof in the state.
Morgenstern would like to be most remembered for his writing and hopes readers can take pride in his work.
"I hope they'll want to read some of the things I've written about the music, but also — not alone but with the help of others — what I've established at the institute," he said.