Thought IU;d share from this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer.
Posted on Wed, Nov. 17, 2004
I M A G E S CHARLES FOX / Inquirer Dan
Morgenstern, director since 1976 of the Institute of Jazz Studies, holds Cootie
Williams' trumpet. Behind him are the saxophones of Ben Webster (left) and
Lester Young. Under Morgenstern's leadership, the collection has increased
In the lions' den
Billie Holiday's comb is there. And a Fats Waller script. Newark's Institute
of Jazz Studies is a sanctuary of the scene and a hot spot for a new
By Annette John-Hall
Inquirer Staff Writer
The elevator door opens to the thump-thump-thump-de-thump of a walking bass
line. On top of the rhythm, a piano swings with improvised chords. On one
side of the corridor is a gallery featuring brass instruments displayed in glass
cases. Around the corner, a finger-snapping jam session's in progress.
All this happening on the fourth floor of a campus library at Rutgers? This
must be the place.
If you're into jazz, chances are you've heard of the Institute of Jazz
Studies and its director, Dan Morgenstern. And you've heard his voice - a
grandfatherly baritone seasoned with a dash of hipness - lending authority to Jazz
Profiles, a weekly series hosted by Nancy Wilson. It's heard locally on WRTI-FM
(90.1) Sunday mornings at 10.
The institute is regarded as the quintessential reference place for jazz. If
not for Morgenstern and the institute, Jazz, Ken Burns' 19-hour documentary
which aired on PBS in 2001, could never have been developed. Burns calls the
institute "one of the world's treasures."
In the jazz world, Morgenstern is another. A foremost authority at 75, the
former editor of Metronome and Down Beat magazines has just written Living
With Jazz (Pantheon Books, $35), a 673-page compilation of album liner notes and
reviews that made him one of the most respected music writers of the era.
This year, he's been in demand as a speaker for 100th-birthday symposiums
and concerts honoring saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, pianist-composer Fats
Waller, and pianist-band leader Count Basie. "It's been a good year for
[centennial] celebrations," he says.
As a youngster growing up in Denmark and Germany, Morgenstern listened to
jazz broadcasts via the BBC. Upon his arrival in America as a teenager in 1947,
he passed up the Statue of Liberty in favor of 52d Street, where jazz clubs
were as plentiful as checkered cabs.
"To me, it was like 'open sesame,' " Morgenstern recalls of his first visit
there. "You could hear Charlie Parker on one side of the street and Sidney
Bechet on the other."
He got to know trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page, which gave him an entree into
the scene up in Harlem. Oftentimes, Morgenstern was one of the only white
nonmusicians hanging out in clubs there.
Nevertheless, Harlem held no danger for this budding journalist, who as a
young man was a card-carrying member of the socialist Labor Youth League. Maybe
it was because Morgenstern, a Jew, had fled Europe after seeing "the Nazis
knocking at the door." Harlem? He thought it was paradise.
"Some of my friends who were further to the left than I would ask, 'You go
to Harlem?' " Morgenstern said. "I'd tell them yes, and I never had anything
happen to me. People were open and friendly. I never felt a draft."
At Brandeis University, where he was editor of the school paper, Morgenstern
helped bring Stan Getz and Art Tatum to the campus and then wrote about
their performances. That steered him into a career as a jazz critic and magazine
editor that would last for decades.
Since Morgenstern took over as director of the institute in 1976, its
collection has increased five times over. Maintained by a staff of six, it houses
100,000 commercial and non-commercial recordings, and provides the most
comprehensive library and jazz archive under the sun - or Sonny Rollins, or even
Sun Ra, for that matter.
There's an original music manuscript by Fats Waller, an obscure video of
bandleader Cab Calloway in a 1930s Betty Boop cartoon, and a Conn tenor sax
played by "Lester Young, 1909-1959" - and embellished with a plastic gardenia
worn by his lifelong friend (some say lover) Billie Holiday.
Jazz aficionados can get lost amid the intimate offerings. In the
"exceedingly rare" room - the size of a large closet that is kept locked - Morgenstern
takes a cigar box off a shelf and opens it. In it lays a comb used by
Holiday, next to one of the vocalist's glittery costume bracelets. On another shelf
sits a crude sculpture of Ella Fitzgerald made of forks and spoons that held
a prominent place on the diva's mantle. A book titled American Jazz Music
looks ordinary enough until you peruse the who's who of autographs on its pages,
including Duke Ellington's, his capital "E" resembling a flourishing treble
"Many of the things in their collection just wouldn't find a home anywhere
else," says Becca Pulliam, producer of NPR's JazzSet, a weekly series produced
at WBGO-FM in Newark. The institute staff also produces and hosts Jazz From
the Archives on WBGO.
Pulliam had been excited to hear that the institute had received the papers
of pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), perhaps the most important female
musician to emerge from jazz's first 30 years.
"She saved everything," Pulliam said of the artist and composer, who was
single and left no immediate family. There were love poems to Williams from
pianist Bud Powell, and even a box full of cocktail napkins inscribed with
written song requests by piano bar patrons.
Pulliam wasn't expecting to find, among the meticulously catalogued items, a
30-year-old letter she had written to Williams asking her assistance with
piano lessons. But sure enough, there it was. "It's nice to know that there's a
place on earth that values the life of Mary Lou Williams," Pulliam says.
"And they value it very carefully, piece by piece."
Lewis Porter, a professor of music who is also a musician (he was the jam
session pianist), directs the graduate program in jazz, which offers a master
of fine arts degree. "We couldn't do the research without the institute. There
would be no place for our students to go," says Porter, who wrote John
Coltrane: His Life and Music.
The institute is training a whole new pool of jazz historians. And that,
Morgenstern says, is as important as a Miles Davis recording, as cherished as a
Billy Strayhorn composition.
"It's extremely important to preserve a historical record, but this is not a
museum," he insists. "We really enjoy that we deal with people who teach and
play and do research, rather than getting people who study jazz only as a
A melodic rift wafts out of one of the listening rooms. Students bustle in
and out of the stacks. The live concert concludes down the hall. The Institute
of Jazz Studies may be best known as a den for the dead lions, but it is
clear that this is also a sanctuary where jazz still lives.
Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or
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