One of jazz’s most distinguished critics and historians receives a welcome compilation.
Currently director of Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies, Morgenstern has written prolifically and insightfully about jazz since the ’50s. Incredibly, the present volume is the first anthology of his work. Sensitively edited by Sheldon Meyer, it kicks off with a lovely memoir, “Reminiscing in Tempo,” which recalls how Morgenstern got hooked on jazz as a youth in Vienna, a refugee in wartime Europe, and a newly emigrated arrival in ’40s New York. The book then plunges into his voluminous writing about jazz—profiles, concert reviews, album liner notes, and think pieces produced over six decades. Morgenstern is steeped in the history of traditional jazz; his work reflects a deep familiarity with the minutiae of the music, and he will often debunk a much-circulated myth or illuminate a fine discographical point. He is also a trained musician with a working knowledge of technique and improvisational mechanics, and has a rare ability to get inside a jazz performance and demonstrate what makes it tick. It’s hard to beat his keen observations of such crucial players as Louis Armstrong (who was a longtime friend), Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis, but he writes with equal vibrancy about lesser-known or neglected figures he champions. His pieces about the late, now-overlooked trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page are models of what fine writing about jazz should be: He considers the life and career of this superb musician with warmth, subtle humor, a sharp eye and ear for detail, and a thorough understanding of the jazz milieu. The only drawback is that Morgenstern’s interest in the music’s development evidently began to wane in the early ’60s, when the “new thing” of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor (about whom he writes with clarity) was in its ascendancy; latter-day insurgents garner scant attention here. That cavil aside, few jazz observers swing as mightily as Morgenstern.
An informative, brightly written anthology—and a must for any jazz bookshelf.