[JPL] 'Living With Jazz': It Does Mean a Thing

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Sat Dec 18 15:36:19 EST 2004

By Dan Morgenstern.
Edited by Sheldon Meyer.
Pantheon Books. 712 pp. $35. 

'Living With Jazz': It Does Mean a Thing

December 19, 2004

DAN MORGENSTERN has been writing about jazz for more than
four decades but has long hesitated to collect his best
pieces. At last, ''Living With Jazz'' gathers 136 of his
liner notes, critical essays and other writings, and the
book is a cause for celebration since it deserves to be on
the short shelf of essential books on the music. 

The sections collecting record reviews and accounts of
concerts constitute a compelling documentary record of
often thrilling performances, most notably from the 1950's
and 60's -- the last time musicians like Louis Armstrong,
Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk would
enjoy wide popularity (all were on the cover of Time). Jazz
itself could be termed popular music only during the swing
era, in its big-band incarnation as dance music. Radio, now
lost to adult music, made swing, Bing and Toscanini
popular; Armstrong even had his own radio show. 

Morgenstern's liner notes transcend the shallow, if not
promotional, nature of the genre and manage to blend keen
musical analysis with biographical commentary. He has
mastered this balance while setting the standard for the
kind of expanded program notes made possible by boxed LP
sets and the advent of booklets with compact discs. All of
his writing is enriched by his extraordinary command and
recall of recorded jazz. 

Morgenstern's fluent, unmannered narrative style is ideally
suited to the profile form; with Whitney Balliett, he is as
sensitive as any critic has been to the human side of the
jazz scene. He writes with particular warmth and acuity
about musicians like Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, Miles
Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell and Milt Hinton. He
is both lyrical and critically persuasive on Lester Young,
arguing against prevailing negative opinion in favor of
Young's late recordings, his personal travails

The opening section, ''Armstrong and Ellington,'' is the
book's strongest. Eleven essays, written over many years,
cohere to form a first-rate survey of Ellington's career.
The eight reviews and essays on Armstrong collectively
reveal that no one has written better or more lovingly
about Satchmo. Morgenstern's 1994 essay ''Portrait of the
Artist as a Young Man'' actually covers Armstrong's entire
lifetime and is the best short introduction to the man who,
he writes, ''spread love, happiness and beauty.''
Morgenstern's laser-beam memory locates musical sources for
the bebop innovators Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in
Armstrong recordings from 1929. As Miles Davis said, ''You
can't play anything on the horn that Louis hasn't played --
even modern.'' 

The year 1929 was also epochal for Armstrong, who, in a
successful bid for a wider audience, abandoned his small
recording group with its traditional jazz repertory in
favor of a big band that featured him performing Tin Pan
Alley songs like ''Star Dust'' and ''Body and Soul''
instead of successors to the purely instrumental ''Potato
Head Blues'' (1927). ''A sellout!'' wailed jazz purists and
commissars. This monolithic myopia went unchallenged until
Morgenstern began attacking it, most assertively in liner
notes to a 1969 reissue of 1930-32 recordings; he argued
that Armstrong's art peaked in the 1930's. Soon,
Armstrong's best recordings from 1935 to 1943, ignored in
the jazz literature, were made available to Armstrong
enthusiasts who had never heard about them, let alone
listened to them -- magnificent recordings like
''Ev'ntide,'' ''Jubilee,'' ''Lyin' to Myself,'' ''Swing
That Music'' and ''I Double Dare You.'' Morgenstern's
pivotal role in the second coming of this radiant body of
great American music is comparable to Malcolm Cowley's in
his 1946 anthology ''The Portable Faulkner,'' which
prompted the reissue of out-of-print novels like ''The
Sound and the Fury,'' ''As I Lay Dying'' and ''Light in

Although Armstrong is now called iconic and canonical --
recognized as our greatest jazz figure -- he and Faulkner
may well be in the same boat, cut off from any substantial
audience by the vast surround of popular culture. We know
that Faulkner now belongs to unpopular culture -- that is,
read only when assigned in class. But we have no idea if
the young are even listening to Armstrong, who died in
1971. Jazz should henceforth be labeled ''art music,''
because this would clearly mean that if it is to survive,
it must be disseminated in classrooms and institutions like
the proposed Jazz Museum in Harlem. Jazz curriculums
continue to be developed for every level. Morgenstern,
since 1976 the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at
Rutgers University, never mentions jazz education,
curiously enough. However, his essay ''Satchmo and the
Critics'' offers a valuable pedagogic documentary record,
with ample quotations from the surprisingly harsh criticism
Armstrong endured throughout his long career. 

Although literary scholars customarily consider the most
compromising and vexing aspects of their subjects in an
unblinking fashion, jazz writers like Morgenstern often
seem advocates as much as critics, their defensiveness
easily understood in the context of cultural if not racial
snobbery. But now that Ellington, Armstrong and their peers
have won the respect and close attention of musicologists,
cultural critics and pedagogues alike, they should be
considered with the complexity they deserve. How good are
Ellington's extended works? What does one make of his
so-called ''jungle music,'' black musicians making
eccentric animal-like sounds on their horns? Is it a form
of modernist irony -- primitivist condescension upended?
Morgenstern is not alone in ducking such hard questions.
And what do we make of Armstrong's persona of joy,
ebullient and ingratiating? This minstrelsy aspect of
Armstrong is crucial, although ignored or de-emphasized by
friendly critics like Morgenstern. 

Ideally, the bracing art of jazz would help to reduce or
neutralize the nihilistic spell cast by current popular
culture, from the aestheticized mayhem of action movies to
the misogyny of hip-hop. ''Thanks a Million,'' Armstrong
sang in 1935, wearing his heart on his sleeve, which is why
we turn to jazz, why we need it. 

Alfred Appel Jr.'s most recent book is ''Jazz Modernism:
>From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce.'' 



Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
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