Friday, October 24, 2014

Happy 85th Birthday to Dan Morgenstern - Crack Open a Bottle of Slivovice!

Today is a very special day in both the Armstrong community and the jazz world: it's Dan Morgenstern's 85th birthday, something truly worth celebrating. Any fan of Louis Armstrong has probably had his or her listening experience enhanced by Dan's peerless liner notes. His writing on Pops was my single biggest influence when I first got in him 19 years ago (this month, actually, October 1995), an influence that hasn't stopped as my own writings on Armstrong have spanned from college newspaper articles to a master's thesis to this blog to my book and recent set of liner notes for the Mosaic Records box.

This tribute is based in part on one I wrote in 2009 for Dan's 80th birthday. I was already close with Dan back then but my goodness what these five years have included. Dan was gracious enough to write a beautiful endorsement for my book; we've shared panels at the Satchmo Summerfest, the Greenwich Library and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem; Dan hosted a book party for me at the Institute of Jazz Studies and I spoke at his subsequent retirement party after his distinguished tenure as Director; we debuted previously unheard recordings of Louis at Freedomland on International Jazz Day; deep, I've listened to some truly memorable stories just spending time with him in a green room or on a outdoor bench or really anywhere we meet; and I've accompanied him on piano during his vocal performances at the Satchmo Summerfest and at Birdland.

Seriously! Don't believe me? This past summer, Dan broke it up with his vocal on "You Rascal You" with the Satchmo Summerfest All Stars. It was a joy to be on stage for this moment. Here's the footage:

So as you can see, Dan is showing no signs of slowing down, making his Festival singing debut at age 83 and still turning out quality columns, liner notes (and even e-mails) every time he sits in front of a computer. He's still my idol all these years later and will always be the greatest figure to ever write about Louis Armstrong.

On reason for that is Dan knew Louis so well. In fact, in 2012, I had the opportunity to write about Dan's relationship with Louis for the online journal Current Research in Jazz. I knew there was nothing I could say about it so I strung together Dan's own words--from liner notes, magazine articles, interviews, etc.--to make his relationship with Louis come alive again. Click that link if you're interested in exploring further.

But as I did in 2009, I'd like to do something special, something that I think is going to be a little more fun than a list of reasons of why Dan is great. Today, I'll once again be sharing the Slivovice interview.

The what, you say? If you missed my earlier tribute and still don't know, the Sliovice interview, a legendary occasion for the crazed sector of Armstrong nuts that have heard and absorbed it since Phil Schaap used to play it during WKCR's Armstrong marathons. Here's the backstory:

In July 1965, the world was preparing to celebrate what was then perceived as Louis Armstrong's 65th birthday. Dan decided to mark the occasion by interviewing Pops at his Corona home in May for Down Beat's "Salute to Satch" issue. The resulting portrait would be published in the July issue. If you'd like to read it, it appears in Dan's indispensable Pantheon volume Living With Jazz. But if you'd like to HEAR it, you've come to the right place.

Though Dan had known Armstrong for about 15 years, he hadn't ever been to the Armstrong home. Thus, he asked Louis's good friend Jack Bradley to put in the good word. Jack did just that, got the okay and accompanied Dan on May 22, taking a bunch of photos, some of which appeared in the final Down Beat article. Armstrong's career was just as busy as ever, but Dan actually caught Louis during a rare break. After a historic tour that found Armstrong breaking down the Iron Curtain by playing such places as East Berlin, Prague and Yugoslavia in March and April, Armstrong took over a month off for a dental procedure to fix his chops. Armstrong's mentor King Oliver lost his chops because of bad teeth (pyorrhea) and Armstrong wasn't about to do the same.

Unfortunately, from what my ears tell me, Armstrong was never the same trumpet player after this procedure. His playing during the March 1965 tour featured some of his finest horn work of the decade. But beginning in the summer of 1965, I find his chops to have become much more erratic, both in live performances and with the All Stars. By 1966, he stopped taking solos on numbers like "Indiana" and "Muskrat Ramble" when he didn't feel like it and by 1967, numbers like "Basin Street Blues," "Black and Blue" and "Royal Garden Blues" were permanently retired, though they were all part of the 1965 tour. Of course, I am generalizing a bit; a concert I acquired from November 1967will blow the minds of any who detract Armstrong's final years.

But I digress. During Dan's interview Armstrong was resting from the dental procedure, but about to embark on yet another tour of Europe. Surrounded by his friends Jack and Dan (with Lucille chiming in now and then from the background), Louis sounds very relaxed and friendly. But there was something else present that made for the relaxed atmosphere: a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy Armstrong brought back from Europe earlier that year. Slivovice (now known as Slivovitz) is still around as an online search quickly shows. Louis and Lucille both testify early on about the powers of Slivovice. They warn Dan and Jack that it's pretty much going to knock them on their asses. Dan and Jack are up for the challenge, so the bottle of Slivovice is cracked open. Not only will you hear the sound of ice clinking around the glasses during this interview, but you'll also hear Dan and Jack get progressively sillier as the interview goes on. Pops doesn't change much but the laughter certainly gets goofier towards the end. Here's a rare Jack Bradley photo of Louis and Dan and the bottle of Slivovice that day:

Speaking of the end, I should mention the length of the Slivovice interview: two hours and ten minutes. Thus, I obviously don't expect anyone to set in front of their computer for the next 130 minutes and listen to every second of this. But I still want to share it and let it be known that it will always be here to savor if you want to listen to it in bits and pieces. And to make it easier, I've broken it into three small segments. Here's the 50-minute first part:

Here's the 50-minute second part:

And finally, the 30 minute third part:

It's a fascinating interview from start to finish (this is the one where Pops finally came out and admitted he wrote "Muskrat Ramble") but it's also a fun way to feel like you're spending an afternoon with the Armstrong's in Corona in 1965. Thanks to David Ostwald for the tapes and thanks for Dan and Jack for just plain being there.

Oh, and as a postscript, a new exhibit I curated on the Jack Bradley Collection at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, blew up this week, with numerous items being printed worldwide, including, the New York Times. Having Jack's artifacts here is a trip and in my previous exhibit, a 20th anniversary of the opening of the Louis Armstrong Archives, I was most excited to display this one:

Yes indeed, that's the ORIGINAL Slivovice bottle polished off by Jack, Dan and Louis on that May day in 1965, now an artifact that's been preserved and displayed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Incredible. So on behalf of all the Armstrong nuts from around the world, happy birthday Dan...and we hope you get to enjoy some Slivovice on this special occasion!


Unknown said...

This is gratifying news. I encountered Slivovice just three or four years ago in ... well, it's hard to remember. Once you encounter it, you can't remember much. I'm sure that it was given to me by a nice family in Montenegro. The dad was a trucker, the mom was a beautiful tall raven-haired beauty who'd some up popped out five kids. They made the Slivovice themselves. It's not so much a brand (e.g. Budweiser) as a ubiquitous drink - like moonshine.

Roberto Severino said...

That's great to hear. I also wish Dan Morgenstern a happy birthday too. I've been so busy with business courses at my college that I haven't had time to keep up with this blog as much as I would like but I think I can try to fit room into my schedule to visit much more often again. Glad you're still posting!