America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

Village Vanguard
178 7th Avenue South
New York, NY 10014

Deep within the Vanguard darkness
Lovers enraptured by spirits
“Vibes,” they say
Is that ghosts?
    – unattributed poem which hangs in the Vanguard kitchen

“It’s just a little wedge-shaped room.” remarks impresaria Lorraine Gordon. “But the room talks to me. I understand what it’s saying.”

If ever a room could talk, it would be the Village Vanguard. As it approaches its 65th anniversary, the welcome occasion for a celebration this February, the room appears to have a life of its own. An undeniable presence occupies the space, even while empty. Nothing – not even the sum of momentous events that happened there, its distinguished history represented by photographs lining the walls – can quite explain it.

It’s almost as if those walls, even the floor and ceiling, have absorbed that history (literally, in the case of a hole in the ceiling, compliments of Charles Mingus). And, in doing so, they have become like their vastly intelligent, literate, creative inhabitants, both musicians and patrons alike: capable of engaging conversation. The pristine acoustics, for which the little-wedge shaped room is so well known, have given it a voice with which to converse.

Jabbo Smith’s helicon is among the sacred objects on the walls of the Village Vanguard
Photo by Melissa Richard

As Lorraine is fond of saying, the room books itself. “If you book someone and it doesn’t work, the room doesn’t respond. It sort of turns in on them. The pictures start to frown if the vibes are bad. The room has told you, ‘No good for me.'” Perhaps that’s because it’s been so spoiled over the years.

The windowless basement room, also known for its perilously steep, red stairwell, formerly housed the Golden Triangle, a speakeasy busted during Prohibition. When it opened as the Vanguard on February 22, 1935, owner Max Gordon (1901-91), Lorraine’s husband, was relocating the club from nearby Charles Street, where it had spent its first year. The change of scenery was prompted by a single toilet, which Max unhappily monitored for mixed gender traffic, and other building code violations that prevented him from obtaining a cabaret license. Without the license, he couldn’t legally present entertainment. The current Vanguard met the needed requirements and Max’s budget to boot: two toilets and two exits, all for rent under $100 per month.

In the early days, jazz was only a small part of the Vanguard’s offerings. Poetry readings, comedy, cabaret, and folk artists were the result of Max’s eclectic booking policy combined with the wants of Greenwich Village bohemians and intellectuals, his regulars. Judy Holliday, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Leadbelly, Pearl Bailey, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Carol Channing, and Lenny Bruce are all performers who played the Vanguard while starting out. Although he disliked Harry Belafonte‘s brand of sex appeal – his uncovered navel met with Max’s disapproval – an eye for talent proved stronger than personal taste. Max gives away few trade secrets in the club’s witty memoir, Live at the Village Vanguard.

Since the switch to an all-jazz policy in 1957, the club has hosted a veritable who’s who of jazz: Thelonious Monk, of whom Lorraine was an early champion, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Dinah Washington, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, just to name a few. The list could go on for a page in itself. The great Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra made its residence there on Monday nights beginning in 1966; the current Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is its present-day incarnation.

RealAudio Icon
John Coltrane: Spiritual
Recorded live at the Village Vanguard on November 3, 1961
John Coltrane – tenor sax
McCoy Tyner – piano
Reggie Workman – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
from John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
Order from Amazon
RealAudio Icon
Bill Evans: Solar
Recorded live at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961
from Sunday at the Village Vanguard
{Riverside 9376/OJC 140}
Order from Amazon

This would be enough to forever secure the Vanguard’s place in music history, but, to top it off, numerous live recordings have kept close account of the musical dialogue within its walls and brought the venue to the forefront of jazz consciousness. Among the most famous are: Sonny RollinsA Night at the Village Vanguard, John Coltrane‘s Live at the Village Vanguard, Bill EvansSunday at the Village Vanguard, and Dexter Gordon‘s Homecoming Live. The room has more recently been recording studio to Tommy Flanagan, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, and Wynton Marsalis.

Enough of the name dropping? Young players are no doubt daunted by the reputations of those preceding them. As Lorraine sympathizes, “When new guys go up there for the first time, they always say the same thing more or less: ‘I look around this room and I have to live up to all those pictures on the wall.’ They’re so nervous, but what a treat. They know that all that took place in this little room with all those wonderful people. I look to the new players to carry on that tradition.”

Although the famous continue to play here, that’s not what the Vanguard is about: it’s just about the music. No credit cards, no food, no distractions (Lorraine will shush you if it gets too loud). Among the club’s few concessions to commerce are baby-booties, custom-made by one of the club’s fans. No pretension either. “For the people who come here,” she says, “it’s like going to church. They sit very quietly absorbing the music with such an intensity. I sit over there and watch these people and it’s just so beautiful. It’s beautiful in a small room. It’s very special.”

From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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