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Still Live at the Village Vanguard
Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz
T: Lorraine Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard / Photograph by IAN ALLEN
Friday, April 18, 2008
By JC Gabel
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A historic neon sign and long red awning hang over a set of bright red doors leading into a basement club off Seventh Avenue in between 10th and 11th Streets in Greenwich Village. Down the steep narrow staircase sits the last — and, many would argue, greatest — jazz club in the world, the Village Vanguard.
The Vanguard, which is shaped like a slice of pie — it was a former speakeasy aptly named The Golden Triangle — started out as a bohemian refuge during the Depression years. It opened its doors in 1935 when owner Max Gordon, a native of Lithuania by way of Portland, Oregon — he would go on to become a nightclub impresario when he opened the Blue Angel in midtown during the Forties — “dreamt of [opening] the kind of place where Sam Johnson hung out in 18th century London. … You dropped in, met your friends, heard the news of the day,” Gordon wrote in his 1980 memoir, Live at the Village Vanguard, and “when it got crowded at night, the conversation soared and bristled with wit and good feeling, [and] perhaps a resident poet would rise and declaim some verses he had composed for the entertainment and edification of the guests.”
A smart, honest and no-nonsense man, Gordon ran the Vanguard throughout his long and storied life (he passed away in 1989 at the age of 86), and played host to not only some of the most cherished jazz musicians in history — including Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins — but he also helped launch or propel the careers of bluesmen Josh White and Lead Belly; comedians Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Nichols and May; folk heroes Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; and singers like Harry Belafonte and Barbra Streisand.
Lorraine Gordon — Max’s wife for over 40 years — took over the reins of the Vanguard in 1989, at the age of 67, after Gordon’s death. She closed the club for one night, and has been running it ever since. “I really was a jazz aficionado,” Lorraine told Barry Singer in her 2006 memoir, Alive at the Village Vanguard. “I’d been anonymous for a long time as Mrs. Max Gordon, but I’d spent my whole life learning how to run the Village Vanguard without knowing it.”
Lorraine, who is feisty and proud of it, recently told me that her daily routine hasn’t changed much in 20 years: “I come in the afternoon, and then at some point I go home — to eat or cook or rest — and then I come back at night. I do a double shift. I spend a lot of time here now, but I never worked for Max. I had my own jobs. I’ve been working all my life, but I never ran a club. I worked for someone else. I wasn’t on my own. My daughter Deborah works here now, too. I’m giving it to her lock, stock and barrel. She’s wonderful and much nicer than me,” she says.
Nat Hentoff once noted that the Vanguard is “the closest we have to the Camelot of jazz rooms.” The club is quaint and small — it can only accommodate 123 people — but when you’re sitting down at one of the white circular tables, you instantly feel like you’re a part of jazz history. “There have been nights,” Lorraine says, “when I’ve heard such incredible music and I sit there alone and say to myself, I wish I had someone to poke in the ribs and say, ‘Did you just hear that? It was so great.’ But that’s the beautiful part of jazz music: You know it when you hear it.” Seventy-three years — and counting — you can hear it for yourself, seven nights a week.
This piece originally appeared in Issue 34: Jazz