The Village Vanguard: A Hallowed Basement

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53 min 39 sec
 
The facade of the Village Vanguard remains mostly unchanged since this 1976 photograph. i i

The facade of the Village Vanguard remains mostly unchanged since this 1976 photograph. Tom Marcello hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Marcello
The facade of the Village Vanguard remains mostly unchanged since this 1976 photograph.

The facade of the Village Vanguard remains mostly unchanged since this 1976 photograph.

Tom Marcello

It has become, perhaps, the most famous basement in New York City. The small room with low ceilings and remarkable acoustics has staged more than 100 live commercial recordings, several of which are essential works in the history of jazz on record. The Village Vanguard, open since 1935, is the oldest continuously operated jazz club in the world.

When founder Max Gordon originally launched the Greenwich Village club, it provided a stage for folk musicians, poets, actors and comedians, as well as jazz musicians. From its inception, the Vanguard attracted hip, well-informed audiences. Gordon gave singer Harry Belafonte his first big break, and Belafonte remembers both an eclectic group of performers and the support of the club owner. The Vanguard was also one of the first places Woody Allen ever performed as a comedian, and he recalls that Gordon was warm and supportive even of "difficult" acts.

The club and the audiences it attracted reflected Gordon's sensibility. The legendary Broadway writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green gained its first performing experience at the Vanguard in 1938. With a 16-year-old Judy Holliday, not yet the famous film star, the pair formed a variety group called The Reviewers that attracted large crowds. Gordon, they say, was not a stereotypical nightclub boss. Widow Lorraine Gordon says that her husband was "very gentle with people, and they liked that about him."

In the mid-1950s, Max Gordon narrowed the club's scope to only jazz, and it soon became well-known for its fierce, no-frills commitment to the music. A string of classic albums recorded on-site certainly helped bolster the venue's public profile. In 1957, the first Vanguard recording was made; Sonny Rollins' A Night at the Village Vanguard has since been widely recognized as one of the best live albums in jazz. Saxophonist Joshua Redman calls it a benchmark for improvisers and performers.

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NPR Music and WBGO are currently running a series of live broadcasts, simulcast on air and online, direct from the Village Vanguard:

Hear five classic recordings made live at the Vanguard:

Lorraine Gordon interviewed about her memoir, Alive At The Village Vanguard:

Lorraine Gordon, who took over operation of the club when her husband died in 1989, says that part of the magic on Seventh Avenue South is because the room is "common, in a way." Only 132 people can squeeze into its confines, and the intimacy creates a rare exchange between artist and audience.

Pianist McCoy Tyner, who recorded at the Vanguard with John Coltrane in 1961, says that, in the club, "you can hear everything." The Vanguard's acoustic properties set it apart from other clubs, even though no technical explanation has ever fully explained it. No matter where you sit in the room — in the front row, at the bar in the back or on the sides — the sound is equally marvelous. According to Redman, there isn't another room in the world that sounds as good for jazz.

Musicians greatly respected Max Gordon, and he became a friend to many — among them Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones, Charles Mingus and Bill Evans, the pianist who made more recordings at the Vanguard than any other musician. Their images are all among the photographs that look down from the club's walls onto its red leather banquettes and red-velvet-draped stage.

The club was closed for one night when Max Gordon died on May 11, 1989, but Lorraine Gordon opened it the next night and has operated the club ever since. Well over 80, the "Queen Mother of Jazz" still works six days a week. Initially, Lorraine was a jazz fan and regular patron of the Vanguard. Years later, she and Max developed a friendship, rooted in their love of music, that led to marriage in 1948. Although she was quite knowledgeable about jazz, Lorraine never worked at the club until the last few years of Max's life.

Lorraine Gordon has developed strong relationships with veteran musicians such as pianists Chucho Valdes and the late Tommy Flanagan, who both play(ed) the club frequently. As her husband did, she has championed younger players, like the trio The Bad Plus and pianist Brad Mehldau. As most musicians who work with her attest, she has also developed a reputation for being tough, a necessary trait when the telephone doesn't stop ringing in your 12' x 12' office — which doubles as the musicians' dressing room.

In the foreword to Max Gordon's 1980 book about the Village Vanguard, critic Nat Hentoff surmised that the club had survived so long because of the passion of both the performers and its owner. Hentoff now says that Lorraine Gordon "deserves the credit" for maintaining the passion and keeping the Vanguard vibrant in the 21st century.

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