The 'Ex-Jazz Lover' Says It's Okay To Be Sad

Village Vanguard i i

hide captionOutside the Village Vanguard.

John Rogers / johnrogersnyc.com
Village Vanguard

Outside the Village Vanguard.

John Rogers / johnrogersnyc.com

It must be a special occasion if there's food at the Village Vanguard. It's not like you'd starve to death if you got stuck down there during some terrestrial calamity, but the only sustenance you'd find in that kitchen floats in massive jars: martini olives and maraschino cherries. An old cast-iron salamander bid its fond farewell a decade ago, having fallen prey to insistent fire inspectors. The grub had stopped much earlier — in the 1970s, they say. A guy named Elton is rumored to have cooked the best hamburgers in the jazz world on that stove.

I smelled fried deliciousness as I headed down the stairs a few weeks ago. Chicken wings, ribs, rice and beans, and coleslaw were on the menu for the Vanguard's private 75th anniversary party. No one played — after all, how could you choose a band, or even two or three, without offending everyone you hadn't asked? Instead, there was a short film documenting the history of the club in its pre-jazz days, up until the 1950s.

Mighty Lorraine Gordon, the owner, nearly broke down in tears at the end, pronouncing that her daughters were her little family, but that all of us were her big family.

Virtually everyone at the party knew each other. When I first arrived, jazz historian and radio host Phil Schaap was engrossed in telling impresario George Wein a story, ending with the punch line, "And when he returned the records 40 years later — they were bald!" Blue Note's former CEO Bruce Lundvall was cozied up with photographer Carol Friedman, who'd started at the Vanguard as a coat check girl. I spotted Jazz at Lincoln Center's Artistic Director Todd Barkan, WBGO's Public Service Director Dorthaan Kirk, Half Note Records' Jeff Levenson, and writer Gary Giddins, as well as musicians Jimmy Heath, Paul Motian, Barbara Carroll, Annie Ross and many, many more.

Suffice it to say, it was a local gathering of people responsible for what happens to be a startling percentage of jazz recordings, performances, and commentary, past and present. Precisely the same crowd could have been expected at the 65th anniversary, the only difference being that everyone is now a decade older (myself included, much as I'd rather deny it). A great many of the guests had a few years on the club itself — a few substantially so, like 96-year-old Professor Irwin Corey.

I could hear my mother's voice saying, "You have to enjoy special occasions like these because you don't know how much longer everyone will be around." (I suppose that's only a little better than Terry Teachout's voice shouting, "See! See! I told you!")

If people stopped to think for a minute, maybe they'd remember that the "death of jazz" is more than a polemic — a tired polemic at that. Anyone who has really been close to the music has been saddened by news of closing clubs, defunct record labels, and such, but, more importantly, over the loss of people we knew and loved. We might not want to admit it, but we go to concerts to see revered elders because we wonder how much precious time they have left. Our memorials and tributes and anniversaries used to pass for celebrations of tradition, but they have arguably overtaken consideration of the living.

Isn't it obvious that we're obsessed with death even as we preach that jazz is alive? That it's a constant feature of our thinking? We don't need more studies of the aging audience. What jazz lovers could really use is grief counseling and therapy. The debates that surround the music seem rooted in the problem that we still don't know how to come to terms with loving something so beautiful and yet so fragile.

It's easier to pick a fight than move forward, beyond such a tight-knit community. Or retreat to your couch, as the case may be.

I'd put in my appearance, made the rounds, and caught up with a few old friends, despite the specter hovering nearby. And I'd be glad to attend the 85th Anniversary — if there is one. But when I left the Vanguard, I kept thinking that it would've been nice to have seen some newer and younger faces in the crowd. In the meantime, I'll be seeking out new sources of musical nourishment and trying to remember have more fun at parties.

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Lara Pellegrinelli calls herself the "ex-jazz lover" because of this. Her columns for ABS are collected here.

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