Lorraine Gordon, Keeper of a Shrine to Jazz Lorraine Gordon is the keeper of New York's historic Village Vanguard. Recently, Gordon published a set of memoirs, the recollections of a woman who was married to two famous men of jazz.

Lorraine Gordon, Keeper of a Shrine to Jazz

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

If there is a jazz shrine in New York City, it is the Village Vanguard. And the keeper of that shrine is Lorraine Gordon. She's been married to not one, but two famous men of jazz. And she has a new memoir which tells a story of her life of music, politics and family, a life she lived on her own terms. Lorraine Gordon's book is called "Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time."

NPR's Felix Contreras has this profile.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. LORRAINE GORDON (Author, "Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time"): Village Vanguard.

FELIX CONTRERAS: It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon at the Village Vanguard. Show time is five hours away, but Lorraine Gordon is already at work.

Ms. GORDON: No. The first set is sold out, but we have an 11 o'clock if you want.

CONTRERAS: There are calls to answer, new chairs to unpack, and a small staff to direct. This is the most revered room in jazz. John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, among so many others, have all played the small, wedge-shaped room. Musicians who play the Vanguard say those spirits seem to hang in the air. At last count, there were over 150 albums with the words: Live at the Village Vanguard in the title. John Coltrane's 1961 date is among the most notable.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Lorraine Gordon is the driving force behind the Vanguard and the guardian of its fabled legacy. Tall and thin with a shock of low-kept grey hair, 84-year-old Gordon says the history of the room speaks to her.

Ms. GORDON: The room really responds to some artists more than others, and it responds because the walls start to shake a little when there's no business. And the room says forget it, the vibes aren't right. I listen to the room. The room tells me a lot.

CONTRERAS: The building dates back to 1921, and the Vanguard's location within the building is an unlikely spot for jazz history.

Ms. GORDON: You are sitting in a cellar, in a basement. Do you understand? This is the lower depth. Below on me is the subway, which very discerning ears can hear it rumble, and certain drummers who play a loud beat when the subway got a spot, they know the music of the subway.

CONTRERAS: Gordon's history with jazz began when she was teenager Lorraine Stein in 1930s Newark, New Jersey.

Ms. GORDON: I grew up in a very middle-class family who never played a record. I don't remember music in my house except for the records I played.

(Soundbite of song, "Summertime")

CONTRERAS: Some of those recordings were from Blue Note Records, a small jazz label run by German emigre Alfred Lion. Lorraine eventually met and married Lion in 1942, and become a part of Blue Note's early successes by listening to session playbacks with Lion and choosing which songs made it onto albums. Those early albums helped establish Blue Note's reputation as a premiere jazz label.

(Soundbite of song, "Summertime")

CONTRERAS: The Lions moved in to a small apartment in Greenwich Village, which was then the center of bohemian life in New York. Poets, artists, writers and ne'er-do-wells all rubbed shoulders in Village pubs, flats, and at the Village Vanguard. Back then, the Vanguard was just that - a cultural outpost for bohemian life.

Ms. GORDON: This place was only for poets. Poets read up there and people threw money at them. There was no liquor license. It was a very pure Village spot, which does not exist today anymore.

CONTRERAS: Eventually, the Vanguard added music to the poetry reading, and included Sunday afternoon jazz jam sessions where Lorraine and Alfred Lion were regulars. The Vanguard and its owner, Max Gordon, would become a part of her life when she and Lion experienced problems after eight years of being husband and wife as well as business partners.

After a painful transition, she married Gordon in 1950 and had two daughters within two years. This began the next phase of her life: a mother with a taste for political activism.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. I was always interested in trying to help our country behave.

CONTRERAS: In 1961, she joined Women Strike for Peace, a group of moms that protested the growing threat of nuclear testing. The group opposed the Vietnam War. And in 1965, while on a trip to Moscow, she took a clandestine side trip to North Vietnam to meet with Vietnamese mothers who also wanted an end to the war. She said she lived a full life as a parent and as citizen engaged in the world around her.

Then, her life away from the jazz world would come to an end in 1989 with the death of her husband, Max Gordon. At the age of 70, Lorraine Gordon became the owner of a jazz institution.

Ms. GORDON: The night he died, across the street here at St. Vincent's Hospital, I closed the club that night. Max never asked me to run the club and he asked nobody because he was indomitable, as we all think we are. I closed it for one night, and the next night I opened it.

CONTRERAS: Barry Singer was Gordon's co-writer for her memoir "Alive at the Village Vanguard."

Mr. BARRY SINGER (Co-author, "Alive at the Village Vanguard"): If you look at her life, the arch of it, it seemed almost like it was destiny that this was what she should wind up doing because she was perfect at it. So when she finally took over at the Vanguard, I think she found herself, she found her voice.

CONTRERAS: Gordon had to teach herself the nightclub business. She says she relied on her instincts and her love of jazz.

Ms. GORDON: I have good ears. That's my gift, that I know when something is good, and I want it to play here.

(Soundbite of song, "At the Vanguard")

CONTRERAS: Lorraine Gordon books artists that appeal to her personal tastes. One of those is saxophonist Joe Lovano. On his live 2003 album, "On This Day At The Vanguard," he wrote a tune for the club called "At The Vanguard."

(Soundbite of song, "At the Vanguard")

Mr. JOE LOVANO (Musician): I've seen her throw people out, and not care, you know, if people come in or not. You know. She's got a strong energy. And when she's there, her presence is felt by everyone.

CONTRERAS: Plainspoken, opinionated, one-of-a-kind, those are just a few of the descriptions of Gordon from those who encounter her.

Ms. GORDON: A man called me here the other day to make a reservation. The band was here. I'm not remembering who it was at the moment. But he said to me is this an all-white band, or black, or what. I said, excuse me. What difference does it make to you? I got a little bit nasty maybe, because I said I don't understand this question. You're coming to hear the music or to look at colors or what? Anyway, we had a long discussion and I hipped to him on how to be a better human being. We wound up friends.

CONTRERAS: But according to Barry Singer, that rough exterior may just be to hide an inner shyness.

Mr. SINGER: Even the musicians I've talked to said that, you know, she kind of scares them with her intensity and her frank way of speaking. I always suspected that underneath there was a very warm person under there. And the more I've gotten to know her, the more I understand how sensitive she is.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: The Vanguard's schedule is booked almost completely till the end of the year. That means Lorraine Gordon will continue to sit at her desk in the Vanguard's kitchen/backstage dressing room to pay bills, answer phones and generally keep the place going. But when the lights go down and the band is swinging, it's as if she's that teenage jazz fan from Newark all over again, lost in her first love - jazz.

Ms. GORDON: Oh, that's my reward when I can go home and rest a little bit, and come down and join the crowd and sit here. And I'm one with them because I'm listening and they're listening, and I'm happy. It's perfect, yeah. It's beautiful. It's a tremendous reward. Who gets that?

CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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You can read about the first time Lorraine Gordon heard Thelonious Monk play and hear performances from the Village Vanguard at our Web site, npr.org.

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