Wall Street Journal

After 70 Years, The Village Vanguard Is Still in the Jazz Swing

February 8, 2005

New York

Try repeating it out loud: VIL-lage VAN-guard, VIL-lage VAN-guard.

For 70 years, that alliterative name has swung in 4/4 time, marking the center of the known jazz universe to an international circle of musicians and music fans. To the uninitiated, the small club at the bottom of 15 well-trodden steps below street level may seem little more than a cramped, triangular-shaped room. But to a hip populace it's where the ghosts of past jazz giants still play, where the best living jazz talent aspire to record, and where sound waves seem to reverberate in a manner unlike any other club, anywhere.

"I call it the Carnegie Hall of jazz because most jazz clubs just don't have the sound that that place has," says pianist Jason Moran, whose last album was recorded at the Vanguard. "It's the place where Moses and Mohammed and Jesus walked!"

Saxophonist Joe Lovano, whose most recent live album was also a Vanguard gig, agrees. "It might affect you to be sitting in that room, imagining, 'Oh, [Thelonious] Monk was here!' 'Man, Miles [Davis] and Hank Mobley played here, and Bill Evans's trio!' You're feeling the spirits. Well, that's how I feel when I record there -- we're calling the spirits."

Other jazz venues once claimed that kind of primacy. "The corner of the jazz world" was the boast of the original Birdland at Broadway and 55th. But the Vanguard, seven decades old this Feb. 21 -- still at 178 Seventh Avenue South, still with a seating capacity of 123 -- has survived them all.

This historical photo of the building that houses the Village Vanguard (its entrance sign can be seen just below that of the Rialto Cleaners') was taken in the 1930s. The triangular shape of the building has been said to help project the sound.

"Years ago there was Birdland, the Five Spot, Cafe Society and the Royal Roost and all of 52nd Street. It's a shame that's all gone," says Lorraine Gordon, who inherited the basement room from her husband Max when he passed away in 1989. "Why did the Vanguard last? I mean Max was not a pretentious nightclub man. He just loved what he did and loved the people he booked."

Gordon first opened the Vanguard in 1935 as a variety venue presenting sketch comedy, poetry and dinner. Since then, the club's tradition of left-leaning politics and irreverence -- Yiddish poets in the '30s, absurdists like Professor Irwin Corey in the '50s -- is reflected in the progressive jazz it still presents.

"The club has followed a roadmap that began with the poets, to the folksingers like Pete Seeger, to vocalists like Harry Belafonte and finally to almost every phase of jazz," maintains Ms. Gordon. She sees the club today as a star landmark in a landmark neighborhood ("it's made the Village more important because it's been so steadfast") and the city agrees. Not for nothing does a street sign on the nearest corner read "Max Gordon Place."

Of wiry build, Ms. Gordon is usually at the Vanguard six nights a week, overseeing the club with an energy unhindered by four-score years. She is "Lorraine" to all musicians, whom she first-names as well: the trumpeter Wynton (Marsalis), the saxophonist Sonny (Rollins), the singer Shirley (Horn, who chuckles: "Lorraine? I call her the Sergeant.") Ms. Gordon speaks in energetic bursts from her command post -- a desk in the club's former kitchen that continues to serve as the offstage area for generations of musicians.

"I never had an office -- I wonder what that would feel like," she says with a laugh, noting that like any other club "the Vanguard has gone through all kinds of problems. We've had a flood, part of the ceiling's fallen down, but the walls are still filled with photos of great artists that are no longer with us, who are here in spirit."

The Vanguard's enduring stature as the jazz mecca -- calling the faithful to hear, to play and to record there -- owes much to a half-century's worth of classic albums recorded in the basement room, from Sonny Rollins's "A Night at the Village Vanguard" in 1957 and John Coltrane's and Bill Evans's famed Vanguard titles, both from '61, to Art Pepper's "Thursday Night at..." in '77, Tommy Flanagan's "Nights at..." in '86 and Wynton Marsalis's voluminous seven-disc "Live at..." in '99. A dozen more in the past two years alone have brought the number of titles generated at the club to close to 150. "The words 'Live at the Village Vanguard' do have a direct and positive influence on an album's sales," claims Bruce Lundvall, head of Blue Note Records, a leading jazz label with over a dozen "Live at the Vanguard" titles in its catalog.

A "Live at the Vanguard" album has become a rite of passage for modern jazz players, many of whom credit the room's unusual shape as the secret behind the club's complimentary acoustics. "The way the band can set up in that triangle-type corner, the sound really projects out," maintains Mr. Lovano. "It has a real opera house kind of a feeling -- there's nothing that goes behind you or on the sides." Kurt Lundvall, engineer on the recent Moran and Lovano sessions at the club, explains that "other clubs are like boxes, but in here, you have hardly any parallel or reflective surfaces, so the Vanguard is the best venue on the East Coast for recording jazz, period."

The forces that originally shaped the Vanguard make for an interesting, "only in New York" story. In 1914, the City tore a nine-block swath through the upper heart of Greenwich Village, to add a subway link between Seventh Avenue and 12th Street and Varick Street. Entire blocks were razed and the corners of buildings were sheared off. By 1917, Village geometry had changed forever, leaving a number of unusual triangular lots along the newly created Seventh Avenue South.

In 1921, developer Morris Weinstein hastily erected a thin, cake-slice building on the southern tip of one of those half-blocks and began renting space to various businesses, including a cleaner on street level and a speakeasy in the basement that was aptly named The Golden Triangle.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 the tavern closed, and a young Max Gordon discovered the room that for two years had been "closed for alterations," and offered all he needed: "two johns, two exits, two hundred feet away from a church or synagogue or school, and with rent under $100 a month," as he wrote in his 1980 autobiography. Though Ms. Gordon declined to disclose the Vanguard's current rent, she notes that in 70 years the club has never missed its monthly payment.

Today, time and the eternal bottom line have distilled the Vanguard experience down to the essentials: music, drinks (no coffee or tea) and history. The angled walls display generation-old photographs and posters of those who once regularly played the room: Charles Mingus. Dexter Gordon. Elvin Jones. A battered tuba breaks the array, and an unusual double-belled euphonium (a gift from trumpeter Jabbo Smith, it turns out) hangs above the bar.

It may seem so artfully minimal, but then jazz culture has always prized economy over embellishment. Still, Ms. Gordon feels that "this little old club deserves a birthday of its own. It's going to get a cake and a buffet: a real party for a 70-year-old grande dame." The celebration will last a full week, from Feb. 14 to 20, featuring a new or established Vanguard favorite headlining each night: trumpeter Roy Hargrove, the jazz-rock trio Bad Plus, guitarist Jim Hall, Philadelphia's famed Heath Brothers, and pianist Bill Charlap.

"It's a very well-rounded group -- each one has their own incredible style," notes Ms. Gordon, who is reaching uptown for a little extra dazzle. "Wynton Marsalis I've invited as my guest -- and I'd be thrilled to have him. Who wouldn't be?"

What of the club itself: Will there be any special banners, a big "7-0" out front?

"You know those restaurants that are so chic they don't even put their name outside? I think the Vanguard has been chic for 70 years," Ms. Gordon chuckles. "But I will have the awning cleaned."

Mr. Kahn is a music journalist and author of "A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album" (Viking, 2002).


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