In her memoir “Alive At The Village Vanguard," Lorraine Gordon compares descending the stairs into her tiny 71-year old basement jazz club to “walking into an embrace of some kind."
The Vanguard in New York’s Greenwich Village is the Stradivarius of clubs. For the guitarist Bill Frissell, “playing the Vanguard is like playing inside this strange, beautiful, old instrument that all these amazing people have played before you." When he opened it in 1935, Lorraine’s husband Max began by booking such acts as Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Harry Belafonte, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Peter, Paul and Mary when they were still relatively unknown uptown.
They alternated with the likes of Ben Webster, Jabbo Smith, and Lester Young. He booked Ornette Coleman and Nina Simone on the same bill, and Roy Eldridge and Lenny Bruce. His widow has been running the club since he died in 1989.
Seating 132 people, as she puts it, “with a little squeezing," it became a full-time jazz club when, with the growth of television, other entertainers began to get rich and famous, and only the jazz musicians were willing to continue to work in the basement. It’s positively Darwinian, how the form and the venue both prospered. The cozy pie-slice-shaped room turned out to have astounding acoustics. There are more than 100 recordings titled “Live At The Village Vanguard" – notably by Bill Evans and John Coltrane.
Despite remaining unembraced by the mass market, jazz is healthier than it has been in a long time. The large number of inventive young players today testifies to the continuing validity of the music. And they all want to play the Vanguard, which can be compared to 18th century European royal courts with major composers in residence. Listening to the best musicians close-up has long been a luxury.
Ms Gordon was previously married to Alfred Lion, one of the founders of Blue Note Records. She worked with him there for many years, and she had a good enough ear to fall for the music of Thelonious Monk early in his career. She describes how his hands “stammered over the keyboard." He played with a “fractured sense of rhythm." “He’d sleep in snatches – innings, he called them." Monk’s old room on West 63rd Street was “out of Vincent Van Gogh" – containing only “a cot, a window, and an upright piano." He had “this grand, almost regal perversity."
Anecdotes are not lacking. When Max Gordon once asked Miles Davis if he would, as a favor, mind playing a few tunes behind a 19-year old female singer he wanted to audition, Davis replied: “I don’t play behind no girl singers." The singer was Barbra Streisand. Much later Davis played behind Shirley Horn, but she was black, and that’s another story.
Basically the book (“as told to Barry Singer") is what might be called bi-social. It gets kind of cutesy. Excerpts would not be out of place running in Vogue or Elle. Many A-list celebrity names are dropped - Henry Kissinger, Marietta Tree, Jean-Luc Godard, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer – and the story’s locations include luxurious apartments with servants, great schools for the kids, an ocean cruise, and bubbly uptown nightclubs, including her husband’s Blue Angel. But the writer wants you to know that she always worked very hard, while bringing up two daughters and campaigning for leftwing causes at the same time.
The last surviving Greenwich Village mom-and-pop jazz club owner, a tradition including the Terminis of the Five Spot and the Half Note’s Canterino family, Gordon describes herself as “kind of pushy." She presides over her little kingdom from her table by the door with an aura that might oddly enough also be described as “regal perversity." These days it is known as “attitude."
She can be monumentally salty, although it is rumored that that’s really only a shtick. Many of the older and better-known musicians adore her. On the other hand, a young player of Eastern European provenance recently told me that he felt like a “Chechen in Moscow" down there. That’s regal perversity for you.
In the end, going back and forth between Gordon’s uptown and downtown worlds becomes kind of interesting. At least they add up to her own agenda. And it seems to be true, as she says, that she was born to run the Village Vanguard, and that she’d spent all her life in training for it. “I didn’t arrive there out of the blue," she writes. “I stuck to what I loved. That was my art. Throughout my life I followed the course of the music that I loved. I loved jazz."