The Village Vanguard celebrated its 80th anniversary last week.
The occasion made me recall what Lorraine Gordon told me a decade ago, when the Vanguard was turning 70. She’s been running the jazz club since 1989, after Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s founder, died.
“I like the coziness of the room when it’s full, when the people seem happy and they’re at one with the artist,” she said. “There’s just a certain feeling you get because it’s small enough to reach out and back and forth between the audience and the artists. So, that’s a palpable feeling. I feel it myself when I sit in the corner and I see everybody’s face is absolutely glued to the stage. It’s like a painting but it’s real life, every night.”
The real life of jazz, as it plays out—set after set, night after night—and the picture it paints for those who care to listen would be unimaginable in New York (and based on the many iconic recordings made at the club, anywhere) without the Vanguard as incubator and home.
Lorraine was sitting there, in her customary spot in the corner, on the way to the kitchen (which stopped being a kitchen long ago, and serves as both green room and office). Beside her most of time was her daughter, Deborah, who runs the club with her and, hovering nearby, Jed Eisenman, the club’s longtime manager.
To celebrate turning 80, the Vanguard turned to Jason Moran, a pianist and bandleader half the club’s age. Moran is a musician who has demonstrated, both on and off the bandstand and in various ways, that he has a singular and secure grasp of the connection between what has preceded him and where he (and we) are headed—and on the intellectual and artistic streams that have always informed and been fed by the scene at the Vanguard and the jazz scene in general.
The week Moran curated to mark the Vanguard’s anniversary began with him in the company of four fellow pianists—Kenny Barron, Stanly Cowell, Fred Hersch and Ethan Iverson; together and one by one, in turns, they enacted both the spirit of friendly competition and the sense of community always present at the club, and they showcased just how terrific a well-played piano sounds in the acoustically charmed wedge-shaped basement space. The following night, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Yusef Komunyakaa read from their works, as Moran’s Bandwagon played, expressing a creative union rarely so well-executed these days and harking back the Vanguard’s first year, when poetry was the main attraction.
By Thursday, comedians fronted, with Bandwagon as both support and foil: Yes, comedy was once an attraction here, too, and the list of past performers includes Lenny Bruce. There was night of Thelonious Monk compositions as played by Moran’s trio (Lorraine Gordon famously persuaded her husband Max to book Monk for a week in 1948, when, “nobody came,” she said, “none of the so-called jazz critics, none of the so-called cognoscenti”). Friday, singer Alicia Hall Moran (the pianist’s wife), and guitarist Bill Frisell joined his trio for music inspired by the famous “improvisational” quilts made by women in the hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
And on Sunday, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, celebrating his own 77th birthday, played a rare club gig with his wonderful New Quartet, of which Moran is a member. Lloyd hadn’t played the Vanguard in more than 40 years. So there was personal history to reference. With its spiritual heft, timeless feeling, forward-leaning approach and elegant blend of the pent-up and laid-back, his quartet’s music came as close as one could wish for of a summary statement about the Vanguard’s life to date and a promise for the future.
After the week concluded, I emailed Moran about the experience, and here are some of his replies:
It was an exhausting week because each night occupied a different part of my thought process, and a different way for the audience to interact with the music. From five pianists sitting around a piano to the return of Charles Lloyd.
Some of the highlights included all 3 of the comedians ripping into the band, and into the audience. It was a reminder of how they work. They too improvise, and they really worked within our process in a very special way. The poetry evening was so meaningful, because in their way of using language, they basically gave context to The Bandwagon. The things we thought about came from their poems—very special.
Monk at the Vanguard was extremely personal, so much so that by the end of the first set, I had them turn out the lights in the room, and the band played a deathly round midnight. Haunting. Andras Schiff was there, and he gave me a huge hug after that set.
Gee’s bend with Alicia and Bill was going straight into church, into the nature and feeling that birthed jazz—complicated and soulful. And of course, Lloyd was a dream. To hear his sound next to me, in that tiny room! A great way to end the wake and celebrate the club and Lloyd’s Bday. It may never happen again, but we did all of that.
Lorraine and Deborah were simply amazing and supportive. I can’t thank the Vanguard enough, and for all of those 20somethings that work there that have their ears open to the music, and literally watched a new history etch itself into the Vanguard wall.
I think one thing I came away with was how the first row functions at the Vanguard. And in three instances, the first row of tables felt the brute force of the performances.
1. The comedians riffed off the front row really hard. About their style, about race, about class.
2. Alicia yanked the phone out of a woman’s hand as the woman was scrolling through photos at the climax of our performance.
3. Charles told a kid in the front row that he squirmed around too much during the first set, and it was distracting.
There was more, but those moments explained the gravity of the diehard jazz fan at the Vanguard, and that they want a personal encounter. And those folks got it.
Photo by Tom Marcello via Flickr