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A Jazz Legend Turns 75: Happy Birthday to the Village Vanguard

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By Tad Hendrickson

A major jazz milestone takes place this week as the Village Vanguard celebrates its 75th birthday. This legendary club located in the West Village neighborhood of New York City has been what many believe to be the heart and soul of jazz for generations. Every fan worth their salt has his or her favorite album recorded in the tiny pie-shaped room that seats a mere 123 patrons--Bill Evans's Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard probably being the most famous, but John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard is legendary and a personal favorite. The Vanguard is where giants walked the earth and their spirit lives on.

Located at 178 Seventh Avenue South in the Greenwich Village that gives it the first half of its name, this former speakeasy was opened by Max Gordon in 1935 and was run by him up until his death in 1989. It started out booking a variety of talent, including Woody Allen in his stand-up comedy days, Harry Belafonte and Barbra Streisand (more on her later), before implementing an all-jazz policy in 1957.

Max's widow, Lorraine Gordon, now runs the club, changing it very little during her 21 years of stewardship: There's no food, they don't take credit cards, and don't ask for a fancy cocktail or expensive champagne. It's an approach that seems counter to the way many clubs are run today, but the Vanguard is first and foremost about good music.

Most nights customers can see Lorraine standing or sitting by the door, keeping an eye out for such contraband as recording devices and cameras, generally shooing dawdlers to a seat if they aren't moving fast enough. While Lorraine isn't there all the time, no true night at the Vanguard is complete without seeing this no-nonsense woman in action. The club is famous for all the legends that have played it, but the Gordons are jazz royalty in their own right, having their own history intertwined with many of jazz's greatest figures.

“I think I could call Thelonious Monk 'Cupid' because it was because of Thelonious I met Max," Lorraine says, matter-of-factly. “I booked Thelonious into the Vanguard. I was married to [Blue Note Records founder] Alfred Lion at the time and worked for him and knew all the musicians."

She remembers the sets by Monk as “marvelous, as always" but not club's biggest draw: “There were no people because no one knew Monk, including Max Gordon, who had never heard of him. Nobody knew Monk except musicians. Max booked Monk because he liked my bathing suite at Fire Island. That sure wouldn't work today" [laughs].

That may be, but Lorraine Gordon still has an ear for talent. Her taste is deeply informed by the classic jazz sound, and she holds her artists up to her own exacting standards. Each band plays two sets a night Tuesdays through Sundays, with Mondays reserved for the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

“I try not to go with all the changes because you can be carried away by things that aren't really jazz," Lorraine points out. “They may look like it for a minute, until you sit and listen to it. I like what I like and I book what I like. Since I have to be here, I want to hear what I want to hear. I'm selfish."

What you can find at the club is regular booking of such legends as Cedar Walton, Paul Motion, Lou Donaldson, Lee Konitz, and others who remember 52nd Street as the Mecca of jazz. There are also established icons of today like Jason Moran, Chris Potter and Bill Frisell, as well as Joe Lovano, who played in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra early in his career and is the keynote booking for the 75th anniversary week. Always one to go her own way, Lorraine will still book unknowns upon occasion and has featured runs by such non-bebop fare such as Bebo Valdes, Cecil Taylor and the Bad Plus, who did a live national broadcast last New Year's Eve.

The club made the local and national news recently as the setting for Barbra Streisand's first club date in 48 years. It was a one-night deal where celebrities like the Clinton family rubbed elbows with some lucky lottery winners who applied for tickets through the singer's Web site. Streisand's latest is a jazzy album called 'Love Is the Answer,' which is sort of full circle for her, as she got an early break from Max Gordon. “She appeared with Miles Davis, but Miles wouldn't play for no girls," Lorraine recalls. “She sang the set anyway and went on to bigger and better things, but she never forgot us."

Streisand actually moved on to the Blue Angel, a fancier club uptown that was also owned by Max Gordon -- it was here that she became a sensation that led to Broadway work and way beyond. According to Lorraine, “I had a wonderful time. It took me weeks to recover from it. It was an incredible night: The whole street was blocked off -- for [Bill and Hillary] Clinton, actually -- and there were Secret Service all over the place. It was superb. They're not enough stars."

If one thing is consistent in New York City, it is change. Nonetheless, the Village Vanguard continues on as it has for all these years -- often drawing lines down the block -- and it doesn't sound as if anything is going to change anytime soon.

“People worry about this place, but we are not going anywhere," Lorraine says with pride. “They come back with their grandchildren now; there've been three or four generations that have come here. It has taken root in people's lives, which is kind of beautiful."


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