At 80, Still In the Vanguard

By Larry Blumenfeld

Entering the Village Vanguard jazz club hasn’t changed much through the years. There’s the red awning that stretches out over the sidewalk of Seventh Avenue South and the somewhat demure red neon sign above. A handwritten calligraphic sign behind a glass case announces the week’s act. Steep, narrow stairs descend into a pie-slice-shaped basement room.

Yet it’s what has gone on inside the space that makes the place a jazz landmark like no other, a constant in a Greenwich Village that holds few vestiges of its former self within a city marked by unending change. One could assemble a strong core to a jazz-recording collection simply from the many albums documenting Vanguard gigs — from Sonny Rollins’ 1957 release to Marc Ribot’s 2014 CD and, among others in between, classics from Bill Evans and John Coltrane. There’s history in the place — ghosts, some swear. And yet the Vanguard also remains a place to go to hear what’s new and current.

The Vanguard’s 80th anniversary, celebrated during a week in mid-March, brought to mind what Lorraine Gordon told me a decade ago, when the Vanguard turned 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.”

Through most of March’s celebratory week, Lorraine sat 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 the 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 Gordons had turned to Jason Moran, a pianist and bandleader half the club’s age.

Photo Credit: Tom Marcello

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