Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Viva Village Vanguard

Jazz clubs are great places. I've been in a few in my time. Ronnie Scott's in central London was where I cut my teeth, while the wonderful Band On The Wall remains my favourite. I remember sitting a few feet away while Cecil Taylor climbed in, on and all over the house grand. I was devastated to hear that, on New Year's Day, the old place had closed down after thirty years of continuous music-making. Happily, there are plans afoot to renovate the building and open up again as a "Space for Music" in 2007. I'll be making the pigrimage. And for a completely different experience - spacious, chic and sophisticated but still with that certain jazz club feel - there's Tokyo's Blue Note.

That's all by the by. It's time to tip the hat and raise a glass to the grandaddy of all jazz clubs. The estimable Village Vanguard at 178 Seventh Avenue South, New York City, is 70 years-old this week. To celebrate the Vanguard has this roster for the week, starting tonight: Roy Hargrove; Wynton Marsalis; The Bad Plus; Jim Hall; The Heath Brothers and The Bill Charlap Trio. Not bad at all. To get a sense of the history of the place just think of all those great "Live at the Village Vanguard" albums: Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Earl Hines ... the list goes on and there's a great collage of album covers here.

There is also a very warm tribute by Tad Hendrickson here. This is how he describes first impressions:
This former speakeasy is not much to look at from the outside, but as you descend the perilously steep stairs you enter a place of legendary - if not mythic - proportions. A place that every serious jazz fan knows, the intimate 123-capacity room is pie-shaped, with the stage at the point. The walls are filled with pictures of the past legends and present stars that have played there. What adds to the New York City ambience is that guests can hear the 1, 2, 3 and 9 trains that run just feet from the street-side wall.
The Vanguard has been run by the formidable Lorraine Gordon since 1989. She has an old-fashioned philosophy you wouldn't want to mess with:
The people who come here truly love jazz. They know there's no food. No credit cards are accepted. And there has been no smoking for 10 years.
More than this, as Tad Hendrickson puts it, she
can generally be found near the door policing the audience, keeping an eye out for such contraband items as mobile phones, tape recorders and cameras. She will also tell guests dithering about where to sit to find a seat and sit in it.
Some lady.

But it's still the music that counts. It's where today's musicians not only pay homage to the legacy of the Vanguard, but try to create their own niche in that wondrous history. Here's the sax player, Chris Potter, recalling his debut:
The first time I played there was with Red Rodney when I was 20 or so. I was scared to death when I saw Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody sitting in the front row, but the vibe was so positive that soon I felt like I was playing in my own living room.
Long live the Vanguard. One day I'll make my own pilgrimage ...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a nice one.

I remember a story where a man from "Krakozhia" lived in an airport terminal to be able to enter American soil for one 'sacred' mission -- to have a photograph (with everyone of his dad's favorite jazz musicians) signed by one last jazz player who hasn't signed. He went to America for that sole reason, to realize this dream his dad was not able to do. Touching. Only this is in a movie. I liked it if only for the story, not all the other underlying messages of what America is all about.


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