Alive at the Village Vanguard

I'm always dismayed when a New Yorker says that he or she has never visited the Village Vanguard, the world's premier jazz club. An acoustic marvel to rival Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard is likewise a cathedral of aspiration and genius and a temple to time, which seems to stop in its tracks whenever I descend its red chute of a stairwell. The Vanguard is as impervious to change as a medieval castle-even the waitstaff's been there for decades, and, like spirits in a dream, they never age. Upon paying Charon his fare, one enters a small, nearly-triangular underworld with a black ceiling and green walls that boast a motley of photographs, posters, artworks and two archaic, dented brass instruments, the largest of which Major Holley once fitted with a mouthpiece and blew, straddling a banquette and taking purchase on the wall like a spider.

The banquettes lining the longest walls are red and the center floor is filled with tables and wooden chairs upholstered in black or brown. The stage is at the wide end, and an impressively scarred bar lines one side of the rear. Tables on the right, as you enter, rise to the same level as the stage but are marred by pillars behind which the unlucky or late are condemned to sit. No matter where you sit, however, the sound is astonishing: rich, proportionate and natural. That's one reason so many classic albums are called Live at the Village Vanguard, which is also the title of the founder's memoirs.

Max Gordon (this is his centenary), who launched the Vanguard at its present address in 1935, liked to sit against the back wall, cigar in hand. After his death in 1989, his wife, Lorraine Gordon, took over, establishing the club's landmark status and sustaining its fabled reliability. She prefers the last banquette on the left, near the kitchen, which is really a musicians' green room. The Vanguard does not offer food-there's nothing to do there but listen.

Armed with borrowed ID, I descended the Vanguard stairs for the first time in the mid-'60s, one fourth of a blind double date that included a school drummer. We had saved up to hear Bill Evans, who had just released the disappointing album Trio '65. Ignorant as I was, I opined beforehand that the drummer on the album wasn't great. In those days, entering the Vanguard was like walking into a cumulous cloud or a Herman Leonard photograph-everyone smoked. A few minutes into an electrifying set, even we knew that the drummer was magnificent; his cymbals crashed and chattered like a choir of hyperventilating angels. "He must have had a bad day," I whispered, trying to save face, as my friend's mandible bounced off the table. The girls shrugged and concentrated on their Singapore Slings. When the set ended, Evans told the audience that his drummer had been stalled on the Long Island Expressway. He thanked Tony Williams for sitting in.

One night, between sets when Ornette Coleman's trio was playing, an evidently discombobulated man wandered up to the stage, swiped at the cymbals for a few minutes, then sat at the piano, which had been pushed into the shadows. Ornette didn't seem to mind, so we figured he was important. When the stranger shouted, Claudius-like, for light, a booming voice roared from the door: "Drummer-man don't need no light, Max!" A man seated near me croaked, "That's Charles Mingus." The large newcomer, dressed all in black, walked to the stage, lifted the first man and carried him out, leaving the room stunned. Yes, it was rumored, that was Max Roach, poor guy. What happened to him? Nobody knew. Bummer. A year later I learned that Mingus and Roach had conceived and rehearsed that one-act play at a nearby bar-Samuel Beckett never crafted a more dramatic moment.

Sundays were given to late-afternoon matinees. During a week when Miles Davis was in residence, he didn't show for the first set. Most of the crowd lined up for a refund. Max Gordon stood at the entrance, as each departing customer demanded the return of his $3.50, and insisted that the rest of the band was very talented. The few of us who remained had to put up with an hour of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. On another occasion, Miles quashed his cigarette in my ashtray and said, "Keep it, kid; someday it'll be worth something."

When I turned 18, my parents offered to take me to the place of my choice to celebrate. I wanted them to see the Vanguard, where I had been secretly going, always with borrowed ID. They agreed. Horace Silver and Bill Evans were playing a double bill. During intermission, my dad, who knew and cared nothing about jazz, disappeared. A few minutes later, I looked back and, with disbelief and envy, saw him engaged in a merry conversation with Max and Bill. I could hardly wait to ask him what they had spoken about. He told me that if this was where I spent my time, he wanted to make sure it was safe.

"And?" I asked.

"It's fine, go anytime you like."

I don't know what the hell you and Bill said, Max. But thanks.

Originally published in September 2003

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