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Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time by Lorraine Gordon

Anyone who has descended the steps to the Village Vanguard during the past 18 years, since Lorraine Gordon took over the stewardship of that hallowed, subterranean, oddly triangular-shaped jazz club in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village, has firsthand experience with just how formidable a presence she can be. She is the quintessential tough broad with a no-nonsense style.

Lorraine’s colorful memoir details her journey from Newark, N.J., where she became an avid jazz fan and record collector with a schoolgirl crush on swing-era Benny Goodman, to her seven-year marriage/partnership with Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion and her second marriage to bohemian intellectual and Vanguard founder Max Gordon. Finally, it assesses her ultimate rebirth as a jazz club owner at age 67. “Max left me this wonderful little club,” she writes. “Except he didn’t actually leave it to me. It was there. So I took it. By the horns. And I shook it up.”

Since taking over the reins of the Vanguard in May of 1989, Lorraine has injected new blood into the place with bookings that reflect her own personal tastes. “I like what I like, so that’s what I hire. I don’t know anything else,” she writes. The list of cutting edge artists she has showcased during her tenure includes Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brian Blade, Jeremy Pelt, Don Byron, Greg Osby, Fly, the Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau and Dave Douglas.

Alive at the Village Vanguard includes a chronology and discography of “The Lorraine Gordon Years,” listing every performer booked and every album recorded there during her tenure. It also includes revealing chapters about Lorraine’s political activism (she helped organize protests against the Vietnam War and in 1965 even traveled to Hanoi on behalf of Women Strike for Peace), her resurrecting of trumpeter Jabbo Smith’s career during the 1980s and her fervent championing of Thelonious Monk at the outset of his career. “Monk was a revelation,” she writes. “From our very first encounter, he was right in my groove.” Monk’s first Blue Note session was cut on Lorraine’s birthday, Oct. 15, in 1947, and he eventually became her personal mission at the label. To naysayers who questioned his legitimacy, she would counter, “You just wait. This man’s a genius. You don’t know anything!” Over time, she became Monk’s publicist, chauffer and mouthpiece to the public.

Thankfully, Lorraine doesn’t water down her signature feistiness here. To wit: “Sonny Rollins played the Vanguard plenty in the ’60s and ’70s. You think I could get him back today? Never. Sonny wouldn’t consider anything so lowly. I’ve stopped asking. Let him go play on a bridge.”

The day that Max Gordon died, she closed the Village Vanguard. “And then the next day I was there working,” she writes. “And from that day on, I’ve been there. In charge. Totally.” At age 85, she remains as fiercely committed to the music as ever.

Originally Published