They still call New York the Big Apple, but it’s less crunchy and tart than it used to be. Going to the Village Vanguard in the 1990s was always a bit intimidating. The owner, Lorraine Gordon, ruled the roost with an iron fist. If she didn’t like the way a patron was behaving, she would rise up out of her seat and yell at them, threatening ejection or even worse.
For about 20 years, you could be anybody anywhere in the world, call the Vanguard between two and five in the afternoon, and have a genuinely famous person yell at you over the phone. At night she acted as if asking the way to the Vanguard bathroom was the most irritating question that had existed in all human history. Lorraine’s irascibility was legendary, and for some it might even have been part of the draw. She once wouldn’t let Henry Kissinger enter mid-set. Kissinger said, “Perhaps you don’t recognize me.” Lorraine said, “Oh no, Henry, it’s just the opposite, I know exactly who you are,” and shut the door in his face.
It never really occurred to me that I would get to play at the Vanguard myself, but in late 2001 Mark Turner gave me the opportunity to sit in with his quartet. Eventually, when people asked Lorraine about the avant-garde trio I cofounded, whose success she was an integral part of, she said, “The Bad Plus? It’s a report card.”
Being “in” at the Vanguard felt like being “in” at the coolest spot in the whole world. Once in a while, when other bands were in residence, I would sit next to Lorraine at the corner table. We’d chastely hold hands, down martinis, and talk about the old giants of jazz she knew in the past. Lorraine was crucial to Thelonious Monk’s career: She was married first to Alfred Lion, the head of Blue Note Records, and then to Max Gordon, the owner of the Vanguard. Both husbands were under her orders to help Monk, whom she declared was a genius long before that assertion was common wisdom.
Part of her love for Monk was simply because Monk’s obvious ragtime and blues influences kept him closer to early jazz than any other bebopper. She named Monk “The High Priest” not long after she told Charlie Parker, “Your tone is too sour: You should listen to Johnny Hodges.” She would get choked up talking about sitting next to Art Tatum on the piano bench. One night composer/scholar Gunther Schuller came in to the Vanguard, and I eavesdropped on the two of them discussing trumpeter Jabbo Smith for half an hour. Smith was an early rival of Louis Armstrong and a comparatively obscure figure today, but a chapter in Lorraine’s memoir Alive at the Village Vanguard is devoted to Smith and a time in the 1980s when she helped him have a bit of a second career.
At the 80th Vanguard birthday celebration curated by Jason Moran, I played the 1939 Mary Lou Williams boogie-woogie “Little Joe From Chicago” and Lorraine was beside herself with joy. I was so pleased, because the Mary Lou was secretly really for Lorraine anyhow. I played a few things with Lorraine in mind over the years. Paul Motian told me, “Play one song Lorraine likes, and you will have a good week with her.” Once Motian and I did “I Should Care” for Lorraine, another time we dusted off “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” Paul Motian seemed like the most independent artist in the world but he would make sure Lorraine was happy. When she complained about one of his projects, he changed personnel mid-week. Often he would take her out to dinner on Sundays.
Motian would not have paid so much attention to her opinion if he didn’t think it was valuable. In time, I also concluded that her judgments were dead on. Indeed, I cannot think of a single thing she ever said about aesthetics that I thought was really wrong. Maybe she loved early jazz best, but she could sit in her temple, listen to her musicians onstage, and know whether a hard bop or an avant-garde group was in the right pocket or not.
She was only critical of the Bad Plus once. We had been playing the Vanguard for New Year’s Eve a few years in succession, and on one occasion we showed up with a kind of trial “gentle” attitude. I was actually feeling pretty good about this direction, but Lorraine was furious. “You’d better start banging around like you used to!” she threatened.
I brought Lorraine a dozen roses for her 95th birthday in October 2017. A couple of months later I held her hand at her table on New Year’s Eve, which was the very last night I played with the Bad Plus. After I heard the news of her passing, I sat down on my home piano and played the best chorus of “Sweet Lorraine” I’ll manage in this lifetime.
When she died she took a big piece of old New York with her. You took one look at Lorraine Gordon and you knew you were in the big town, where things got done by hook or by crook and flamboyant style was part of the armor you needed to make it happen. There will never be another.
A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Ethan Iverson’s blog at ethaniverson.com.