Lorraine Gordon, Owner of the Village Vanguard, Dies at 95

For more than 65 years, she helped maintain jazz's most storied venue

Lorraine Gordon at the Village Vanguard, 2003 image 3
John Abbott

Lorraine Gordon at the Village Vanguard, 2003

Lorraine Gordon, longtime owner of the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York and widow of its founder Max Gordon, died on the morning of Saturday, June 9, at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. She was 95 years old.

Her death was confirmed by Jed Eisenman, the general manager of the Village Vanguard. Eisenman said that the cause of death was complications from a stroke that Gordon suffered on Memorial Day.

Known as a shrewd businesswoman, Gordon balanced her lifelong love of the music and its players with a take-no-prisoners approach to running the world’s most storied jazz venue. In doing so, she became nearly as prominent a personality in the jazz world as the musicians she booked and befriended—enough to publish an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award-winning memoir, Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time, in 2006. She was named an NEA Jazz Master for advocacy in 2013.

Prior to her marriage to Max Gordon, which lasted from 1949 to his death in 1989, Gordon was married to Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion. In that capacity she began her work as a jazz advocate, helping her husband to produce his first important records and securing the first recording contract for the legendary pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

Lorraine Stein was born October 15, 1922 in Newark, N.J., where she grew up. She became an avid jazz fan and record collector in 1937, when she was 14, and began shortly thereafter to travel into New York to see live music at every opportunity. In 1940, she paid her first visit to the Greenwich Village basement haunt that she would one day own.

That same year, Stein met Lion, a German immigrant who had recently founded a tiny label called Blue Note Records. They began dating; in 1942, while Lion was in the Army and stationed in Texas, they married. Upon his 1943 discharge, Lion resumed operations at Blue Note, with his wife pitching in wherever she was needed. “I learned to type,” she recalled in her memoir. “I did all the bookkeeping. And though I didn’t know what public relations meant, I did that too.”

In 1947, Stein discovered an eccentric pianist named Thelonious Monk and convinced Lion to sign and record him; the sessions, later collected on a two-disc set titled Genius of Modern Music, were the turning point in Blue Note’s history, the catalyst that would place the label on jazz’s forefront from then on. Stein promoted the records doggedly: “Thelonious Monk became my personal mission,” she wrote. It was while promoting him in the summer of 1948 that she met Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon. One year later, she had divorced Lion and married Gordon.

In the 1960s, Gordon became an outspoken political activist, a founding member in 1961 of Bella Abzug’s movement Women Strike for Peace. In 1965, she made a secret, unsanctioned journey from the Soviet Union to Hanoi, North Vietnam, in an attempt to connect a group of women there who were working to end the Vietnam War.

Gordon also maintained a career as a merchandising manager at the Brooklyn Museum until her husband’s passing in 1989. The Village Vanguard closed that evening; the next night, she reopened it. “I realized that no one could fire me,” she later explained of her decision to keep the club running. “I certainly had no fear. I … just held my nose and jumped in.”

The Vanguard remained a family affair; Gordon’s daughter, Deborah, also became involved in the business and is now its de facto owner. But the matriarch was unquestionably the boss, with a reputation for toughness. In 2002, New York magazine interviewer David Yaffe asked about rumors that she had once punched a musician who tried to sneak in some friends through the back door. “Sweetheart, I’m a bouncer with my mouth, not my fist,” replied Gordon.

Gordon was predeceased by her husband Max; her first husband, Lion, died in 1987. She is survived by her daughters, Deborah and Rebecca Gordon, and her grandson Antonio Jubela-Gordon.

Funeral arrangements are being directed by Provenzano Lanza Funeral Home in Manhattan. According to Eisenman, a memorial will be held at the Village Vanguard the weekend of June 15; information will be posted on the Vanguard’s website, villagevanguard.com.

Read Bill Milkowski’s JazzTimes review of Lorraine Gordon’s memoir, Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time.

Read Thomas Conrad’s 2003 JazzTimes article on the vast number of recordings made at the Vanguard.

Read a vintage JazzTimes column by Gary Giddins about the Vanguard.