Max Gordon opened the Village Vanguard in 1935, originally presenting an eclectic mix of entertainment including jazz, folk, blues, cabaret, poetry and comedy, but sometime in the '50s settling on an exclusive jazz policy, hosting some of the greatest innovators of the era, including Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. As they say, the rest is history. Playing in the Vanguard delivers the same prestige and sense of satisfaction to a jazz group that performing in Carnegie Hall gives to a classical orchestra and for the same two reasons - sound and tradition.
Whether by accident or fate, the small wedge shaped chamber, with its red velvet drapes backing the bandstand, has proven to be an acoustically perfect environment for jazz. The sound of music performed and recorded in the Vanguard epitomizes the sound of jazz; it is the standard by which musicians and recording engineers judge the quality of their performances. Sonny Rollins recorded the first Live at the Village Vanguard album back in 1957, starting a tradition that continues to this day. Over 100 records have been made in the club, from the well known classics by John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans to later masterpieces by Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw and McCoy Tyner and more recent gems by Chucho Valdes, Brad Meldhau and Joe Lovano. Wynton Marsalis has even issued a magnum opus 8 CD box set documenting a full week's performances in the club.
Tradition is what one feels the moment they walk through the door to the triangular vault and view the veritable gallery of photos of musicians who have graced the club's bandstand that line the club's long dark walls. “Tradition. Max Gordon was the tradition. I should say is, because everything in this club as far as I'm concerned relates to Max,” Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard's matriarch humbly notes from the club's legendary office/kitchen/dressing room, where she juggles her many duties. “He built it from the ground up, but not too high up. You know we're in the basement,” she says with a smile. “That's the tradition. He laid the groundwork and it would be foolish to deviate from it. But I wouldn't anyway because I happen to be in agreement with Max on most things concerning the club. It runs the way it always did.”
”I cleaned it up a little, I'll say that much on my behalf,” she continues. “I keep an eye on everything here and I'm going to do some more improvements. Nothing that people will notice. They'll think it's the same place, but it'll be a lot neater and cleaner and more up-to-date.” One of her first “barely noticed” changes turned out to be a great one. “More people complained about that post near the bandstand,” she remembers, “Finally I said, 'What's inside that post. Why does it have to be so thick.' I got someone to open it up. This huge four-sided post and what was inside? A pole this big (holds up her little finger). And so I tore the old one down, and built the new post around the pole and now people can almost see the drummer. I don't want to say completely because the room is at an angle. We can't have everything, but it's a great improvement because now I can see what's going on in back of the post and that's important, she says with a laugh.
There have been other changes, too. A lot of red paint. New doors upstairs. The old dial phone behind the bar was just recently replaced with a touch tone model. The club even has a website and this year it's issued its first calendar with photos of some of the many great artists who have performed there. Another change this year is the New Year's booking. “Michael White's been here on New Year's Eve for the past 11 years, but that doesn't mean it's over, Gordon says. “This year I had this great opportunity to bring Chucho Valdes in, who a couple of times couldn't make it [due to visa complications]. But this time we are making it. I certainly didn't want to give up Chucho and he didn't want to give up the Vanguard. He's a very loyal man. So Michael White will come back next year. Who wrote in stone what has to be. Only the big band (Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) is written like that wherever you write these things. 34 years they're here. I've lost track frankly. Well, that band is a phenomenon. What can I say? I don't think any band in the land has lasted that long. We love them .and I get Monday night off because the band takes over. They don't need me. They're a tradition here.”
One of the many.