all that jazz

A Brief History of the Village Vanguard

New York jazz fans learn early in their initiation about the 123-person-capacity Greenwich Village basement known as the Village Vanguard. It’s the most famous venue in the history of the music — the one that’s hosted the most live recordings, booked the greatest musicians, and, more than any other room (and in its very name), embodied the creative tension between history and innovation that sparks the best jazz. This week, the Vanguard celebrates its 75th birthday, and we’ve decided to honor the club by looking back at some of the moments that have defined its history, from the discovery of a space with “two johns, two exits,” and a distance “two hundred feet away from a church or synagogue or school,” to the legendary (and sometimes violent) performances of Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and Charles Mingus that spread its sound across the globe.

After running the Vanguard for a year as an unlicensed poets’ hangout on Charles Street, Max Gordon, the club’s founder, decides to go legit. “I knew if I was ever to get anywhere in the nightclub business, I’d have to find another place with two johns, two exits, two hundred feet away from a church or synagogue or school,” he recalls in his memoir, Live at the Village Vanguard. After closing the Charles Street club on a Thursday night, he hauls five truckloads of wooden barrels, benches, and an upright piano to the Vanguard’s current location in the basement space of 178 Seventh Avenue South. He opens for business the very next day. The club in 1990.
The Revuers — the college-age song-and-dance team of Judy Holliday, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, John Frank, and Alvin Hammer — play a residency at the Vanguard, attracting big crowds and pushing the club into the mainstream. Holliday would go on to win a Best Actress Oscar for Born Yesterday and Comden and Green became a successful Broadway writing duo, penning On The Town and Singin’ in the Rain. “They changed the direction the club was going in,” said Lorraine Gordon, Max’s widow. “Of course, that didn’t make Max popular with the poets, but he was onward and upward.” Comden rehearsing with Green, 1939; Holliday in Born Yesterday, 1946
Legendary bluesman Leadbelly and guitarist Josh White open to a crowd that includes Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Woody Guthrie. Nicholas Ray, the future Rebel Without a Cause director, manages the pair. They perform mostly solo numbers but finish “carving each other out on their guitars.” One night, jazz pianist Clarence Williams scurried behind Leadbelly to give the blues singer a hot foot as a he lounged between sets. “Leadbelly never looked up,” Lorraine Gordon remembers, “and he said, ‘Boy, don’t mess with me.’ Clarence took his match and disappeared.” Leadbelly, 1937.
J.D. Salinger goes on a blind date for drinks and dancing at the Vanguard. “He wore a black Hamburg hat, black and yellow polka-dot tie and a charcoal suit,” his companion told the Times recently. “He was smashing looking.” Salinger, date unknown.
A 19-year-old Barbra Streisand sings a Sunday matinee at the Vanguard during a week in which Miles Davis is headlining. Max Gordon asks Davis to accompany Streisand for her set, but the trumpeter refuses. “I don’t play behind no girl singers,” Davis croaked. Streisand returned to the club last year for a one-night-only engagement. Streisand, 1960.
Incendiary bassist Charles Mingus inflicted more damage on the Vanguard than any other artist. He once held a knife to Max Gordon’s throat for supposedly underpaying him, tore the Vanguard’s front door off its hinges because Gordon forgot to write “Jazz Workshop” after Mingus’s name, and smashed a ceiling light with the head of his bass after becoming angry with an audience member. Gordon never replaced the light and, to this day, it remains broken. Mingus, 1960.
Acid-boosting psychologist Richard Alpert, who had been fired from Harvard in 1963 along with his colleague Timothy Leary, presents the Psychedelic Theatre, a night of mood music, space-out lights, and jelly beans meant to “simulate” an LSD experience. Afterward, one of the organizers tells an irate Gordon that half of the audience had been high (although the jelly beans weren’t spiked). “I thought I could spot anything,” the dispirited club owner writes, “I didn’t know I could be taken for a square … by a bunch of psychedelics from upstate New York.” Alpert (as “Ram Dass”), 1981
The visit of Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés is delayed one week after Valdés is denied a visa. Even after the State Department relents, Immigration questions Valdés for hours at JFK, delaying his arrival deep into the night. “I said to the people, ‘I guess I’m going to have to refund your money,’” Lorraine Gordon recalls, “and with that the door opened and Chucho came downstairs laden with flowers, exhausted, and everybody stood up and applauded. He went to the piano, hit two or three notes and said, ‘That’s it for tonight, folks.’ They all came back the next night.” Valdés, 1998
Lorraine Gordon writes that the Vanguard “isn’t a jumping off point anymore … I have to fill the room every night to survive.” Yet the Vanguard remains a place where young jazz bands with buzz go to reach a more mainstream audience. In the aughts, the Bad Plus, Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos, and the Robert Glasper Trio all made their Vanguard debuts, reinvigorating the sound and attitude of the music. The Bad Plus have had an especially close bond with the club, playing there several times a year and taking over the prestigious New Year’s Eve gig. The Bad Plus with Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and David King, 2008.
Eighty-six-year-old Max Gordon dies at St. Vincent’s Hospital, a block and a half uptown from the Vanguard. Gordon had made no plans for succession, but his wife Lorraine refused to sell and took over day-to-day operations despite never having been involved with the business. “To this day, he doesn’t know I’m running the club,” Lorraine Gordon writes in her memoir, Alive at the Village Vanguard. “He just didn’t dream it.” Gordon and jazz musician George Benson at the Vanguard, year unknown.
The Vanguard celebrates its 75th anniversary with a party for old friends and New York’s jazz elite. Paul Motian, Jimmy Heath, and Ravi Coltrane are in attendance, but the real star is the irreverent 95-year-old comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey, who got his big break at the club in 1942 and entertains the crowd with some impromptu stand-up. The Vanguard, February 18, 2009
A Brief History of the Village Vanguard