BY MICHAEL LYDON (Originally posted Sept. 19, 2014) | A decade or four ago I was a jazz-mad college kid, and anytime I had an extra dime in my pocket I’d bus down to the Big Apple to hear my heroes live in smoky hole-in-the-wall Village clubs: Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond rocking the nearly empty Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place, Ornette Coleman wailing at Slugs on East Third St., not long before trumpeter Lee Morgan got shot on stage and the joint closed down.
One night I dashed with my date from catching Herbie Mann at the Village Gate (now Le Poisson Rouge), to hear Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot on Third Ave. by the Cooper Union. Monk was great, but he often wandered off the stand, leaving his band to carry on without him. A few beers had made me more than a little drunk, and when the band’s tenor sax player tried to pick up my date, I’m sad to say he succeeded, leaving me crying the blues sometime ’round midnight.
New York, New York jazz has a long and distinguished history — who but jazz cats named our toddlin’ town the Big Apple? — a history that stretches back a century to James P. Johnson and Fats Waller playing stride piano in Harlem, Duke Ellington leading his elegant orchestra at the Cotton Club in the 1920s, Benny Goodman bringing an integrated band to Carnegie Hall in 1938, and Bird, Diz and Monk in the 40s and 50s plotting the bebop revolution Uptown at Minton’s and Midtown at a dozen clubs on West 52nd St.
West and East Village jazz forms a multicolored thread in this history, a thread with more than a few twists and turns, but one woven from a no-holds-barred commitment to funky honesty and experimental daring. As poets and painters, writers and rebels, folkies and philosophers have long found an intoxicating freedom in the Village’s higgledy-piggledy streets, jazz cats have long found an improvisational freedom in those same Village streets.
Village jazz clubs come and go — Sweet Basil, Fez, and Blue Water Grill are among the most recently departed — and the band on stage may be established stars or eager up-and-comers, but night after night the music still blows red hot and blue, and audiences of simpatico fans pack the clubs and clap and snap and groove with the cats all the way home.
No other jazz club tells more of the Village jazz story, or tells it better, than the Village Vanguard, founded in February 1935 by Max Gordon, a Polish Jew who had immigrated to America with his parents only nine years before. Gordon first opened a coffee house on Charles St. as a forum for poets and artists as well as musicians, but city officials refused him a cabaret license. “I knew if I was ever to get anywhere in the nightclub business,” Gordon wrote wryly in his autobiography, “I’d have to find another place with two johns, two exits, that stood two hundred feet away from a church or synagogue.” He soon bought a triangle-shaped basement (and former speakeasy) at 178 Seventh Ave. and named it the Village Vanguard.
In its early years Gordon dedicated the Vanguard to poetry readings and folk music, and club goers heard Maxwell Bodenheim, the King of Greenwich Village Bohemians, declaim his verse and Leadbelly sing plaintive Southern songs like “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie.” Yet in 1940 trumpeter Roy Eldridge packed the 123-seat club, and soon after so did Sidney Bechet, Art Hodes and Mary Lou Williams. Following the trend, Gordon began booking three jazz acts a night. Not every group, however, proved an instant success. On Thelonious Monk’s first Vanguard night in September 1948, Gordon’s wife Lorraine remembered, “Nobody came. None of the so-called jazz critics. None of the so-called cognoscenti. Zilch.” With the loyalty that endeared them to generations of jazz artists, the Gordons kept booking Monk and enjoyed watching him grow to international fame.
Through the 1950s the Vanguard became the home club for dozens of modern jazz stars: Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Anita O’Day, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Stan Getz and Carmen McRae. Fans who loved the carefully sculpted sounds of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra made their Monday night gigs a must-hear jazz institution from 1966 to 1990. Other fans who liked their jazz more unbuttoned packed the Saturday afternoon jam sessions. “My pals and I went to the Vanguard for the jamming,” remembered one devoté. “We could go hear Lester Young, Ben Webster; all the greatest jazz musicians for fifty cents at the door!”
Fortunately, many great Vanguard nights got recorded. Sonny Rollins taped three LPs there, and Art Pepper, Tommy Flanagan, John Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis are a few of the artists who have put out “Live at the Village Vanguard” albums — a title, says Bruce Lundvall, head of Blue Note Records, “that has a direct and positive influence on an album’s sales.”
The day after Max Gordon died in 1989, Lorraine Gordon closed the Vanguard. The next day she opened it again, and by hook or by crook she’s kept the place going ever since. “It’s still the way everybody likes it,” says one longtime habitué.
What makes a café or bar a bonafide jazz club? It’s not always easy to say. Hothouse, the free monthly guide to the New York jazz scene, lists 77 venues south of 34th St., but some of those are tablecloth and candle restaurants where a decorous pianist plays standards at Sunday brunch, and others are rock-blues joints where the band might cover Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock hits. Between the two extremes a dedicated jazz buff can find a wide variety of clubs bursting with both seasoned and fresh talent six and seven nights a week.
Max and Lorraine’s daughter Deborah now manages the Vanguard. Lorraine, in her 90s, doesn’t come in to the club much anymore, but trombonist John Mosca says, “We’re still afraid of her!” Pianist Kirk Lightsey’s quartet comes into the Vanguard Sept. 23 to 28, followed by another sax quartet, this one led by Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz pioneers John and Alice Coltrane, appearing from Sept. 30 to Oct. 5. The 18-piece band Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, now led by trombonists Mosca and Doug Purviance, still rules the roost Mondays and plays new works as well as many Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestrations that date back to the 60s.
The Blue Note continues its star-studded booking tradition with Lou Donaldson coming in for one night, Sept. 25, and pianist Chick Corea & the Vigil covering a six-night stand Sept. 30 to Oct. 5, both groups playing two sets at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Smalls will be closed for renovations from Sept. 22 to 25, but reopens Fri., Sept. 26 with an afternoon open jam session from 4 to 7 p.m. Regular programming then resumes with Ralph Lalama’s band, Bop Juice, at 7:30 p.m., Myron Walden’s Momentum at 10:30 p.m., and Anthony Wonsey’s piano trio playing until closing or dawn, whichever comes first.
The smaller joints are jumping too. The Cornelia Street Café has flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny leading a quartet through improvised originals and Duke Ellington classics Sept. 24 at 8:30 p.m., and pianist Sebastien Ammann’s quartet, hot after a European tour, on Sept. 29. Guitar virtuosos and 55 Bar regulars Mike and Leni Stern will be back at their old haunt this fall: Mike Sept. 22 24 & 29 and Leni, Sept. 23. At Arthur’s Tavern, traditional jazz still hold sway, but look out for more modern surprises. At Fat Cat, you can play billiards while listening to eager up and comers, and you might as well go the new WhyNot Jazz Room Sept. 24 and hear Rale Micic & Vic Juris howl on two guitars — why not? Or check out the newest club on the block, Mezzrow, across 10th St. from Smalls.
“Jazz in the Village never ceases to amaze me,” says Jim Eigo, a diehard fan who’s become a publicist. “Old, new, traditional, experimental, big clubs, little clubs, known players, unknown players. There’s so much energy, so much daring. Go to a place you’ve never heard of, listen to a band you think you’re not going to like. I guarantee, if you open your ears, you’re going to have a Village night you’ll never forget.”
VILLAGE VENUE GUIDE
19 W. Eighth St. (btw. Fifth & Sixth Aves.)
analoguenyc.com | 212-432-0200
57 Grove St. (btw. Seventh Ave. & Bleecker St.)
arthurstavernnyc.com | 212-675-6879
THE BLUE NOTE
131 W. Third St. (btw. Sixth Ave. & MacDougal St.)
bluenote.net | 212-475-8592
32 Jones St. (btw. Bleecker and W. Fourth Sts.)
caffevivaldi.com | 212-691-7538
CORNELIA STREET CAFÉ
29 Cornelia St. (btw. Bleecker & W. Fourth Sts.)
corneliastreetcafe.com | 212-989-9319
75 Christopher St. (at Seventh Ave. South)
fatcatmusic.org | 212-675-6056
55 Christopher St.
(btw. Seventh Ave. So. & Waverly Pl.)
55bar.com | 212-929-9883
GARAGE RESTAURANT & CAFE
99 Seventh Ave. South
(btw. Grove & Barrow Sts.)
garagerest.com | 212-645-0600
65 St. Marks Pl. (btw. First & Second Aves.)
julesbistro.com | 212-477-5560
SMALLS JAZZ CLUB
183 W. 10th St.
(btw. W. Fourth St. & Seventh Ave. South)
smallsjazzclub.com | 212-252-5091
At the corner of E. Second St. & Ave. C
thestonenyc.com | 212-473-0043
178 Seventh Ave. South
villagevanguard.com | 212-255-4037
82 W. Third St. (btw. Thompson & Sullivan Sts.)
zincbar.com | 212-477-9462
163 W. 10th St. (corner of Seventh Ave.)
mezzrow.com | 646-476-4346
WHYNOT JAZZ ROOM
14 Christopher St. (corner of Gay St.)
whynotjazzroomm.com | 646-756-4145