NEW YORK CITY — To jazz fans and musicians alike, it is a shrine. The Village Vanguard’s iconic red awning, shadowing a small patch of sidewalk on Seventh Avenue, between Perry Street and W 11th Street, on an otherwise unexceptional city block, a beacon.
Walking through the front door and down the hallowed stairs from the street is like walking back in time, as the basement room that the Vanguard has occupied for nearly 85 years has essentially remained unchanged since its inception.
Founded in 1935 by Max Gordon, a Lithuanian immigrant, the club has been a bastion of jazz for the better part of the 2oth Century (and into the 21st), as it has continuously hosted the greatest musicians in the genre.
The Vanguard has been home to some of the most important and revered recordings in the history of music — the influence that the album “Bill Evans Trio Sunday At The Village Vanguard” had on shaping jazz since it was recorded in 1961 can simply not be overstated, and John Coltrane’s “Live At The Village Vanguard” captured the saxophone giant and his great quartet at the peak of their powers.
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Aside from the brilliant music captured on these recordings, a couple of other things stand out upon listening to them, the first being that it sounds like there are about 12, maybe 15 people in the audience. Deborah Gordon, daughter of Max Gordon and current owner of the Vanguard, confirms that this was likely the case.
“Guess who was in the audience when Thelonious Monk first played there?” she asks me. “Nobody. It was empty.
“[Monk] would say from the stage, ‘Look at all the invisible people,'” she says with a laugh. Jazz, she explains, has always occupied a marginal, slim piece of the culture.
All the more reason that the existence of the Vanguard is vital and necessary.
The second thing that stands out on these albums is the acoustics. The room itself has an open, warm, intimate quality, and is as much a presence as any of the instruments. The space has a personality unto itself. You can hear it. It is why musicians love playing and recording there.
“The sound quality is so special, from the shape of the room. You wouldn’t want to effect that in any way,” Deborah says.
The shape of the venue is essentially an isosceles triangle, and because the Vanguard is subterranean and windowless, there is no interference from the outside world, creating the sensation of being in a hermetically sealed chamber of sound. This is the primary reason the club has never been franchised, as successful a business move this has been for music clubs like the Blue Note and the Hard Rock Cafe, both of which have clubs all over the world. The uniqueness of the space and the sound of the Vanguard simply cannot be replicated.
This is also why the interior of the club has remained unchanged for nearly a century.
“Look at a photo of the club from the ’30s and it looks exactly the same,” Deborah says, but admonishes that it shouldn’t be thought of as a relic. “We don’t want to be a museum. While the physical place remains unrenovated, we want to keep the music fresh.”
The Vanguard experience
Catching a show at the Village Vanguard is an intimate experience. I have attended countless concerts at countless venues and none of them have the same vibe as a show at the VV. Much of this has to do with club’s size, which seats 130-odd patrons. And the room is small. Expect to make some new friends on a crowded night, as the tables and chairs are extremely close to one another.
This is not to say that it is uncomfortable — surprisingly, it is not. Once the show starts, all focus is on the bandstand. Everything around sorta melts away, leaving just you, the night and the music. Take it further and close your eyes. You will be transported.
Adding to the intimacy is the proximity of the musicians on stage to the audience. The stage, if you can call it that, is all of a step or two up from the floor, placing the musicians upon it all of an arm’s length from the patrons seated at the front tables. Deborah relayed an anecdote about Barbra Streisand, another iconic artist championed by the Gordons early on in her career.
Famously plagued by crippling stage fright, she once quipped during a special engagement at the Vanguard in 2009, “Who can have stage fright here? There’s no stage!”
Even the most famous of musicians are inordinately accessible when performing at The Vanguard, as they often, after a show, hang out at the bar in the far end of the room, and are approachable — open to chatting with fans, taking photos, signing autographs, etc. That is the vibe. It is a shared experience. The audience means as much to the artist as the artist does to the audience.
A sucker for jazz lore and legend, I asked Deborah if any musicians had ever caused a scene or were kicked out or banned from playing there.
“Mingus!”Deborah said without a moment’s hesitation.
I can’t say that I was entirely surprised by her answer as Charles Mingus was a notoriously mercurial, occasionally violent musician, earning himself the nickname “the angry man of jazz.” Stories abound of him chastising musicians on the bandstand as well as people in the audience.
“My father used to recount the story of when Mingus decided to redecorate the place, which entailed tearing the front door off the hinges and throwing it down the stairs. He wasn’t invited back for a long time after that.”
Deborah, however, was quick to add that most jazz musicians “are the most harmonious, interesting people that you can hope to meet.” This, too, was not surprising to hear.
The air inside the Vanguard is full of them. A romantic notion, perhaps, but because the room is essentially a vacuum, one can imagine that the same air, the same sound particles, have been circulating within the club for 85 years, as they have nowhere else to go. The most enchanting thing about the Village Vanguard, to me at least, are the ghosts.
Deborah told me that many musicians have expressed this same sentiment when playing there. To stand on the stage where Coltrane, Evans, Monk, Rollins, Miles, Mingus stood; to behold the same view they beheld; to breathe the same air they breathed; to add their music to the space imbued with the sounds of the past.
Not long ago a particular musician told Deborah that the deep presence of the past was disturbing him a bit. She assured him that he was not alone, but nonetheless he’s got to deal with it. “Make your peace with them,” she told him, “make your peace with the ghosts.”