Minding Jazz's Main Stage
For 77 years, the biggest names in jazz have flocked to a basement in New York City's Greenwich Village. The Village Vanguard, founded in 1935 by Max Gordon, has been the setting for seminal recordings by artists such as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and Wynton Marsalis. When Gordon died, in 1989, his wife, Lorraine, took over the intimate, 123-seat venue. Now 89, she has maintained the Vanguard's status as the most renowned stage in jazz. She told her story to April Joyner.
As a teenager in Newark, New Jersey, I had a big collection of jazz records: Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, all the classics. I would hear records on the radio. WNYC had a terrific jazz show with a man named Ralph Berton. That's where I first heard Blue Note Records. Oh, my gosh, those records were fantastic: beautiful, elegant, and modern. I accidentally met the man who made the records, Alfred Lion, at Jimmy Ryan's, a jazz club on 52nd Street. I was probably 18. Eventually, we got married. I worked with him for seven years. We had a little office on Lexington Avenue, across from Bloomingdale's. All the records were shipped out from there. I was in the middle of the music I loved, getting to know the people who made it. I was in heaven.
We recorded Ike Quebec, a wonderful tenor sax player. Ike introduced us to Thelonious Monk. We loved him, but his records didn't do so great, because people didn't know him.
I got Thelonious a job at the Vanguard. I ran into Max on Fire Island. He was sitting at a little table at a coffee shop, and I accosted him. He gave me the once-over and said, "I have an opening in September. We'll put him in." I was thrilled. Well, sure enough, Monk opened, and he was a total flop. Nobody came. Max was furious. He said, "What did you do to my business?" I said, "Shhh, Mr. Gordon, please! He's a genius. You will find that out someday." And he did. Alfred and I split up. Max and I got married because of Monk. I call him my Cupid.
Max and I had two children, Deborah and Rebecca. I raised them while he ran the club. I didn't work at all, ever. I only came to the Vanguard to hear music. If I didn't, I'd never get to see him, because he slept during the day.
In the '60s, I became involved in the anti-war movement, through a group called Women Strike for Peace. And then I supported Bella Abzug when she ran for Congress in 1970. I was involved in what I considered healthy things to do for your children, for your country, for yourself.
Max died on May 11, 1989. It was the saddest night of my life. He never asked me to take over; it was inconceivable that he would die. I closed the club for one night. The next night, I opened it. I sat at Max's desk in the kitchen—which is also the office and the dressing room—and picked up the phone. I just walked in cold turkey, because I knew we could not let this place die. Luckily, Max had booked some acts, so I was covered.
I had a loyal staff of people who were here when Max was here. One young man, Jed Eisenman, is still here with me. He's my left hand. Then my daughter Deborah came to work for me. She's my right hand.
I learned as I went from day to day. I looked at the bills, and since I'm a thrifty person, I saw what didn't seem necessary. For example, my husband had a company that came once a week to wash and replace our towels. But we don't use a lot of towels here, and there's a laundry right next door. There are a lot of little things like that. We have over the years had to raise our prices, because what hasn't gone up? We now charge $25 admission a person and a one-drink minimum. We're still most reasonable, under the circumstances.
We are totally devoted to the music. We don't talk about commercial things like marketing. I don't care if we're not busy one night or if we lose a dollar or so. We offer a pure experience listening to jazz. If you have the right music, and you're nice to the people, and the people enjoy the club, then that generates its own good feelings.
This place has so many people attached to it. I had to fight the government to get in Chucho Valdés, the greatest Cuban pianist of all, when he played here in 1999. They held him up at customs. It was his opening night, and the place was packed. So these people sat here, and we waited and waited. Suddenly, the door opened, and down the stairs came Chucho with huge bunches of flowers in his arms. Everyone cheered. He went to the piano, played a few notes. Then he said, "I'm so tired. I'm going to come back tomorrow night—and you come back, too." He played that whole week.
Barbra Streisand played here in 2009. It was her idea. She was here a million years ago, when Miles Davis was playing. She came down to audition for Max, and he asked Miles if he would accompany her for a number. Miles said, "I don't play for no girl!" But she hung around, and the rest of Miles's band played for her. She loved the place. So she came back. It was packed with everybody who was anybody. Bill and Hillary Clinton were here. And Barbra did a fantastic show.
I do all the bookings. You have to look for new talent. But I am selfish: I have to like whoever plays here. Some musicians aren't available to me; there are other jobs and other tours. Or they get so big that we can't have them anymore, because they're too expensive. But I manage. And the musicians are nice to me, because they like playing here. The acoustics are fantastic, and the audience is so close. There's an intimacy here that you don't get in a lot of other places.
The Vanguard has survived because jazz has kept it alive. Some people ask, "Is jazz dead?" No. The people who say that are not really alive. You come here, and it's so packed that you can't get in; you have to have a reservation. People come from all over the world. It overwhelms me sometimes. It's just a wonderful feeling.