While visiting New York City, my hometown, two weeks ago, I got the idea to pay my respects to the club where I received my initiation in jazz, the iconic Village Vanguard. A week before I arrived, the Vanguard had celebrated its 75th anniversary, a millennia in nightclub years. The other clubs around during my youth—Five Spot, the original Birdland, Half Note, Village Gate, Eddie Condon’s, Jimmy Ryan’s, the Metropole Bar—are all gone now.
My reason for heading to 178 Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village was to commemorate a personal milestone: the 50th anniversary since I, a lad of 16, first entered that special, triangular-shaped room to hear four classy musicians in tuxedos, the Modern Jazz Quartet, play. It was the first of many Sunday 4 p.m. all-age matinees to come.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, I had the privilege to hear other jazz royalty there like Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Jim Hall, Gerry Mulligan, Keith Jarrett and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band that played a Monday night gig for over 20 years. So, on March 5th, I descended the familiar 15 steps and entered jazz’s cathedral. Al Foster’s Quartet was the evening’s headliner. As soon as I passed the doorman collecting the entry charge, it felt like going home.
Not much had changed since my last visit almost 10 years ago. The small room seats 120 “legally”, the manager told me. Both forest-green walls were lined, like an art gallery, with photos of jazz musicians who had played the club. A tuba hung on one wall and an ancient horn on the facing wall. Everyone of a certain caliber wants to play the Vanguard. A gig there signifies a coveted rite of musical passage. Pianist Jason Moran has called it “the Carnegie Hall of jazz…it’s the place where Moses, Mohammed and Jesus walked.” The club has had only one set of owners in its long history, the much-loved Max Gordon and his widow, Lorraine, who oversees the club nowadays
The Vanguard exudes a pure spirit where the music is king. No opening acts, no glitz (just a modest intro for the band), no food service and no annoying chatter during sets. Just drinks and straight-ahead playing. The only change from the old days: no rising curlicues of cigarette smoke. I sat back enjoying Foster and his sidemen’s solos, reminisced and thought of the musicians whose spirits remain in the room. When the set ended, I climbed the stairs out into the night air, happy to know that the Vanguard was still there and still setting the standard.
To sample the Vanguard’s history, view a You Tube video of yesteryear artists, visit its website, www.villagevanguard.com.