ARTS AND CULTURE
Visit New York's Most Essential Jazz Club
Host to everyone from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis, the Village Vanguard has been a site of jazz pilgrimage for decades
The basement room is dim and you’re packed in like a sardine, while the red leather banquettes and simple wooden chairs are – well, let’s say vintage. But at as anyone who has visited can tell you, the Vanguard glows like magic when the music starts.
The walls are a visual feast for jazz history buffs, covered with old photographs of jazz musicians, posters and a few old brass instruments. Everyone from Harry Belafonte to Miles Davis to Ram Dass have enjoyed a spotlight here, at what is probably New York’s most storied jazz club.
Lithuanian immigrant Max Gordon opened the Village Vanguard in 1935 as a cabaret-style club that gave the stage to poets, comedians and other performers who appealed to – and were part of – an intellectual (and alcohol-fuelled) crowd. In the mid 1950s the Vanguard’s focus switched to jazz, eventually becoming home luminaries including Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
Courtesy Mike Swoop
Longtime general manager and programming director Jed Eisenman says Gordon had a “consistent vision, always about art, always about a certain indifference to commerce when it came to art and … trying to keep our ear to the ground rather than be tastemakers in our own right, more about being attuned to what’s happening than any particular predictable vision of what may be.” In other words, it was bohemian.
“I don’t think there are many other establishment that have had the longevity of the Vanguard or its consistency, and there does seem to be a lot of feeling for the place that’s not just nostalgia but in the present as well,” Eisenman says.
Courtesy Village Vanguard
The Vanguard remains sacred to musicians and a sort of temple for those who have jazz in their soul. That’s what drew Eisenman here. He discovered the Vanguard during a haphazard foray into Greenwich Village while on break from college in 1981. That visit turned into a supposedly temporary job as a dishwasher. He worked his way up, and now does all the booking for the club. He calls it a lifelong calling.
Also carrying on the late Max Gordon’s legacy and the spirit of the club are Max’s daughter Deborah and widow Lorraine. Under their watch, the Vanguard remains, above all else, a space for contemporary and experimental jazz musicians to make music. When booking the club, Eisenman considers “changing tastes and demographics versus the timeless aspect of anything that’s truly great, worthwhile and interesting.
“[The jazz] doesn’t need to be any particular form, it just needs to adhere to excellence and be worthy of the club’s great legacy, and uncompromising in its artistic integrity. It’s hard to find stuff like that anyway. Therein lies the challenge.”
Courtesy Mike Swoop
The atmosphere, conversely, stays the same. Original murals and the plush deep red curtain create a space out of time. If it weren’t for the the contemporary fashion of the guests and the lack of cigarette smoke, visitors could imagine they had travelled back a few decades. The underground space has a speakeasy vibe. You can’t help but feel you are a member of a secret club, which is in a way a nod to the original incarnation of the Vanguard. Eisenman describes the space as a “combination of being a museum and a living place at the same time.”
Today’s regulars include musicians like Jimmy Heath and Kenny Barron. The unique schedule features six nights a week for each group with an early and a late show, and the Village Vanguard Big Band every Monday. A ticket price of $30 is designed to be inclusive, so that great music stays accessible to everyone, especially students. As the late Frank Zappa once said, “jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny,” and we have the Vanguard to thank in large part for keeping it alive – even if those damp basement walls do smell funny from time to time.
178 7th Ave. South, 212-255-4037
(This article was originally published on October 4, 2016)