“Jazz Club Friday:” Music Recorded at New York’s Village Vanguard

Sonny Rollins seen here during the 1958 recording of his iconic album, “A Night at the Village Vanguard.” Photo: NPR/Francis Wolff.

Fridays on All Night Jazz, since seeing live jazz is difficult to do right now, Mike Cornette brings the live jazz to you on “Jazz Club Friday” on the Jazz Trip@Ten. This week, Mike revisited the iconic Village Vanguard in New York City, which was founded by a Lithuanian immigrant in 1935 who never intended to run a club dedicated to jazz music. WUSF’s Steve Splane has more.   

 

The Village Vanguard was never supposed to be a jazz club. When Max Gordon opened the club on Seventh Avenue in New York’s Greenwich Village, he had in mind running a place where he could offer poetry readings and folk music.

Gordon, a Lithuanian immigrant, opened the Vanguard in 1935. It was originally called the Golden Triangle, inspired by the basement listening room’s three-sided footprint.  It seats about 120 people.

For more than two decades, it was known as a place to hear beat poetry and folk and blues music. You could hear everything from poet Maxwell Bodenheim to musicians like Lead Belly and Woody

Guthrie.

 

The Village Vanguard. It was originally called “The Golden Triangle when it opened at this location in 1935 as a poetry and folk music venue. It started focusing on jazz music in 1957. Photo: Alwinian.

 

They also featured comedy nights, where you might catch a Lenny Bruce set…or Woody Allen.

In 1957, Gordon started to transition the club to a mostly jazz lineup. The intimate room was very conducive to the art form, and it quickly gained a reputation as a place to play—and listen—to jazz.

In no time, Gordon was booking all the top acts, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans.

The Vanguard also helped launch countless careers by inviting young artists to perform that no one ever heard, like Thelonious Monk.

There would still be other artistic endeavors at the Vanguard, even after jazz became the focus.

One legendary story alleges that, Dick Alpert, a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass, a long-time cohort of psychotropic guru Timothy Leary, led an LSD-laced “psychedelic sit in” at the Vanguard.  (Gordon was said to be not pleased with the stunt).

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins was among the first to record an album at the club. Blue Note’s “Night at the Village Vanguard” was released in 1958.

NPR’s Nate Chinen called it “one of the greatest jazz albums ever made.”

“The Vanguard was sort of the premier room at that time,” Rollins told Chinen in a 2017 interview.  “A lot of guys played there, and they all seemed to express the music without any sort of impediment. I felt particularly comfortable.”

A long list of artists would follow with some memorable recordings, including John Coltrane’s first ever live album, the groundbreaking and controversial “Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard” (1961).

For better or for worse, that album’s furious pace and free jazz experiments helped cement Coltrane’s legacy as a pioneer.

Decade after decade, great recordings continue to be made at the Vanguard, including singer Mary Stallings’ 2001 comeback release “Live at the Village Vanguard.”

 

For more than 60 years, great jazz recordings have been made at the Village Vanguard.

 

Just this month, pianist Gerald Clayton made his Blue Note debut with, “Happening: Live the Village Vanguard.”

Ownership of the Village Vanguard has remained a family affair. In 1989 Max Gordon died.

His wife Lorraine, who met Max because she was a regular patron in the early days of the club, closed the venue the day he died to honor his memory, then reopened the next day.

She ran the club until she died in 2018.

 

The Village Vanguard’s triangle shaped room has been hosting jazz music since 1957. Photo Zhang Yu.

 

The Gordon’s daughter, Deborah Gordon, is now overseeing the operation.

To this day, the Vanguard is an esteemed venue, mostly because of how little it has changed.

“One of the things that is great is that through all the years they’ve had the wisdom to not mess with it” pianist Fred Hersch, told the Observer in 2015. Hersch has played there since the late 1970’s.

“I like the Vanguard for its purity,” he said.

The club is still closed to the public due to COVID-19 and like many jazz venues, its future is in serious doubt. For now, they are offering live stream concerts from their stage at the villagevanguard.com.