The Village Vanguard Lives!

By Roger Paradiso

Caretaker of a Legend: Club-owner Deborah Gordon sits amid music history in the legendary Village Vanguard, where the tones of jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis once floated through the spot. Photo by Bob Cooley.

The Vanguard Sound is “Carnegie Hall of Cool”
– from Alive at the Village Vanguard, a book by Lorraine Gordon

There are Places
The Village Vanguard has been the sacred ground on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village for Jazz for 88 years. Founded by legendary Max Gordon and his wife, Loraine, the club now is in the hands of their daughter, Deborah, who keeps the place running day after day in the 21st century. The club has witnessed the passing of the torch from jazz greats like John Coltrane to his son Ravi Coltrane who recently played at the club. Known for its great sound, this small club has been the club of choice for many “Live” albums produced there—with artists like John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins, and a legendary “Live” TV show presented and performed by Barbra Streisand in 2009.

Streisand Live at the Vanguard!
When I asked Deborah about Streisand’s one night gig, she said, “It was fun actually. We had a good time. But Barbra never sang at the Vanguard “back in the day.” She auditioned here and my father didn’t hire her. But he did hire her. He had another club uptown called the Blue Angel and that’s where she sang.” (She also sang at other little clubs in the Village).
Deborah recalled, “Barbra was pretty charming. Here’s what happened. I was sitting in the office. We call it the kitchen. Everything happens in one space back there. My mother picks up the phone and hangs up. It was some guy who said he was Barbra Streisand’s manager. He called right back and then mom recognized him. Barbra had just recorded an album and wanted to promote it. She chose the Vanguard because it reminded her of the small Village clubs where she sang in the 60s.”
I asked Deborah how she keeps the place going through the ups and downs of life. She said, “I don’t know. In a way, working there is a daring “one foot before the other” endeavor. And before you know it, 80 plus years have passed. There is a long view—while keeping your eyes on the short view to keep moving forward.”
“It’s more at this point the energy flow into if we do interesting things. We don’t have a P.R. person. I think the place is rooted. It brings people who are interested in jazz and those who don’t know much about jazz or the person or band playing. Or they come because the Vanguard has survived. And they’ll come.”
“We don’t change the place too much. You can look at a photo from 1935 and it looks like it always did. It looks very 1960s right now. Essentially, we do some adjustment especially after Covid. But that’s not what brings the people in.”

The House Band
The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the house band, was started in 1966 as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. The band has gone through some changes in personnel over the years. And after Thad and Mel both died, the band kept going, playing that wonderful music—Thad Jones music.
“I still like to hear it. And the band never gets tired of playing it,” said Deborah. “We are the only club left that does this. Our band plays on Monday nights. Other bands open on Tuesday for the week. Sometimes we have two weeks if the performer can draw the people.”

The Covid Years
“Once we got over the shock of Covid, we pretty quickly went to streaming,” said Deborah. “Streaming gave work to many jazz bands and some people on our staff. It gave them a social experience to get out of the house. A lot of musicians were quite isolated at the time. There were no audiences of course. And they were sort of time stamped by everyone wearing masks.”
“It was not a financial solution at all. In fact, it was an enormous cost. The Vanguard looked like a TV studio. We invested in a lot of equipment. BMI would not adjust their rates. So, it became extremely expensive. What really kept us going was getting the Government SBA grant. It put us in a place to survive,” she continued.
“It was very rocky at first, we had a lot of openings and closings. People were getting sick. Musicians were getting sick. So, we had to return everyone’s money. At one time a lot of our staff got sick. We couldn’t operate. We became experts at opening and closing.
“When you’re talking about jazz, as I learned the hard way… the jazz world is a very special niche audience. A lot of people come here because they are in New York City and they want to experience a jazz club. They are not exactly jazz fans. And that doesn’t transfer to streaming. So, we are always in a select audience mode.”

Back to Normal
Things are back to normal now, but there are not a lot of places for bands to play. It was tough. Some clubs went out of business.
“When we reopened, we had to increase admission by five dollars. We really try to keep our prices very affordable. We don’t serve any food. You won’t find $25 burgers here and you never will,” she said. “It’s a pretty simple operation. You pay admission and we have a one drink minimum. You can stay for the second show just by buying another drink.
“You know we don’t sell a lot of frills. We have T-shirts, a cap and two books. We don’t have a big gift shop. We try to keep it about the music. It’s all about keeping it live. That’s the thing with streaming. You can’t replicate that live sound except here in the club. There’s nothing like the experience of coming to the Vanguard and hearing music live with fantastic acoustics.”
“Oh no, it’s nothing we have done. Something we have been blessed with. But it is really about the shape of the space and being in the basement. People have tried to duplicate this. It’s a natural resource.
“Sometimes people come in and want to sit in certain places. Don’t worry, just sit, and close your eyes. You can take in the sound and that is the experience. The sound live. That’s what I do. I just close my eyes and listen. That’s my reward.”
Hopefully, the Vanguard Sound will last forever. They do not own the building. And the building has not been landmarked.