Lorraine Gordon kept independent jazz alive at the legendary Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. The club hosted musical greats like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Published On June 9, 2018
By Tim Weiner
Lorraine Gordon, Keeper of the Village Vanguard Flame, Dies at 95
June 9, 2018
Lorraine Gordon, who took over the Village Vanguard, New York’s oldest and most venerated jazz nightclub, in 1989 and remained its no-nonsense proprietor for the rest of her life, died on Saturday. She was 95.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said Jed Eisenman, the longtime manager of the club.
“Wherever I happened to be,” Ms. Gordon said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times, “music was always with me.”
Ms. Gordon was married for 40 years to the Vanguard’s founder and owner, Max Gordon. But she had been a jazz fan long before she met him. She fell in love with jazz as a teenager in the 1930s, listening to it on WNYC radio. The music pierced her soul, she said, “like a spike in my heart.” It was the start of a lifelong romance.
“I was lucky,” she said. “I was attracted to something wonderful which appealed to me.”
She made her first trip to the Vanguard in 1940, when she was 17 years old and a member of the Hot Club of Newark, a society of jazz enthusiasts. Not long thereafter, she met her first husband, a fellow music lover: Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, a leading jazz label, where she would work selling the music during and after World War II.
Nine years after that first visit to the Vanguard, having divorced Mr. Lion but still in love with jazz, she married Mr. Gordon. More than seven decades later, long after Mr. Gordon’s death in 1989, she was still running the club — booking performers, counting the receipts, taking no guff and keeping the flame.
“When I have to make a decision,” she joked, “I ask, ‘What would Max do?’ Then I do the opposite.”
The Vanguard remained essentially unchanged throughout the decades after Mr. Gordon opened it at 178 Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village in 1935: a wedge of a room, one flight down from the sidewalk, seating 123 people. The club has always had immaculate acoustics; more than 100 records recorded live at the Vanguard by musicians like John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis attest to that. A good table put a customer practically face to face with a great musician. There were very few bad tables.
Ms. Gordon, often nursing a glass of vodka, presided over the scene with a personal brand of tough love. She played her role like the wisecracking star of a black-and-white movie, and she helped make the Vanguard an unfailing fountain of late-night music. But she was also a hard-driving manager; she had to be.
“We open at 3,” she once said, describing the daily grind. “Deliveries come in, the phones are ringing, the roof is leaking, there’s something always going wrong, and then musicians come to rehearse. Every Tuesday night there’s a new group, so every six nights there’s a changeover. Sound checks have to be done. Instruments have to be brought in or taken out.”
She put in six hours of work before the first of the night’s two sets. The first usually began at 9 o’clock sharp, the second at 11. (In later years the start times were changed to 8:30 and 10:30.)
“I’m a stickler for being on time,” Ms. Gordon said. “And the show goes on — on time.”
Under her direction, the show went on and on. The Vanguard celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2015.
Lorraine Gordon was born Lorraine Stein in Newark on Oct. 15, 1922, at the dawn of recorded jazz and blues. The middle-class daughter of a homemaker and a businessman, she grew up in and around Newark and began traveling to New York to hear music as soon as she was able. (Her older brother, Phillip, who died in 2009, was also a jazz fanatic; he painted the mural on the Vanguard’s back wall.)
As a teenager, she was listening to Blue Note records — which featured some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day — before she met the label’s owner, Mr. Lion, in 1940. They hit it off immediately.
“He presented me with two volumes of all the records he had made until that time,” she recalled. “That was a great present.”
They married not long after Mr. Lion was drafted, early in World War II — or, as she put it, “Blue Note Records and I got married.”
Once he got out of the Army, she worked full time for the label: packing records, mailing them out, handling public relations. At the time the Blue Note label was chartreuse and blue, and the couple painted their first apartment those same colors.
In the summer of 1948 she was trying to promote a Blue Note musician — the pianist Thelonious Monk, then little known — when she met Max Gordon quite by accident on Fire Island. “I accosted Max Gordon,” she remembered. “I’m all business. I told him about Thelonious Monk. He was very interested. He said, ‘I just happen to have an opening in September.’”
They struck a deal. Monk was “in and out in one week,” she said. “But Max and I were not in and out in one week, somehow. Whatever the connections were, they took hold.”
The two were married in 1949 and had two daughters, Rebecca and Deborah. Ms. Gordon said in 2007 that she had made provisions to hand down the Vanguard to Deborah. In addition to her daughters, Ms. Gordon is also survived by a grandson.
The Vanguard had originally been a place for poetry and comedy as well as music. But the advent of television, where comedians and variety acts flourished in the 1950s, meant “the end of nightclub acts of that genre at the time,” Ms. Gordon said. “And that’s when Max decided to stick with jazz.”
In the early 1960s Ms. Gordon became a political activist, protesting against nuclear testing and, later, the war in Vietnam. In 1965 she made an unauthorized trip to Hanoi as a member of the group Women Strike for Peace. She carved out a life for herself apart from the club, working at the Brooklyn Museum as a merchandising manager.
In 1989, when Mr. Gordon died, there was no question that the show would go on — and that it was up to Ms. Gordon to make it go on.
“No one had to ask me,” she said. “There was nowhere else to go but me.”
The Vanguard closed the evening of Mr. Gordon’s death, but “I opened the club the next night,” she recalled in 2007. “I took reservations on the phone; there was a band still playing that Max had booked in advance, fortunately.” She learned the trade as she went along, “from one day to the next,” she said.
“I began, well … running the Village Vanguard,” Ms. Gordon wrote in her 2006 memoir, “Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life in and Out of Jazz.”
Ms. Gordon’s contributions to jazz were recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, which announced in 2012 that she was the winner of a Jazz Masters award. The awards ceremony was held in New York in January 2013, but she was too ill to attend.
Until just a few weeks earlier, though, she had still been at the Vanguard almost every night. She usually stayed through the first set, sometimes into the second set, sometimes all night. She felt she had no choice but to go on; the music was always her great passion.
“To keep the music alive,” she said, “is the most important thing there is in my life.”
Jeffery C. Mays contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on June 10, 2018, on Page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Lorraine Gordon, 95, Owner Of Village Vanguard Club Who Kept Jazz in Her Heart. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe