Village Vanguard Celebrates 80 Years, Not All Jazzy
The Village Vanguard, the greatest jazz club in New York and possibly anywhere, opened 80 years ago, in 1935, at 178 Seventh Avenue South. It didn’t book jazz at first. One of the best chapters in “Live at the Village Vanguard,” the 1980 memoir written by Max Gordon, the club’s original proprietor, is about poetry readings.
In the 1930s, the Vanguard had them regularly, led by a poet named Eli Siegel. These were raucous nights. “You came to the Vanguard to hear the poets, watch the characters, get loaded and heckle Eli,” Mr. Gordon wrote.
Lorraine Gordon, his widow, has been running the Vanguard since 1989, when Mr. Gordon died. She wrote her own book, “Alive at the Village Vanguard,” with more information about its bookings: folk and calypso singers, the comedians Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. It wasn’t till the late 1950s that the Vanguard switched over to a more or less jazz-only policy.
Ms. Gordon trusts originals; she persuaded Max to book Thelonious Monk there for the first time in 1948. To program a celebration of the Vanguard’s 80th birthday, Ms. Gordon gave the reins over to the pianist Jason Moran, one of the club’s current mainstays and a musician particularly gifted at making new uses for old materials.
“It was pretty open,” Mr. Moran said. “They said, ‘Maybe you can think of something that can reflect the long history the club has had.’ ” He thought of jazz, of course. But he also thought about poetry and comedy. “I thought of whatever I could afford,” he confessed. “What favors I could get from people.”
His program (running March 10-15; details at villagevanguard.com) is a dream of what the club used to do and a proposal for what it could yet do. There will be a night of solo piano performances by Stanley Cowell, Kenny Barron, Ethan Iverson, Fred Hersch and Mr. Moran; a night with Mr. Moran’s band, the Bandwagon, and the poets Elizabeth Alexander and Yusef Komunyakaa; a night with the Bandwagon plus the comedians David Alan Grier, Marina Franklin and Keith Robinson; a night when the Bandwagon plays only Monk’s music; a redo of a collaboration with the guitarist Bill Frisell, playing music inspired by the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend, Ala.; and a night with a quartet led by Charles Lloyd, who hasn’t played at the Vanguard since the early 1970s.
Mr. Moran, 40, first encountered the Vanguard in 1992, while visiting New York with his father. They saw David Murray’s group with Don Pullen on organ — a warm and elastic band that sounded particularly good in that room.
“It’s a place I call home now,” Mr. Moran said. “It’s the go-to for pure intimacy for listening to a band.”
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