(The Village Vanguad, still the vintage jazz-lover's Mecca it always was. Image from I Blog What I Hear.)
To an unknowing eye, the plain red awning and neon sign outside might not seem worthy of much attention, being situated in an area bloated with must-see hotspots. But down the narrow stairs, in a tight basement space, 75 years of invaluable jazz history have transpired, during which countless giants in American music performed, recorded and debuted for the world.
The Village Vanguard, opened by Max Gordon in 1935, is for many musicians a jazz Mecca, having seen nearly every well-known name in the genre pass through its doors and wail on its cramped, barely elevated stage. (Black and white photographic portraits on the walls depict only a handful of the legends that once called it home.) It gives off that unmistakable Old New York vibe – dim, slight, and understated. A bit worn, but with taste, preserving a mélange of grit, class and intrigue that every jazz club ought to have.
And living up to its bold title, it has stayed inarguably relevant. A surprising number of people can squeeze into the main room to sit at the low tables and chairs, but the Vanguard usually fills up on a nightly basis, even when (or especially when) its stellar house band performs each Monday. Patrons should reserve tickets in advance. Shows generally cost $30, which includes $10 toward a two-drink minimum – not a lousy deal, considering the regular cocktail prices. In keeping with the music’s traditional practices, each night offers two sets from the same act – one at 9 p.m. and one at 11 p.m. – which the artist in question will repeat over a tenure of several days.
When the performance begins, be it a long-established luminary or promising up-and-comer, the room fills with a refreshing wave of silence. Popular music lost something over the past few decades, and it has to do with the how the audience receives the art that it pays for. Attend any medium-profile gig or open mic at a lesser-known venue, and bear witness to the sheer amount of talking that goes on while the musicians play. (Once, while checking out an open jam session at HR-57 in Washington, I suffered through a din so loud that it drowned out everything but the highest notes from a trumpet.)
I don’t want bash appropriate socializing, but certain mediums demand a certain degree of reverence. DJ nights allow for loud conversation. Not jazz. But with an ever-shrinking pool of aficionados and traditionalists, many ignorant (thought well-meaning, I’m sure) listeners treat frequenting a jazz club as they would a noisome wine bar.
This does not happen at the Village Vanguard, and I hope that this aphorism drives home the sort of landmark it is. In that dark, enigmatic room, where I imagine a cloud of thick tobacco smoke once hung over crowds of rapt enthusiasts, one pure factor reigns above all else. Even when I once saw Tony Bennett in the audience, checking out a Bill Charlap concert, the humbled, ordinary schmucks held their tongue until after the show. In the Vanguard, it is about the jazz happening right in the moment. And it is only about that.