Tag Archives: Village Vanguard

Lorraine Gordon (1922-2018) R.I.P. – A 2005 interview and a 2005 article in the New York Daily News re the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, plus a link to a 2005 Downbeat piece on the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village

I admired Lorraine Gordon tremendously, though on my various trips to the Vanguard over the years, I did my best to stay out of her way — and out of her line of fire…you never knew when you might get zapped. She was an intense and highly informed listener, dating back to the early ’30s, but never allowed nostalgia to inform her judgments when booking the VV after Max Gordon died. She always remained in the here-and-now, and kept the Vanguard on the cutting edge of the music.

In 2002 she asked me to conduct an oral history with her for the Hatch-Billops Oral History collections. We did it, and I transcribed it, but unfortunately don’t have the text of that interview, which is in the Hatch-Billops Archives at Emory University. If you’ve read her autobiography, pretty much everything we discussed is in there anyway, and she also told elements of her life story in an oral history conducted by Anthony Brown for the Smithsonian after she was dubbed an NEA Jazz Master (this is easy to find on-line if you’re interested). I did have a chance to write about her in 2005, in a Downbeat piece framed around the Vanguard’s 70th anniversary. (You can find it on my blog, if you google my name and Lorraine’s.)

I’m linking here to the full Downbeat piece, which was about the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village during the ’50s; and am pasting below a more targeted and pithy article for the New York Daily News about the Vanguard’s 2005 anniversary, and the interview that I conducted with Lorraine Gordon for this article.

 

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Lorraine Gordon (Village Vanguard, Jan. 20, 2005):

TP: …the decor hasn’t changed. Over the banquettes on the west end of the club, paintings of the Vanguard, vintage jazz photographs–Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, Thad Jones, Charlie Haden, Cecil Taylor, Joe Henderson, Sphere, etc. There’s the Butero painting over the bar, which looks like it hasn’t been clean or lit in 70 years. A big euphonium against one wall. Old posters…

LORRAINE: Here I am. Let’s go sit over here, if you don’t mind. It’s cold here.

TP: All right, Lorraine. At 70 years old, the Vanguard, it seems to me, doing a quick guess, is roughly 45 years older than any other jazz club in New York. It seems the Blue Note would be second. Why has the Vanguard lasted so long?

LORRAINE: Hmm. Which answer do you want? Column A, B or C?

TP: Why don’t you give me all of them?

LORRAINE: Because it just happens to be a special room that is the way it almost was 70 years ago. It’s not exactly the same. It’s been cleaned up, gussied up, painted. The shape is the same. The atmosphere is the same. So it’s a room that hasn’t been transformed with some glitz and glamour to keep up with today’s instant times. It tries to be what it IS—a jazz room. Right now, it doesn’t serve food. It did years ago. So that’s one reason that people like to come here. They’re familiar with it—the ones that have been here before, obviously. And even the ones who have never been here are always amazed to see what a simple room it is, but so aligned to the feeling of jazz with the photos on the wall, and the bandstand so close to the people. When they come here, the’re not sitting out in Siberia. So there’s an intimacy about the room as far as jazz music goes, because if you’re going to sit in a hall with 5,000 seats, you’ll hear things, but you’re not getting the essence of at least what I think is real jazz.

[LORRAINE’S FRIED RICE ARRIVES]

TP: Do you recall when you first went to the Vanguard?

LORRAINE: Oh, I certainly do. I remember standing back at the bar with my friends at the Newark Hot Club. I didn’t know who Max Gordon was. He was sitting over there by the bar, and we were in the corner there. We came from Newark. Right there at that left corner. The globe wasn’t there, the painting wasn’t there. No, I was 16 or 17. It was the dark ages. We were kids, came from Newark, because it was good jazz here. I came to see Leadbelly, who I particularly loved, or whoever was here—if we could get the fare to take the train from Newark to here. We didn’t have a lot of money. We came here, and we’d have a beer, a couple of beers, and pass it around between us. I heard a little man by the cash register, I thought I heard him say, “Get rid of those kids.” Whoa! I vowed revenge.

TP: So you married him.

LORRAINE: Yeah! [LAUGHS]

TP: So apart from the accoutrements, the banquettes are as they were?

LORRAINE: Everything is the way you see it. But the pictures on the wall were cockeyed. Max had no eye to straighten pictures. And there weren’t as many as these. We had done the whole walls with the photos, at least made them audible to the eye. Before they were just helter-skelter. The original murals were done by Paul Petrov, the most fabulous murals in the wall. I wonder why Max took them down. I have copies of them on long paper. But they were so sophisticated, so elegant. I remember those murals more than anything, exactly, because you were just captured by them. Paul Petrov. He’s alive and well, living in Washington, and we keep in touch. But those were the most terrific murals. They were so New York! They were so sophisticated! But then they disappeared.

TP: So when you came here from Newark, you were coming to hear Leadbelly and coming to hear hot jazz mainly, right?

LORRAINE: The only jazz I knew was hot. But before I came here, I used to go to 52nd Street when somebody would take me. So there’s the golden age of jazz, 52nd Street. If you haven’t been there, and obviously you’re too young, that’s where kids like me hung out—if our parents would let us to go to New York. We were very young. So I would go with whomever would take me to hear… Well, let’s put it this way. On one night, you could hear Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Max Kaminsky… I mean, just go from one club to the other. It was a very romantic period in my life.

TP: So this was your late teens and early twenties when you were going…

LORRAINE: Yes.

TP: And did you go at all to the… About when did it start for you? Around 1940-41? A little later.

LORRAINE: It started for me in Newark at the Club Alkazar(?), which was a black club in the black neighborhood where Jabbo Smith was playing. No whites ever went there, except us kids from the Newark Hot Club who were allowed in. Because we were a phenomenon. What were these white kids doing here? Then when Benny Goodman came to town, I ran over to the Adams Theater where the Benny Goodman band was playing. I never went to school when he was in town. And I started collecting jazz records. That was my life.

TP: As far as some of the 52nd Street clubs, did you ever go the Famous Door?

LORRAINE: Yes, that’s on 52nd Street. That was one of them. The Famous Door, the Onyx Club, the Three Deuces… They were just lined them up one after the other. Little places.

TP: Were they all the same to you, or did they have distinct identities?

LORRAINE: Well, the identity of the clubs was… They were like long, narrow first floors in brownstones. Mind you, a lot of these clubs during Prohibition were Speakeasies. So there was a long narrow. There were banquettes on this side, there was a bar as you come in at the right, and they served food as well. Nobody bugged you. You sat down, you ordered a drink or something to eat. There were no minimums or things like that. What did you ask me…

TP: I asked if the clubs had distinct characters, or if they were very similar to each other.

LORRAINE: No, the characters was who played there. Is Billie Holiday the same as Art Tatum? Or you’d go to Jimmy Ryan’s. That was more of a Dixieland (I hate that term, but that’s what we have to call it today) type of musician—Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Marsala, people like that. Then you go down the line… It depends who’s playing there. I ran always to hear Billie Holiday. But not always. I didn’t go that often, believe me. Every visit there was just a rapturous treat. And I couldn’t go. I was a kid in New Jersey. But it was an experience. And that will never happen again in jazz clubs in New York.

Then after that came Broadway, with Birdland, the Royal Roost… It kept changing. But it wasn’t the same for me. Even though great artists played there, it was nothing to capture the essence of 52nd Street, which was small and intimate. Like the Vanguard. You’d go to 52nd Street, you’re sitting… You could touch the musicians. They were small and beautifully happy places. That’s all I remember.

TP: Did you ever go to the Spotlite Club, which Clark Monroe owned?

LORRAINE: No, I don’t think so. I was not a specialist. I was glad my mother let me out certain nights.

TP: So you’re trying to maintain in some way the ambiance you recall on 52nd Street in those years.

LORRAINE: I used to love to go to Café Society Downtown, which had Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Albert Ammons… This was a very fancy place, fancier than the Vanguard. And that was a great treat to be able to go there. You had to really get dressed up a little.

TP: Can you remember any details about Café Society?

LORRAINE: Yes, it was a wonderful room, with also fantastic murals of the New York scene. Very sophisticated. I think the Vanguard and Café Society, before it all went uptown to the East Side, were very sophisticated clubs, as far as their decor.

TP: So the Vanguard used to be more sophisticated…

LORRAINE: Well, they both were. Because who had murals? These were murals done by very good artists who captured the essence of the New York scene. What can replace the murals that were here when Paul Petrov did this… There’s a huge baby grand piano, and a horse is playing it, and two people are leaning over the hood of the piano listening to the horse… I mean, incredible! I have copies of the murals, which are simply remarkable.

TP: Was Café Society at 1 Sheridan Square, where the Sheridan Square Bookstore used to be?

LORRAINE: Yes. It’s now a theater or whatever it is.

TP: Then you got in the club business after you married Max Gordon.

LORRAINE: No, I didn’t get in the club business at all. I got into the motherhood business, and I had two daughters with Mr. Gordon. I never worked for Max in my whole life until the day he died. I did not get involved with his business. This was his baby.

TP: You had no involvement?

LORRAINE: No, none whatsoever. I had another job. I worked other places, other things. I came to hear the music. But…never.

TP: But how did the Vanguard develop, let’s say, between when you started having kids and when Max died?

LORRAINE: Well, he never gave up the club. He used to have a club uptown, very elegant (I used to be there a lot) called the Blue Angel. Very uptown, East Side, where the beautiful people hung out, shall we say. I spent a lot of time there, because we lived on the East Side, on East 79th. Max was in that club a lot. So this was left, hunkering along somehow. And we had other clubs. We had an old-fashioned ice cream parlor across from the Plaza Hotel, and Max and his partners took over what was Café Society Uptown, and it became Le Directoire. So there was so much action, it’s a miracle I’m talking to you today! Because this is what I did all night. Besides raising the children, being in the peace movement, and being with my husband at night—because we were night people now. There was no daytime except for me to take the kids to school. We had a housekeeper then. All of those accoutrements come into play.

TP: The Vanguard in the late ‘40s and ‘50s didn’t book so much jazz, did it.

LORRAINE: Well, it always had some jazz. It didn’t start out as a jazz club. When we started out… Well, read Max’s book. It’s all in there. It started as poetry. Max was a homeless person in the Village who lived in furnished rooms and hung out at some cafeteria over there on Fifth Avenue where all the poets hung out. Max was a poetic man. He wrote poetry. He was a writer, graduated from Reed College, a very intellectual man. So he really wanted to be with these people whom he admired, but there was no place to go. That’s how he opened the Vanguard. He opened another one around the corner for a little while, and then he came here for the remainder of the 70 years. So this place was simply for poets to go up there and declaim their poetry. There were barrels to sit on. There were war posters maybe from World War One on the wall, political posters. People threw money on the floor. That’s how people got paid. Max didn’t have a fancy bar, and nothing grandiose, no rugs on the floor.

That’s how that started, until the moment one year when these four people came in and asked Max could they maybe introduce themselves, and he should listen to them, and he said, “Sure, go ahead,” and they went up there, and he thought they were brilliant, and he hired them, and the poets went out, and the revuers came in, who turned out to be Judy Holliday, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and a couple of other people in the act. So Max was off on a new tangent. He suddenly discovered, hey, there’s talent out there beside the poets! So he started listening around and getting more and more people. So that’s how that started. So now he had folk singers, he had vocalists, he had all kinds of talent. But all good talent. Nothing commercial or stupid. It was all very high-class talent, which he would book here and train here, and then bring them up to the fancy Blue Angel on East 55th Street. So Eartha Kitt got up there, and Pearl Bailey got up there, and Harry Belafonte got up there. They all started here.

TP: Then you had the hipsters and the comedians later on, in the ‘50s.

LORRAINE: Yeah, then there was Lenny Bruce. Irwin Corey forever [1942], the funniest man in the world.

TP: Kerouac.

LORRAINE: Kerouac was not a comedian, but he was here. He came always in the back. We kind of looked at him…

TP: By that time, when Lenny Bruce and the comedians were here, was the Vanguard booking primarily jazz?

LORRAINE: Look, this place became a jazz club when television took all the artists away that Max could employ. Stand-up comics, singers, whatever. Television wiped out the Blue Angel, and could have wiped this place out. So Max switched to jazz in the early ‘80s.

TP: Late ‘50s, I think.

LORRAINE: I meant ‘50s. I’m sorry. You can correct that.

TP: You get the last word.

LORRAINE: No, not with you. I try hard, though. It’s a fight to the finish.

TP: Most people who read the Daily News aren’t jazz aficionados, and they’re not going to know that there have been how many records recorded at the Vanguard since 1957? 50? More than 50?

LORRAINE: Over 100 recordings. Look on our website. They’re all on there.

TP: I guess beginning with Sonny Rollins.

LORRAINE: Some people say that. Sometimes I think the first one (I may be wrong)… [COUGHS, PAUSE]

TP: Granted you weren’t here much during those years…

LORRAINE: During what years? I was here…

TP: The ‘50s and ‘60s.

LORRAINE: Why wasn’t I here?

TP: Oh, you did come down.

LORRAINE: Of course I came down to hear the music, or whatever I wanted to hear. If I could make it, I did. I had a job of my own, by the way. I worked…

TP: What were you doing?

LORRAINE: I worked in an art gallery for many, many years. I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for many years. I worked in the peace movement for many years. I’m not an idle person.

TP: What were you doing in the peace movement?

LORRAINE: I was running it. I saved the world. Look at the condition we’re in! I did a rotten job.

TP: Which organization?

LORRAINE: We were not an organization. We were a grass roots movement called Women’s Strike For Peace. Women who had children suddenly realized that nuclear testing was very dangerous, because Stronthium-90, CC-131, settled in the grass that cows eat, and our children drink the milk that’s poison. That’s one part in a movement of women who wanted nuclear testing to stop in the Soviet Union and in the United States of America. Okay? That was a big project. To me. It went on for years, and I gave all my time and devotion to that that I could. A non-paying job, but full time. To protect everyone’s children, if possible. That was it. Then when that faltered… It didn’t falter, but when I had to get a job, I went to work in a gallery for 15 years. It was a poster gallery called Poster Originals a very fancy place on Madison Avenue. It’s out of business. Fifteen years I ran the place. It was the wrong time. I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for five years. About that time, Max was getting a little shaky. So I’d go to the museum and leave there at 3, and come here to open up for him if he couldn’t make it.

TP: So while you were at the Brooklyn Museum and started coming down, that was around ‘80 or so?

LORRAINE: I guess so. Max died in ‘89. That’s the date I remember.

TP: Let me bring up some iconic moments in jazz. I’ll ask what you can remember about the protagonists, and if you can’t I’ll move on to the next one.

LORRAINE: I probably can’t. I don’t know what iconic means.

TP: Iconic means landmark…

LORRAINE: I know that.

TP: I know you know. Miles Davis. Do you have any memories of…

LORRAINE: Lots of memories of Miles, because I lived through two husbands with Miles. Don’t forget, my first husband was Alfred Lion from Blue Note Records, and he recorded Miles a lot. So I was a part of his business more than a part of Max’s business. I worked for Alfred.

TP: Didn’t you tell me you introduced Alfred to Monk?

LORRAINE: Not Alfred. I introduced Max. Alfred and I were introduced to Monk by Ike Quebec. We didn’t know who he was… Well, we may have heard about him through the musicians, but not really. So I introduced Max Gordon to Monk, who he had never heard of in his life.

TP: Let me ask you about Monk after Miles Davis.

LORRAINE: What about Monk after Miles Davis?

TP: Basically, any particularly pungent memories about any of these people.

LORRAINE: Well, when Max and I went on my maiden voyage to Europe, and went to Italy, Max had some splendid shoes made to order in Italy. Gorgeous. Had his foot measured and all that. They were going to send it to us at home, which they did eventually, and he tried them on and they were a little bit too short, a little too tight. He couldn’t wear them. So Miles Davis was next in line. He was playing here, and Max gave him these beautiful, brand-new shoes. And it killed me! Because he loved them. But wow, I figured… Well, that was it. Miles was wearing Max’s shoes at that particular time. I know that’s thrillingly exciting.

TP: Did Miles have a cordial relationship with Max?

LORRAINE: That’s interesting. Alfred and Miles had a very cool relationship, because Alfred Lion was… They knew he knew jazz. They were not fooling around with him when they did recordings. And I was there; you know, we would hang out, we’d be up all night at the Royal Roost or whatever, hanging out. When he came here to play with Max, I knew him from the Alfred days, he was a cooler guy. Of course, he played with his back to the audience, which bugged Max. I said, “What do you mean? So what? He doesn’t have to look at them and smile and say ‘hi guys, how you doing?’ He’s playing for his musicians that way.” It never bothered me. I kind of liked his insolent manner. It didn’t bother me. I thought it was kind of terrific. I’m listening to the music, not to what he looks like or what he’s wearing.

One thing bothered me about Miles towards the end, when he was not going to be here any more and he was going into his fancy clothes, dresses or whatever, changing his gender! Max was at the bar with him and some other people, just hanging out talking, as we always did, and Max came up and he said, “Hi, man,” some innocuous thing. Miles said, “Hey, don’t ever say ‘man’ to us. You’re not black. Remember that?” I was there. I said, “Would you rather be called ‘boy?’” Okay? End of that story. That was very nasty and insulting to Max. I couldn’t stand that. That was I guess the end of Miles. Not because of that incident. Because he went on to where, as I say, beads and dresses and glamour, and played some terrible music.

TP: The Vanguard survived a period that none of the other clubs survived, when Rock came in.

LORRAINE: That’s right.

TP: How did the Vanguard do that?

LORRAINE: Well, plenty of bad times here. Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy. Plenty of slow times. We survived it, because Max wouldn’t do it, and I would… The little I had to say would certainly be listened to. He knew I knew music. Max was not overlooking whatever I felt I could contribute by talking about it. We had lots of ups and downs, many-many-many. And who knew if he was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how, but he did. He was a very tenacious man, and he had to do bookings, and he did get wonderful men…artists to play here who weren’t even that well known. I mean, who the heck was Gerry Mulligan? He had Ornette Coleman when nobody ever heard of him. He had Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He had so many people that it’s mindboggling to think who passed through these rooms. Who’s the one wrote “When The Caged Bird Sings?” Maya Angelou used to play guitar here. She was a folk singer. I used to hear her a lot, and I liked her. And Abbey Lincoln played here many times. Hardly anyone didn’t pass through at some point.
TP: Monk played here quite often, didn’t he?

LORRAINE: Monk was introduced in this room. I brought him here in those years. Max didn’t know… Nobody knew him.

TP: They knew him uptown, not downtown.

LORRAINE: Some musicians knew him. He had no public at all at that time. And he laid a big egg here, and Max was furious with me. “What are you doing? You’re ruining my business. This man gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’” Max says to me, “What kind of an announcement is that?” I said, “Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.” Some years later, when Max brought him back, I hear him telling people, “Hey, I want you to hear this genius.”

TP: This was way before the Five Spot.

LORRAINE: Way before any spot, except inHarlem.

TP: Sonny Rollins told me that Monk hired him when he was 17 to play a gig at Barron’s. How about Bill Evans?

LORRAINE: Well, he was very beautiful. One of my favorites. I would hang out here a lot in front here just to hear him. Everyone was crazy about Bill Evans, even through his…what shall I call it…his bad long periods where he could only play with one hand, but it was so beautiful. And he had a checkered career as far as his habits went. But he always played here, and everybody just… He was just beautiful. He had a beautiful trio, where he had Paul Motian, a wonderful bass player who was killed in a motorcycle… That was a very sad time, because Bill loved him.

TP: Did you have a personal relationship with Bill Evans?

LORRAINE: Not me. Max may have had one more than me. Because you know, I didn’t hang out in the kitchen, you know, talking with the guys. I’m a different person, Max’s wife or whatever. I’m not a hanger-outer in that sense. I did all my hanging out with Alfred Lion. All those clubs up there on Broadway, and the record studios, and recordings. That was hanging out.

TP: A few more names. Dexter Gordon, who made… He’d bee playing in the States, but working at the Vanguard in ‘76 had an impact on the jazz world…

LORRAINE: Are you talking about when he went to work?

TP: I’m talking about the so-called “homecoming.”

LORRAINE: Well, his wife, so-called, was responsible for bringing Dexter back. She certainly communicated with Max about doing it, and Max was more than happy. After all, we had put on a big concert with Dexter and Johnny Griffin…
TP: But that was two years after he played the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: Whatever. They had a relationship, and Dexter was absolutely phenomenal and beautiful. And where was he going to go in New York City but the Vanguard? It was home.

TP: He played Storyville once…

LORRAINE: I don’t know where he played. The man has played all over the world. I don’t keep track of their gigs. I barely can keep track of whatever is going on here. I can keep track of it, but that’s enough.

TP: When you were married to Alfred Lion, in your hanging-out days, you spoke about the Royal Roost. Can you talk about the ambiance?

LORRAINE: The ambiance? [LAUGHS] Loud. They had bleachers. You could sit in the bleachers. You could get up and go out and come back. It was a very loose place, very loose going. Then you’d all congregate on the sidewalk afterwards, and then we’d go around the corner to a place called the Turf. We used to call it the Turd. It was a bar, where they stood in the back and they drank their heads off. I was pretty young and naive. I wasn’t exactly a swinger in the sense of… I’m Alfred’s wife. I’m part of his business. But I went along, and I guess I enjoyed it, because I did it.

TP: Did you like bebop when you first heard it?

LORRAINE: Not at all. Not at all! I was living in California for a very short time. My parents had kind of moved there. There was a man there who had a record store, Ross Russell was his name, and I used to go there because it was very close to my father’s little business. I sat on a bar-stool, and who was sitting next to me but Charlie Parker. I disdained that music. I was not interested in him, or making an acquaintance, or the music. No. I must say no. I was deeply involved with people like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday… All the great artists who were there before bop came to rule the roost. I was not into it. Not at all. Today when I hear people say bop is old-fashioned, I look at them kind of surprised. To me it’s still very modern! And I like a lot of it. I mean, I can get with it if it has a beat.

TP: What’s interesting about the Vanguard is that of all the major clubs, it probably has the most progressive outlook of any of them in the booking. Consistently, week-in, week-out…

LORRAINE: Yes. Well, because I understand that music changes. I listen to records or CDs constantly at home if I’m not here. I listen to music here. I’m aware of what’s giong on in the world of jazz. I’m very keen about jazz, to keep it alive, to observe who is good coming in. You know, everybody was not Coleman Hawkins. We have new guys. We have Dave Douglas, we have so many different people who I listen to very carefully. I’m here a lot of nights. I may not stay til closing. I don’t have to. I have wonderful people who work here, who’ve worked here for years, who help me. I don’t do everything alone. Nevertheless, I’m listening very carefully… I’m not listening carefully. I’m listening, and if it moves me and I dig it… I mean, I dig Brad Mehldau and I dig Bill Charlap, two entirely different artists, and I love them each for what they do, because they’re very pure and jazz is very pure. You know it when you hear it if you really know what it’s about. You can’t fool me. Well, you can a little bit. But most jazz lovers hang in with what’s really terrific. And if it’s new, just coming up, they have to recognize it. Suddenly these new acts become big! You don’t know that this is going to happen to Brad Mehldau. We couldn’t even spell his name in the past. So today he’s a star. I love him. He hates being compared to Bill Evans. He doesn’t feel that way about it. It’s just his look. He’s got that dreamy, sexy look.

TP: Let me ask you about some of the famous Village clubs? Did you go to the Bohemia?

LORRAINE: I know these names, but I don’t think so. Maybe I did. Not enough to force me to remember.

TP: How about the Five Spot?

LORRAINE: Maybe once or twice. I was loyal to the Vanguard. And once you’re loyal to a place… I mean, who’s got the time? I didn’t run around all night. I still had children and I still took kids up to school and made dinner, and I liked to cook. I still had a home life. You know, I wasn’t rousting about all night.

TP: With Alfred, did you ever go to Minton’s?

LORRAINE: Oh, yes. I can’t tell you much. It’s not there any more, though it has a sign. It was just a perfect club in Harlem that was very mysterious as a kid to me. I mean, I thought this was really livin’ it up! I never went to the Cotton Club. It’s not my style, and I was too young for that anyway. But Minton’s was a hangout, and that record that came out with Monk and Joe Guy, I believe, a quartet, was done at Minton’s. I can play it all the time, and it brings me back to this smoky club, filled with musicians or their friends and patrons. What is there to remember? It was a square room, and it was a famous place at that time. It did not maintain itself, although it’s made some efforts, but…

TP: They were around throughout the ‘50s. Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Ike Quebec were there…

LORRAINE: Everybody was there. There’s no doubt that people were there all the time. It was a real jazz club. Of course. I wasn’t following everyone’s career, frankly. That would be hard to do. I’d read something or meet somebody, but that wasn’t my whole life. It was a segment of it, to know what’s happening. I actually didn’t have to know what was happening. It wasn’t going to further my knowledge of anything. [ICE CUBES CRASHING INTO MACHINE] The ice revue! I know.

We’re not that modern here. We really need a big facelift. But I don’t want to do it. I just signed a new lease, honey. I have a lot to do. Ten more years. I just have a lot of things to sign, and liquor licenses, and Department of Health licenses, and the Fire Department, and this and that. I just took out that big old stove, the Vulcan that was there for a million years. I got rid of it, and I gave it to a wonderful young man who’s got a restaurant, but he’s going to try to use it in his home which he just bought upstate. But it’s gone. I had a wonderful man who came here and put up a beautiful wall, which is now being covered with coats. That’s not how I saw it! I want to get rid of the coats. But the stove is gone. We don’t serve food, and it’s just a thing sitting there.

TP: A general question. You’ve been following jazz for about sixty years, maybe more.

LORRAINE: More. Me following jazz is… I hate to tell you!

TP: Tell me.

LORRAINE: I’ve been collecting records since I’m a teenager. There goes the ice! No skiing here, please. [One more.]

TP: It’s very old-school. Ice during the bass solo.

LORRAINE: Yeah. Ha. Well, I could modernize every square inch here, but I do a little at a time. It’s a big job for me, and I don’t have contractors to come in. I have my good friends who are carpenters and this and that, who do things for me.

TP: So you’re not running the Vanguard on the business school model, or hotel or restaurant management school.

LORRAINE: Not at all! If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability. But a big pain in the neck here was that post up in the front of the bandstand where the drummer always sat. It was a big post, and everybody complained and complained. “That post, it’s impossible; I don’t want to sit there, I want to sit here.” So one day, I had my friend Robbie, who works for me occasionally when he’s in town… “Let’s go look at this post. Open a hole. What’s inside?” So we did. And in there is a pole this big. So he took the whole outside of that little post down, and put the smallest one possible. Wow, hey, you can almost see the drummer now! That was a great step forward.

TP: A great innovation for the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: And how!! Because those are the meaningful things in this room.

TP: Have you ever added things for the acoustics, or have the acoustics just been what they are because of the way the room is made?

LORRAINE: No, we have fabulous equipment in the little music room back there, the most expensive kind of equipment. Well, it’s not new any more; it’s been there a while. The speakers and the equipment were upgraded long ago, and they’re fantastic. I did do something remarkable for people who are looking for the men’s room or the ladies room. I put hot water in the… [LAUGHS]

TP: That was a great innovation.

LORRAINE: Yes. [Can I have something in there? Anything you desire. Because my throat is getting dry. I talk so much.] Yes, and I have to thank the Department of Health. Because in almost seventy years, this place was never inspected for anything. I mean, I stopped smoking down here over ten years ago when J.J. Johnson played here. I cut the smoking out. And we don’t serve food. So I didn’t even know there was a Department of Health. I’ve got all the other departments on my back. I won’t go into the whole story. It’s a long one.

TP: But they made you put in hot water.

LORRAINE: Yeah, they came. Max never put hot water in. I didn’t know how to put… How do you put hot water in? “Yes, we have plenty of cold water.” So they said, “Well, how do they wash their hands?” I said, “You use soap. Soap and water. Hot or cold.” Never mind. You’ve got to have hot water. Well, I fortunately found a master plumber, a wonderful guy, who attacked… He knew all the pipes in that kitchen. If you look at the kitchen, there’s a million pipes. And he found the one to connect to the men’s room and ladies room. He even put in new sinks, and we have hot water! I think that’s an innovation here. People have come out to congratulate me!

TP: I would have if I didn’t think I’d get yelled at.

LORRAINE: I wouldn’t yell at you if you’re saying something nice.

TP: As I said before, you’ve been following jazz for a good chunk of your life, which is a little older than the Vanguard, right?

LORRAINE: Yes, it’s a lot. But I’m not going to tell you. I know you’re angling, but I’m not going to help.

TP: But having followed jazz for all those years, and on a rather personal level, what’s the same? What are the continuities. One thing that’s so unique in this music is that a young artist has to be connected to things, even if they don’t know it, that were current 70 years ago. Tenor saxophonists still use devices Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, pianists still play the vocabulary of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, bassists still do things that Jimmy Blanton did. There’s an inter-generational continuity. What qualities are similar in musicians, and in what ways are they different?

LORRAINE: Well, if someone invents a new chord change, that’s different. He picked it up from someone else, changes it around… “How High The Moon” has 15,000 different chord changes, and you don’t know what the heck you’re listening to, but it’s there. It progresses. The musicians have very lively minds; when they playing their instrument, they experiment all the time. They pick up all kinds of things. They write their own music, that’s never been played before. It has to change. It’s not a dead art. That’s the beauty of jazz. It’s alive and well.

TP: I’m also talking about the personalities and characters of the musicians.

LORRAINE: Well, I don’t know. They’ve all got a different character and their personalities vary from God knows what.

TP: But you know what I’m asking.

LORRAINE: No, I don’t.

TP: Can you generalize through your experience… Every musician is a different person, but they also have certain things in common…

LORRAINE: Same girlfriend. I will leave you on that happy note! I can’t think of all the things! Of course they all look at each other, play together, jam together, take from each other. I don’t know how to answer that. They’re all basically accomplished!

TP: The musicians who are 30-40 years old today, do they have a different attitude than the ones you encountered back in the day?

LORRAINE: I think musicians are doing a lot better today financially than they were long ago. I do believe that. They have much more opportunity. They’re playing all over the world. There are so many jazz festivals, sometimes it’s hard to hire somebody here because they’re playing in Oslo, or Nizhni-Novgorod, or on a boat, or God knows where. They’re all over the lot. So jazz has certainly grown immensely, I think. And they play in other countries, they pick up sounds from other countries, they come back and play the Swedish something or other… The men are alive and well, and always listening and learning, and always…

[END OF SIDE A]

TP: Music isn’t the only thing they talk about.

LORRAINE: Well, when I’m around. When I leave, who knows? I’m going home now.

TP: Can you tell me anything about the Half Note?

LORRAINE: I can’t tell you anything about it because I was not there in a sense, nor involved. The musicians who played here, played there. Look, I was not loyal to any club but here and the Blue Angel uptown. That’s where my loyalties lay. I had no time to run around to other clubs. They were there. Obviously, they were important clubs, and the same musicians played there that played here. Sometimes they got more publicity playing there. I mean, Monk got all the publicity playing at the Five Spot, when he had played here!
TP: That’s because he had a six-month gig there with Coltrane.

LORRAINE: Coltrane played here all the time… I don’t know about the other clubs. I can’t give you dates or times or who did what to who. I’m not everywhere, and I’m not all things to all clubs. Or musicians. Now I am only all things to myself.

TP: No credit cards also.

LORRAINE: I can’t tell you how many people are grateful for that. But we do have a website that takes credit cards. http://www.villagevanguard.com. They will take credit cards. A certain amount; it’s a small club. But we have instituted that. That’s a step ahead.

TP: In a certain way, you do things the way you did them 30-40 years ago, with the exception of the website. And you’re the only one that does.

LORRAINE: Well, look. We don’t serve food. If you serve food, you should have credit cards. What you get here is what you pay for at the door. Is it worth having a credit card for $25, and so you’re going to order another beer, it’s another $5? It doesn’t pay. We tried it once. It was a total failure. It doesn’t pay. If you serve food, then you should have credit cards, of course. I don’t serve food. I simplify life. This club caters to people who really love jazz, or people who want to learn about jazz who don’t know anything. Many people call and they say, “Well, I’ve never been there before. How does it work? What do you do?” Then if I get insolent, they holler at me. [LAUGHS] “Don’t come here.”

TP: Then you tell them not to come if they speak back.

LORRAINE: This guy who just came here, I talked to him today on the phone twice, told him how it worked. They had left a message on the machine, and it came out like “raisonette.” You could barely understand what they were saying. For six people. I took that, made up what I thought. Then he called on the phone, he said what the name was, I cleared that up, and made it four people. I gave him everything. “You have a reservation; you pay when you get to the door.” So now he’s there, just wanting to pick up his tickets. You know what I mean? As much as I explain, they are also into their own thing, too, of how things work everywhere else but here.

TP: How have the audiences changed over the years?

LORRAINE: I don’t think so. I know we have so many new people because nobody can find the men’s room or the ladies’ room. So I know there are new people. They haven’t changed. The only way they’ve changed, they’ve grown older, and their children are coming, and in some cases the grandchildren are coming. That is one thing that’s changed—growing up and growing older. So audiences haven’t changed, to my way of thinking. I mean, they’re not going to hear Sidney Bechet here, because he’s not alive and it doesn’t exist. So they’re going to come to hear, well, whoever happens to be there, if it’s Don Byron or Chucho Valdes when we’re lucky enough to have him, or Branford. Wynton is coming to play for one night for the 70th anniversary. Next month, the 20th, is the seventieth anniversary of the Vanguard. We’re closed Monday night for a party here. I’ll give you your invite. I’ll save a stamp. It’s going to be very glorious. I don’t want entertainment. I want friends and drinks and food and a party. I have no room at home to have a party.

I want the ten-year-lease off the record.

TP: But that is one question people would logically ask about the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: I cannot tell you every darn thing that exists!

TP: But to stay 70 years in one place without ever having owned it, which Max talks about in the book and which you spoke to me about.

LORRAINE: It’s wonderful.

TP: Great landlord, then.

LORRAINE: You’re darn right. I appreciate it. We do have a wonderful landlord. But leave that section out. Nobody cares. It’s none of their business. You got me talking. There are certain things I regret saying, and if I have the privilege…

TP: You told me it’s off the record.

LORRAINE: Do you have more questions? I have to go.

TP: That’s it.

LORRAINE: Oh, good.

[-30-]

************

New York Daily News ©
http://www.nydailynews.com One giant step at a time
BY TED PANKEN
Sunday, February 13th, 2005

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” said Lorraine Gordon, proprietor of the Village Vanguard on a frigid recent afternoon. The heating unit was off, so Gordon, wearing a sweater and down jacket, sat next to a struggling steam radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.
“We’re not that modern here,” she continued. “We need a big face-lift. But I don’t want to do it.”
Hundreds of jazz clubs have come and gone since the Village Vanguard first occupied the triangular basement at 178 Seventh Ave. South in 1935.
Flourishing where other clubs have withered, the Vanguard ignores modern ideas of hospitality management. It doesn’t accept credit cards and doesn’t serve food. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. The ice machine, often heard punctuating bass solos, is an artifact, as are the red banquettes and dime-size tables. Complaints? Gordon or her waitstaff will quickly put you in your place.
To celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Vanguard begins a week-long festival on Tuesday. Spanning a 30-to-80 age range, the acts – Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, the Bad Plus, Jim Hall, the Heath Brothers and the Bill Charlap Trio – all have long histories with the club.
As Gordon reminisced about the Vanguard, she looked at the back corner of the bar, where she sat 60 years ago with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club and heard Leadbelly sing the blues.
“Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We’d have a couple of beers and pass them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”
The little man was Max Gordon. After a brief marriage to Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, Lorraine married Gordon. When he died in 1989, she inherited the Vanguard.
He had been born in Lithuania in 1903 and raised in Portland, Ore. A wannabe poet, he relocated to Greenwich Village in the mid-’20s. In 1932, he opened a café on Sullivan St. The police closed it. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, Gordon opened the Vanguard in a shuttered Charles St. speakeasy. A year later, he moved the club to its current premises and launched it with a poetry slam.
The room drew attention outside the Village in 1939, when Gordon booked a young comedy troupe called the Revuers, comprised of Judy Holliday, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Over the next two decades, Gordon – who also ran a posh East Side spot called the Blue Angel – launched performers like Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Woody Allen, and Nichols and May. Priced out of such acts by TV in the late ’50s, he turned the Vanguard into a jazz-only venue.
HOME OF CLASSICS
Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Coleman Hawkins all worked the Vanguard. More than 100 live-at-the-Vanguard albums exist, including classics by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, Joe Lovano, Wynton Marsalis and the Paul Motian Trio.
The latest addition to the list is “Magic Meeting,” guitarist Jim Hall’s release on ArtistShare. “I like to move forward and not live in the past, but the Vanguard has so much poignancy. It’s the ambience, the memories, the photos on the wall…” said Hall, who performs on Thursday. He got married during a Vanguard gig 40 years ago, and first played there opposite Miles Davis in 1958.
“The Vanguard has the atmosphere I like to play in, and I’d go when I wasn’t playing, too,” said tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath of the Heath Brothers. “I like the sound, the intimacy, the clientele, the owners.”
Gordon compares the Vanguard’s atmosphere to the feeling of the joints that filled the ground floors of the brownstones lining 52nd St. between Fifth and Sixth Aves. before the block became an urban canyon.
“It was the golden age of jazz,” she said. “On a given night, you could go from one club to another and hear Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Max Kaminsky. They were small, happy places. You could touch the musicians. Like the Vanguard.”
However vivid her memories, Gordon is no slave to nostalgia. She books as progressive a schedule as anyone in town, regularly presenting such cutting-edgers as Dave Douglas, Don Byron, Greg Osby and Jason Moran.
“This club caters to people who love jazz, or want to learn about it,” she said. “Nobody can find the men’s room or ladies’ room, so I know there are new people.”
The customers have “grown older, and their children and grandchildren come,” she said. “They won’t hear Sidney Bechet here or John Coltrane. They’ll come to hear… whoever happens to be here.”

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Filed under DownBeat, Lorraine Gordon, N.Y. Daily News, New York

Chucho Valdés Is 71 Today: A 2004 Downbeat Feature

For the 71st birthday of the magisterial Cuban Jesus “Chucho” Valdés — and the 93rd for his father, Bebo Valdés — here’s an feature piece I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2004.

The end of the piece is inaccurate — as it turned out, Valdés did not miss his U.S. gigs because of a hernia condition, but because of certain business and personal conflicts which I won’t elaborate upon.

* * *

Thirty years ago, Jesus “Chucho” Valdés relates, his biggest dream was to see Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner perform. Now, on the final Monday of 2003, Valdés was about to embark on a week when and he and the piano giants would simultaneously play major club engagements in New York City.

Over the past few years, the enigmatic Cuban pianist had barely played a note in New York. Booked to play the Village Vanguard in 2002 and early 2003, visa-processing delays by the Homeland Security Administration forced him to miss these dates, as well as other gigs in the States. Cuba is on a list of countries considered a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the United States—to receive a visa, its citizens need to get a special security clearance from the State Department—so stories like Valdes’ are more the rule than the exception.

This time, art prevailed, and Valdés, with his visa secured and upgraded, arrived in New York from Havana for a week at the Vanguard without bureaucratic holdup. His long absence in and of itself imparted extra significance to this residence. But to raise expectations even higher, he was scheduled to perform with a completely new band.

When Valdés descended into the Vanguard to meet his New York band for the week to come, awaiting him downstairs were Puerto Rican-raised bassist John Benitez, Cuban-raised drummer Dafnis Prieto and veteran Nuyorican conguero Ray Mantilla. After warm greetings and salutations, the musicians—never in a room together until that moment—took the bandstand and launched into “Besame Mucho” as a flowing son, locking in from the first measures with the intuition of old friends conversing over a post-dinner apertif. In that mode, they rehearsed until nightfall.

“Generally, Cuban groups like Irakere are very formed,” Valdés said over lunch at the Manhattan restaurant Patria prior to his first rehearsal with the new group. “You can do complicated things, and you have all the time in the world to rehearse. Things take time when they’re hard. This is another story, because it’s imagination, adventure. The other is an adventure, too, but planned. Everything depends on how we connect, musically and in the idea. I have done other things; now is the moment to do this. This for me is something new, and I like it.”

Valdés agreed to take on this project at the suggestion of his close friend Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard’s proprietor. He first played the venerable basement in September 1996 as a member of Roy Hargrove’s Big Band, and subsequently in 1997 with Hargrove’s Crisol, the New York–Cuba ensemble in which Valdés showcased his jazz skills to an American audience that knew him only as the keyboardist and musical director of Irakere. In 1999, he recorded a live album on the premises for Blue Note with his quartet of Cuban musicians, Live At The Village Vanguard.

At 62, Valdés is a national icon in Cuba. As the creative force behind Irakere, he spent the ’70s and ’80s finding ways to place jazz harmonies over the songo beat, a rhythm of his own invention that blends Cuban street beats—rumba, guaguanco and yumba—with American funk.

Since the mid ’90s he’s used his international prestige to draw world-class artists to the Havana Jazz Festival. But Valdés had never done anything quite like this week at the Vanguard, where he allowed himself to complete a circle, to connect wholeheartedly with his earliest musical aspirations in a way that he has been unwilling or unable to do for many years.

“Mistakenly, some people thought jazz was imperialist music,” Valdés says, describing the ideological attitude of Cuba’s cultural commissars in the early ’60s. “A great error. I have struggled all my life. But I maintained my connections in the difficult period, and today I have the best jazz festival in all of the Southern Americas. Easier said than done, but we did it.”

BREAK

Before sold-out crowds at the Vanguard each night, Valdés allowed himself to eschew the firm control with which he customarily directs the musicians in his ensembles. He opted for improvisation, interaction, and open exchange of ideas with his world-class partners, subordinating pyrotechnics and virtuosic flourishes to collective ends. In short, Valdés displayed a fully bilingual tonal personality—not a pianist who layers jazz elements onto a Cuban sensibility, but a Cuban musician fully at home with the idiomatic particulars of jazz vocabulary.

He revealed a staggering breadth of reference. He might begin a set with a chromatic workout on the luscious atonal melody of “Son Parabea,” composed that very week, and then follow it with a quote-filled tour through “Besamé Mucho” (the final night saw stops at “Work Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Nature Boy,” “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Bolivia”), addressed as a soulful bolero-blues. He transformed Miles Davis’ “Solar” into a Cubop tour de force, juxtaposing different metric signatures with each hand and articulating the dynamics and velocities with total control. He played the balladic danzons “La Comparsa” or “Tres Palabras,” or perhaps his own classic, “Claudia,” deploying the harmonic language of Ravel and Debussy and Villa-Lobos in his statements. He paid homage to Bill Evans (“Waltz For Debby”) and Duke Ellington (“In A Sentimental Mood”).

Valdés is a long-standing devotee of Gershwin, with interpretations of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me” on his extraordinary string of albums for Blue Note since 1998. At the Vanguard he played “Liza”—traveling the timeline from idiomatic Fats Waller stride to baroque Art Tatum romanticism to intense Bud Powell bebop—and a catchy “I Got Rhythm” variant, songo-style, on which each night he found new ways to interpolate snippets from “Birks Works,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Manteca,” “Dizzy Atmosphere” and other refrains from Dizzy Gillespie, as well as “Cheek To Cheek” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk.”

“We were exploring for the whole week,” Prieto said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, and it stayed fresh. I was impressed by the way he conducts. He would raise his hand, and you wouldn’t have to pay attention twice to see what he meant. It made things very tight, and he made decisions at the right time and with the right conception. He’s very clear. He surprised me in the way he directed the band, in his piano playing, and in his interaction. After that week, I think differently about him.”

BREAK

At our luncheon at Patria, Valdés squeezed his six-and-a-half foot frame and not inconsiderable bulk into a booth with his wife of four years, Ileana, and translator Ned Sublette, the proprietor of the Cuba-centric Qbadisc label and author of a forthcoming history of Cuban music. Valdés ate ceviche and a chicken cutlet sandwich, drank wine, and held forth on a variety of subjects, constantly referencing the culture in which he developed his core aesthetic values.

“There was everything in Havana,” Valdés said of his formative years, which coincided with the regime of strongman Fulgencio Batista and the height of American Mafia influence in the Cuban tourist trade. “Most of the big hotels had cabarets with shows, and they brought in big names. Johnny Mathis, for example. I remember when Sarah Vaughan was in the Sans Souci at the same time Nat King Cole was at the Tropicana, and when the two shows finished, everybody went to the Sans Souci to have a jam session with Sarah. There were a lot of jam sessions after the cabarets closed, and there were always North American musicians appearing. Zoot Sims. Mundell Lowe. Jimmy Knepper.
“Stan Getz showed up, borrowed a tenor, and sight-read the hotel show like he’d been playing the book for a hundred years,” he continued. “Nobody knew that they were in Cuba. The movie theaters would have a show after the movie; I saw Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball once, and artists from Spain and France. During the ‘50s, Josephine Baker was at the Tropicana. I was the pianist on the last record she made, in 1966, in Havana.”

Valdés attended conservatory for classical music and was home-schooled in jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music by his father, pianist Bebo Valdés, himself a virtuoso jazz stylist who in 1952 transplanted the bata drum from the rituals of Santeria into mainstream Cuban dance. He first played professionally at a lounge in the Tropicana around 1957–’58. “It was a bebop trio, and I played pure American style,” he recalls. “I was trying to reproduce all the things I listened to. Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Red Garland—the Miles Davis pianists. Bud Powell. Many things of Oscar Peterson. I followed the line of my father, because of his experience. I admire him a lot. He’s one of the greatest pianists I’ve listened to in Cuba. He told me, ‘Study pure Classical, and you’ve got to study jazz by periods.’ We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal by epoch. Learn each thing correctly in its specialty, and don’t jump around from era to era, so you know what you’re doing and why things happened. He taught me to be an individual musician.

“On my solos, within my limitations, I played a little like Art Tatum at the beginning. Then I started to follow my own fantasy, looking for something that would identify me. How can I put in a bata drum? How can I change the bass around to make it more Latin? How can I use more jazz harmony, because it’s richer? And how can I put Yoruba cantos over the jazz harmony? Little by little, I searched for those answers. I was much criticized for this by Cuban musicians, because they said this isn’t pure. But within my conception, I put it together. I understood already that this was fusion. My father had his fusion, but I was looking for my own. When I made my first record, they wanted to call me Bebo Valdés Jr. I said, ‘My name is Chucho.’ They said, ‘No, it will sell better.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to record, then.’ I was proud of my father’s name, but I wanted to be myself.”

“In the beginning, Chucho played exactly like Oscar Peterson,” says Paquito D’Rivera, confirming Valdés’ self-description. D’Rivera writes vividly about these years in his autobiography, Mi Vida Saxual [My Saxual Life]. He recalls having first heard Valdés play in 1961 at a club called Havana 1900, and made his recording debut in Cuba on a pair of early-’60s LPs called Jesus Valdés Y Sus Combo that contained “primarily boleros and descargas.” In 1964–’65, Valdés and D’Rivera would play jazz with Irakere predecessors El Teatro Musical del Havana and the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna.

“As the ’60s went on, he got more into Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett had a big impact on him,” D’Rivera continues. “But at first he sounded like a continuation of his father’s work. Nobody called him Chucho. They said, ‘This is Bebo’s son.’ Mainly because of Bebo, he was very well respected by the Cuban musicians. Nobody criticized him. Everybody admired him as a musician.”

Bebo Valdés opposed Castro, and left Cuba in 1963 for a new life in Europe. His son remained on the island to pursue his musical studies and raise his own family, unable to communicate with his father and facing severe pressure to renounce his jazz roots.

“Terror can work miracles,” D’Rivera says. “For 17 years, Chucho did not return Bebo’s letters. Bebo told me that he did not blame Chucho. His words were, ‘Chucho was so scared that I understand why he did this.’ But I am glad that now Chucho says he feels like a jazz person, because he was denying this for many years. In the ‘70s, jazz was a four-letter word, and Chucho didn’t want to participate in the Havana Festival. He didn’t say, ‘No, I am not going to participate,’ but he never participated.”

Now a pillar of Cuba’s cultural establishment, Valdés visits his father’s house in Sweden, speaks with him once a week and receives Bebo’s youngest son—his stepbrother—on a regular basis at his house in Cuba. He’s so entrenched in the system that he signed a public letter last April defending Fidel Castro’s imposition of 20-year prison terms on such dissident figures as the poet-writer-journalist Raul Rivera and economists Martha Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe. He would appear to hold the position of Cuba’s musical chairman of the board. While other groups have been sanctioned for performing in venues that the government considers off-limits or for conveying proscribed lyrics or genres, Irakere has operated in a relatively uncircumscribed manner. Valdés knows the boundaries, and doesn’t cross them.

“I had a lot of friends within the culture—and the state,” he laughs. “That helps. It’s not as bad as is said. It’s important to break the psychological barriers that impede the interchange, without saying names of what it’s about. When Dizzy got together with the Cubans, something different happened. Cuba and the United States have a musical root with a point of departure in Africa. New Orleans was once in Spanish territory, and the connection between the habanera and ragtime is very interesting. They are almost the same thing. The famous ‘Spanish Tinge’ that Jelly Roll Morton said he felt in ragtime wasn’t Latin. It’s the ‘African Tinge,’ the same thing that’s in the habanera.

“The same Africans came to New Orleans and to Cuba. For that reason, it’s very important that the relation between the cultures is not broken. If there is a political problem, it’s a mistake, because it’s holding back development. And at the end, it’s not the product of a country, it’s a universal product. I base what I do in that idea. I hope nothing impedes the communication between North American and Cuban musicians. This is above politics. It’s more interesting than politics.”

“Being apolitical is already a political position,” D’Rivera responds. “I think Chucho doesn’t agree with the Cuban government. But he’s a representative of the Cuban government, even if he’s doing it against his will. He wants to do his music and he doesn’t want to leave, and he has to follow the rules. That’s why I left. I didn’t want to follow those rules.”

“Chucho’s major source of inspiration is in Cuba—the daily life, the smells, the atmosphere,” says Ileana Valdés. “He could never leave that place.”

That being said, Valdés seemed thrilled to have an opportunity to soak up the New York state of mind in an unmediated fashion.

“Last night, I received a lesson listening to Cedar Walton,” he said. “It was fantastic. Jazz is a language. It’s a form of expression. And it’s an idiom at the same time. Cedar did it pure at the maximum level. I also heard that with Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Listening, you learn. One has a seal, a way of identifying oneself that one does not lose. But also, I see change. I’ve got a lot to learn here yet.

“When I play, I’m thinking about rhythm and movement. I can also be very introspective. I admire Bill Evans. But I do something else. I never wanted to be a cabaret pianist. The harmony is the road; you can’t choose another path. It governs improvisation. You can move the harmony around, but the harmony always guides you. You can improvise freely over it, but you can’t forget it. I live studying this. And buying books and music. That’s my life. Nothing else interests me.”

BREAK

In February, Valdés had just completed an engagement at the Blue Note in Milan with his Cuban quartet and was scheduled to fly into New York to rehearse for a Bronx concert with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra that would include several duets with the singer Graciela, the sister of Mario Bauza. Plans were afoot to keep the New York Quartet busy during the spring and summer.

However, none of these events transpired. Lifting a suitcase while in tour in Italy, Valdés aggravated a long-standing hernia condition. He returned to Cuba and, advised not to travel for four months, postponed all off-island engagements until the summer, including the Bronx event (D’Rivera filled in) and a series of concerts in Spain with his father.

Valdés didn’t sit still. Within the first month of his recuperation, he recorded an album for the Cuban market with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, performed with nuevo flamenco singer El Cigalla, and played the opening week of a new club in Havana’s Jazz Plaza  at which the Cuban government plans to present performances.

But it’s hard to say when he’ll return to the United States. And as of this writing, no one is sure when—or if—the New York Quartet will work again.

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Chris Potter at the Village Vanguard This Week

On any given evening in New York City, jazzfolk possessing sufficient determination, logistical savoir faire, and funds can select from an embarrassment of riches. Last night, for example, I might have gone to the Jazz Standard to hear James Farm, the new collective “all star” group with Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, and Eric Harland. Could’ve gone to Birdland for Bill Charlap’s inimitable trio, or to Smoke, where the great tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander was swinging with piano maestro Harold Mabern.

Instead, I stayed in downtown Manhattan. Started off at the acoustically superb theater at the Rubin Museum, sited on the premises of the old Barney’s on 17th and 7th, to hear a solo concert by pianist Craig Taborn in celebration  of his new ECM release Avenging Angel, a recital constructed by Manfred Eicher from two days of in-studio improvisations. In person, Taborn compressed, presenting 8 or 9 tabula rasa improvs that showcased both his enviable interdependence,  rhythmic precision, and an array of attacks and pedaling techniques that exploited — and reveled in the harmonics of —  the full dynamic range of the Yamaha piano. It was a good reminder that Taborn — whose public profile  has become distorted by the amount of time he’s spent over the last decade playing keyboards in bands led by Tim Berne and, more visibly, Chris Potter — is anyone’s equal on the acoustic 88s.

Later, I walked down 7th Avenue to the Village Vanguard to hear the final half-hour of the first set by Chris Potter,  with whom, for the last 8 years, Taborn has played keyboards in the “Underground Quartet.” Earlier this year, Potter presented a thrilling new band with Cuban pianist David Virelles, bassist Larry Grenadier, and Harland, performing original music inspired by a reading of The Odyssey. This week — the gig runs through tomorrow — Potter is working with a stringcentric quintet that features the protean guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith from the Underground group, acoustic bassist Scott Colley from his acoustic quartet of the late  ’90s and early ’00s, and electric bassist Fima Ephron, a master of texture and pulse. The music was technically challenging, but also episodic, melodic, and collectively oriented. It took me on a journey.

My last stop was the Jazz Gallery, where trumpeter Ralph Alessi led as individualistic a quartet as you could think of — Jason Moran on piano, Drew Gress on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums, which performs on the 2010 release (though it was recorded in 20040, Cognitive Dissonance [CAM Jazz]. I was tired, and had to leave after three tunes (looks like I missed Ravi Coltrane sitting in; he was coming up the stairs with his saxophone). Wish I could have hung in there, though, as Alessi’s music is brilliant — highbrow, witty, rhythmically intoxicating — and the cats played it with such conversational sangfroid…

On the way home, though, Potter’s set stayed in my mind. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him a bit over the years, both through conducting a number of public interviews on WKCR, but also in the course of writing several pieces — a blindfold test 10-11 years ago, a 2006 feature article for Jazziz, a 2008 (I think it was) cover story for DownBeat. In the 2006 piece, Potter talked about themes that seem quite pertinent to the next step that he seems to be taking.

* * * * * *

On consecutive Fridays last June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For week number-two, he convened guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith, both touring partners from February through May with Underground, Potter’s current band, and bassist Joe Martin.  Toward midnight, as a long line of fans filed into the low-ceilinged ex-speakeasy for the second set, Potter unwound, sipping a beer as he chatted with drummer Billy Hart. When the leader descended to the basement to prepare, Hart moved to the bar, and, with little prompting, recalled his first Potter sighting.

The occasion was a straightahead August 1995 recording session for bassist Ray Drummond’s Vignettes, on which Potter played tenor saxophone alongside altoist Gary Bartz.  “When I heard the CD, I noticed that Potter played so much better than everyone else,” Hart said with a smile. “I told Ray, ‘It was nice that you gave him extra time to rehearse,’ but Ray answered that Chris had the same three hours as everyone else. Then Chris called me for a date [Moving In (Concord-1996)] with Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier], and sent me a tape with the music. At the session, I asked Chris why he wasn’t using the drummer who played on the tape, who was terrific. Chris looked at me like I was nuts. Later, Larry Grenadier told me that Chris had played the drum, piano and bass parts. I was shocked. A few months later, he brought a tune called ‘Tosh’ for my record, Oceans of Time, and I asked him to rework a section. He came in the next day with a completely rewritten chart, on which the violin and guitar shared the melody with two saxophones playing a counter-melody underneath it. He did that after working late the previous evening with the Mingus Orchestra. I said, ‘How did you do this? Didn’t you sleep?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem; I’m only 26 years old.’”

A week after this conversation, Jimmy Heath, a tough critic, related meeting Potter at 15, in a Heath-conducted high school all star band. “Chris asked, ‘Mr. Heath, do you know the chords to ‘Yesterdays’?’,” Heath said. “I wrote them out, and he went on stage and killed it. We were playing in a yard as tourists walked by. Each time he soloed, everybody stopped. When the rest of us soloed, they kept walking. I said, ‘Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton; when you play, everybody listens.’”

Heath has never heard a name he couldn’t pun on, but he jested not: From 1989, when Potter arrived in New York on a Zoot Sims Scholarship to the New School, and joined former Charlie Parker sideman, trumpeter Red Rodney (who occasionally featured his saxophone wunderkind as a trio pianist during sets), until the present, everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention  when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led a dozen albums; sidemanned consequentially with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow, and Rodney; and sustained close, enduring associations with such same-generation cutting-edgers as Rogers, Colley, Dave Binney, Alex Sipiagin, and Brian Blade, all 55 Bar regulars.

There are good reasons why Potter has earned such respect, among them his blend of technical derring-do, emotional projection, creative spirit and work ethic. “Chris is at the forefront of pushing the saxophone to the next level,” Binney says. “But he wants to keep stretching, even though he came up in this sort of young star thing and could easily have gotten stuck.” Rogers refers to Potter’s “endless wellspring of ideas,” while Colley mentions his “directness, his ability to focus that allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, exploring different sounds, different textures, timbrally changing up, using the extreme range of his instrument.”

Also factoring into Potter’s transgenerational appeal is the deep-rooted jazz bedrock upon which he builds his investigations. In the liner notes to Moving In, he stated his desire to find new ways to address “the possibilities that lie in the relationship of harmony to rhythm, the way Charlie Parker put together a language that depended on landing on certain notes on certain parts of the beat.”

A few hours before his first 55 Bar appearance, he elaborated on his aesthetic: “I spent the ages 11 to 17 completely devoting myself to learning how Charlie Parker made his sounds, and I always feel I’m coming from the jazz language. But at the same time, I was listening to my parents’ records of  the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, records of Chicago blues, Balinese music, Stravinsky and Bach.”

During those formative years, Potter lived—and gigged frequently—in Columbia, South Carolina, no jazz mecca, where his parents, both educators, relocated with him from Chicago in 1975. “I had certain advantages growing up there that I wouldn’t have had, say, if I’d grown up in New York,” Potter says. “There weren’t too many jazz gigs, but I was doing a fair amount of them by high school.” These included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had previously toured with various Rat Pack era entertainers.  He also played with a more contemporary band whose repertoire ranged from standards to Rock to free jazz.

“I got both sides early on,” Potter said. “I also did a lot of weddings. I rented a tuxedo, sang ‘Yesterday,’ and shlepped around a DX-7, which I played. I had great experiences playing gospel gigs in black churches, where I’d be the one white kid. It was a low pressure environment, and I grew up with the idea of being a working musician. I definitely think of myself as an artist. I’m trying to create something meaningful to me and hopefully to other people. But my view is also that at the end of the day, hey, it’s a gig! People should be enjoying themselves. Because I started so young, I caught the tail end of some stuff that I don’t see much any more.”

Perhaps those experiences—not to mention several years of steady work in the Mingus Orchestra next to old-school outcats like John Stubblefield and Frank Lacy—account for the go-for-broke quality that infuses Potter’s playing at brisk tempos, whether swinging as a sideman on a straight-ahead date, flowing lyrically over Motian’s ametric sound-painting, or molding his phrasing to synchronize with Dave Holland’s interlocking time signatures, or Nate Smith’s unleashed inventions with Underground. Indeed, at 55 Bar, he played structural ideas with a spontaneous elan that reminded me of an earlier Potter remark that, Sonny Rollins’ reputation as a thematic improviser notwithstanding, he considered Rollins “one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was; it’s like an unbroken line, like he’s not planning his next move at all, and that’s how he’s able to keep your interest.”

I asked Potter if he considered that comment to be a self-description. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he responded. “It depends how you end up using them. Things didn’t come easy to Coltrane as a kid, but he achieved an incredible amount because he worked so diligently, and he knew his weaknesses. From everything I can tell, Sonny was a real natural and automatically got things. I think I’m a little closer to the natural thing. But that can be a trap—if you do a lot instinctually, you may have less reason to dig deeper. I’ve found that I need to put in the work, that it makes a difference to the energy you get from the end product. Even if you don’t know the particular harmonic idea I’m working with or what I’m trying to get under my fingers, you hear the dedication to achieving this level.”

[BREAK]

“My generation grew up listening a lot to jazz and spent a lot of time working on the jazz language,” says Potter, referring not only to the 55 Bar clique, but also such old friends as Mehldau, Grenadier, Kevin Hays, Bill Stewart, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Some of us have been able to work with the greats. But I don’t think any of us feels bound to try to recreate the past. After Wynton came on the scene, there was a resurgence in people playing straight ahead and realizing how much depth it takes to do that. A few years later, the idea was, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten back to at least this; now where can we take THAT?’”

Addressing that question, Potter, like many among his cohort, landed on the challenge of making odd meters flow as organically as four-four swing.

“In the generation after Charlie Parker, everyone suddenly understood something about the bebop language, whereas a few years before hardly anyone could execute anything like that,” he says. “Now a jazz musician is expected to be able to improvise in 13 or in 11, know something about how Indian and African and Cuban music are put together and be familiar with the sound. I wouldn’t pretend expertise in any of those fields, but I feel those influences come out—in a layman’s kind of way—when I play. I don’t have a big theoretical underpinning, though I wish I could come up with one. My approach to music has always been to learn as much as possible by ear and to experiment—and have fun. It’s more about what feels right, what feels like a way to unify all the things that turn me on, all the different music I enjoy listening to.”

Potter displayed his swing fluency on the first tune during his first Friday at 55 Bar,  launching an extemporaneous, explosive theme-and-variation improvisation on “How Deep Is The Ocean” with Colley on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Deploying  his play-anything-he-hears technique, he executed intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions with vigorous authority  reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa 1965.  Like Rollins, Potter put his virtuosity at the service of a story, deploying tension-and-release strategies to construct a dramatic arc that got under the skin of his listeners.

But in conceptualizing original music, Potter these days is inclined to sublimate his swing roots. In Underground, Potter develops ideas that he began to state systematically on Traveling Mercies, his second studio date with Hays, Colley and Stewart, his working quartet from 1999 to 2003. He eschews the bass, instead utilizing keyboardist Craig Taborn to sound-paint textures and kinetic grooves over a beat palette drawn from funk, hip-hop and world sources.  These propel lean-meat structures in which vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational launch pads.

“It’s very difficult for me right now to make swing feel completely personal,” he says. “This is going to sound wrong, but it’s related to the cultural relevance of swinging as a rhythmic form. With Underground I think about music that sounds relevant to how I and everyone I know are actually living, the sounds you have in your head just from walking down the street in New York City. That’s not to say that swing can’t express that. But it almost feels like there’s too little space between beats. Though it doesn’t really make sense that a rhythm should have relevance or non-relevance. It’s just a pattern of sound.

“In 13, you can’t play the same safe stuff you know. To paint inside the lines, you have to place different rhythmic patterns, use different numbers of notes in the phrase. That’s one way I practice—to set up some kind of obstacle so I can’t just do what I already know. It’s like, okay, I’m only going to use triplets, or work with just groups of 5 or 7, or only play within a fifth range of the horn. I use whatever idea I can come up with that limits me, so that I have to find something that works.”

Emulating ex-employer Douglas’ proclivity for mixing and matching various musical styles, Potter will soon release an album of original music for a 10-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble that debuted at the Jazz Standard in May 2005. “I listen to a lot of classical music, and this gave me a chance to explore those influences and spell out my ideas completely,” he says. “In almost all the contexts that I work in, I don’t want to write too much, though. I want the band to find something.”

Which is what both of Potter’s bands did at 55 Bar, and what Underground has done during throughout its two-year history. According to Potter, there’s more to come. “Underground works for me because these guys are so wide-open,” he said. “Actually, the aesthetic isn’t so different than playing with any other group. The building blocks are different, but it’s still about improvisation and creativity and seeing what you can find every night. I’m really grooving on it.”

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Modern Jazz in Greenwich Village

Yesterday morning,  I received an invitation to join a Facebook group comprised of people who grew up in Greenwich Village, many of them from my elementary school alma mater, P.S. 41, on 11th Street and 6th Avenue, and my junior high school, I.S. 70., on 17th Street between 8th and 9th Aves. In going through the many threads, it’s fascinating to take in the testimony of such a diverse group of people who share the experience of having grown up and come of age during the 1960s and early ’70s in this singular, culturally influential community.

As a jazz guy, I couldn’t help but notice that, on a thread asking people to talk about the music that shook their world, not one respondent — except me, of course, ever the oddball –made a single mention of jazz. The  one exception is a woman who heard Miles at the Fillmore and also the Gaslight circa 1969 or 1970, when she would have been 15 or 16. Which is natural, since so many of the musicians who shaped the course of rock and pop were living and performing in the Village (one thread related that  Hendrix, then residing on W. 12th St., would practice with his amp by an open window; another gentleman posted a photograph of himself and his brother, barely 10, playing banjo on the grass in Washington Square Park next to a smiling, embarrassed Bob Dylan).

Six years ago, on the occasion of the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, I wrote a feature piece for DownBeat on the halcyon years of jazz in the Village, which  waned—though the scene was by no means dormant—as the ’60s progressed. Unfortunately, for space reasons, DB had to excise much  of the third section. I’m running my own final cut below.

* * *

On a frigid afternoon in January, a few weeks before the seventieth anniversary festivities of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor, sat in the triangular basement for a chat. The heating unit was off, and she was fighting a cold. Wearing a sweater and down jacket, she stayed close to a lukewarm radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.

Gordon looked across to the bar, and recalled a moment more than 60 years ago, when she sat there with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club as Leadbelly sing the blues from the Vanguard stage. “Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We had a couple of beers and passed them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”

The “little man” was Max Gordon, the owner. Some years later, Lorraine married him. When he died in 1989, she took over the business.

As she spoke, the ice machine spewed out a load of cubes.

“The ice revue!” she laughed. “We need a big facelift, but I don’t want to do it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max Gordon’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability.”

Lorraine Gordon wasn’t joking. The Vanguard, which under her guidance  follows a booking policy as progressive as any New York venue, operates on principles opposite to modern notions of hospitality management. They don’t take credit cards and don’t serve food. The tables are tiny. The red banquettes are less than plush. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. [note: The Vanguard began to take credit cards last year.]

Gordon evoked another incident, perhaps in 1949 or 1950. “I brought Thelonious Monk here before he had any public at all,” she said. “Only some musicians knew him. Monk gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’  He laid a big egg. Max was furious with me. ‘What kind of announcement is that?’ he said. ‘You’re ruining my business. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.’ Some years later, when Max brought him back, he told  people, ‘Hey, I want you to hear this genius.’”

“I was playing a gig with a singer for Max when Lorraine brought Monk in,”  pianist Billy Taylor corroborates. “Lorraine was pretty, and anything she told him, he was buying. At that particular time, it was the most unlikely thing he would have done.”

During the Vanguard’s first two decades, Max Gordon regarded jazz as a minor option on his entertainment menu. But as the ‘50s progressed, Gordon, sensing that television would soon outbid him for his artists, decided to make a move.

“In 1955 Max told me he was thinking of switching to a jazz policy,” says veteran producer Orrin Keepnews. “‘Stick with what you’ve got,’ I said, ‘and don’t give yourself a lot of trouble.’ Subsequently we talked about how fortunate it was that he paid me no attention.”

Fortunate indeed. Gordon signed on for the jazz wars at the precise moment when Greenwich Village was replacing 52nd Street and Harlem as the turf on which such efflorescent modernists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans established the vocabulary that continues to bedrock today’s sound. He shared the territory with clubs like the Café Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Jazz Showplace, and the Half Note, environments that now exist only in the memories of witnesses and through iconic location recordings. Those venues withered. The Vanguard flourished. Now, it’s the last survivor of the era.

* * * *
From today’s perspective, it seems odd that in 1955 the Village Vanguard and such venerable Greenwich Village establishments as Nick’s Tavern and Eddie Condon’s were inhospitable to modern developments in jazz. Yet, forward-thinking young musicians and a new generation of artists, writers, poets and theater people were settling in the Village, augmented by a flood of G.I. Bill sponsored students at New York University and numerous middle-class professionals moving into old brownstones and new highrises. All were looking for something different, and their soundtrack was modern jazz. But they could only hear it at informal sessions in lofts, storefront back rooms,  local restaurants, strip clubs (Phil Woods held court for several years at the Nut Club, a Sheridan Square boite in a space now occupied by The Garage), and saloons, like a raunchy East Fourth Street bar called the Open Door, where Robert Reisner booked jazz on Sunday afternoons.

In late 1954, Ted Joans, the black surrealist poet, moved from a MacDougal Street tenement into a barely heated Barrow Street flat, a five-minute walk from the Vanguard. Often boarding with him was Charlie Parker, his marriage shattered and health failing. Bird began to gravitate to the Bohemia, a former strip joint across the street at 15 Barrow—a decade before, the premises, known as the Pied Piper, boasted a house band with Wilbur DeParis and James P. Johnson—to drink and jam. James Garofalo, the manager, decided to reinstate the music policy, and hired Bird to kick things off.

Parker died on March 12, 1955, and never made the gig. Garofalo hired bassist Oscar Pettiford, who composed the anthemic “Bohemia After Dark” and attracted the best and brightest of Parker’s acolytes and contemporaries to hear him. Cannonball Adderley famously debuted there in June, sitting in on a Pettiford gig with Kenny Clarke. George Wallington recorded at the Bohemia that September for Progressive with Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. In October, Blue Note recorded the Art Blakey-Horace Silver edition of the Jazz Messengers, and in December Charles Mingus and Max Roach did the same for Debut. Among the intermission pianists were Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Bobby Scott.

In October 1955, Miles Davis, just signed to Columbia, entered the Bohemia with a new quintet comprised of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

“The Bohemia’s audience reminded me of cafes in Europe, where people were serious and intense, and paid attention,” states George Avakian, who signed Miles to the label and coordinated the publicity campaign that transformed his image. “They regarded the music as an art form, and even acted, oh, a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles.”

“It was a hip place,” adds Billy Taylor, “more like a club in Harlem than anything on 52nd Street.  People who lived or worked in or frequented the Village considered themselves a lot hipper than other people in town. In many cases, they were!”

“The Village was a section of acceptance for anything—any form of art, any form of people,” says Sheila Jordan, who sang during these years Monday nights at the Page Three, a gay bar on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street where Herbie Nichols played piano for a motley array of performers, including Tiny Tim. “Live your life. Play what you play. Paint what you paint. Dance what you dance. They accepted it.”

“Because of the mixed audience, people came from all over and did different things,” remarks Randy Weston, who performed in 1943 with guitarist Huey Long at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street. “In Harlem and Brooklyn the black audiences were very critical. You better feel the blues and swing or else! It was more flexible in the Village.”

The music at the Bohemia satisfied on both levels. “It was a rectangular room, with the bar and bandstand the long way,” says Roswell Rudd. “The music was right in your face. It was great to be 10 feet from Coltrane, and hear how he’d put himself into the most unbelievable corners and punch his way out. Saxophone players sat at the bar with their jaws down. They couldn’t believe anybody would challenge himself that way.”

Villager Bob Brookmeyer worked opposite Miles in 1956 on a Bohemia job with Gerry Mulligan, and again in 1958 as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Jim Hall. “We had 8 weeks,” he recalls, “including two opposite Wynton Kelly’s Trio, another two opposite the Wilbur Ware Quartet, and Miles and Coltrane the last two weeks. I thought we’d get killed, that the Birdland crowd would come down, talk through us and listen to Miles. But the opposite happened. Miles asked me why. I said, ‘We play quiet, so they have to listen.’”

“A tough little Italian-American cat,” in Weston’s words, Garofalo would not tolerate inattentive patrons. “Garofalo was an old-school Village bartender-proprietor and a real jazz fan,” says David Amram, who beelined to the Bohemia directly after arriving in New York in September 1955. A few weeks later, Mingus hired him to play french horn on a Bohemia gig “If a customer had a bad attitude, he might jump over the bar and attack them.”

At the beginning of 1957, Amram took an 11-week engagement across town at the Five Spot, a Skid Row saloon at Fourth Street and the Bowery with sawdust on the floor. Artists were starting to gravitate there from the already touristy Cedar Tavern on University Place.

“In the summer of ‘56, I scored a documentary film about the Third Avenue Elevated line, which had been torn down the year before, and persuaded Cecil Taylor to play on the soundtrack,” Amram relates. “I was around the Bowery every day. Joan Mitchell, a painter I knew, told me I had to come to this bar called the Five Spot, where she, Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning were bringing their friends. Don Shoemaker, who was a merchant seaman, played this wretched, beat-up old piano, and Dale Wales, who was a bass trumpet player and a chef, were playing there for kicks. All the painters knew me, and I sat in. Then I told Cecil to come down. He sat in, played his stuff, and broke about five keys. The proprietor, Joe Termini, said, ‘Get him out of here; he’s ruining my piano!’ But the painters said, ‘This guy is a genius. If you don’t bring him back, we’re not coming any more.’ So Joe hired Cecil for five weeks, with Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles. Then I went in. All these different poets came to read with me, and so did Jack Kerouac. It was like a Renaissance.”

“The first time I met Steve Lacy, we did jazz and poetry at the Five Spot, with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg,” pianist Mal Waldron told me in 2001. “All these people ganged together because we were on the outer edges of the status quo. We were the outlaws!”

“There were painters, sculptors, derelicts staggering in completely drunk,” says Randy Weston, who followed Amram that spring with a trio. In June, he ceded the bandstand to Thelonious Monk’s newly-formed quartet, featuring John Coltrane, whom Miles Davis had recently fired, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson. In honor of the event, which quickly entered the annals of jazz legend, the Terminis replaced the upright piano with a mini grand.

“The place was packed every night, and it was utter joy,” says Weston. Joyful, perhaps, but not hygienic. “The place was not clean at all,” he continues. “Sometimes when the toilet door opened, you would smell pee, and this guy made funky hamburgers in a little bitty kitchen.”

“We’d be back there eating them,” says Roy Haynes, who worked for most of the summer of 1958 at the Five Spot with Monk and Johnny Griffin, and “sat in once or twice” with the Monk and Coltrane the previous year. Naima Coltrane taped one session, which Blue Note issued a few years ago. “I didn’t care about the dirt. A lot of places were dirty. Playing with Monk at the Five Spot, there was no money made at all. But I loved to go to work. That’s when the word beatnik became popular and the look of the audiences started changing. We wore suits and ties when I worked the Five Spot with Monk. Sooner or later, that stopped. I couldn’t wait to take off a tie and play drums!”

“The place was small and dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness—sort of,” says Jim Hall. Hall notes that the personality of the proprietors set the tone. “When I was a kid, all the club owners were guys with the broken nose and cigars,” he notes. “But the Termini Brothers seemed like they’d be good neighbors or could run a grocery store.”

“The place had a certain warmth,” Weston acknowledges. “You can feel the bonhomie on Weston’s live Five Spot recording with Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Dorham from October 26, 1959. The other band was the Ornette Coleman Quartet, with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, in week three of Coleman’s explosive New York debut engagement.

“Hearing Ornette was a new experience in music,” says Weston. “I had the same impression when I heard Dizzy and Bird. What are these guys playing?! I didn’t know it was great. I just knew it was different.”

“Ornette immediately antiquated three-quarters of the musicians in New York,” says Bley, for whom Coleman had sidemanned in Los Angeles. “A lot of them proceeded to ask me what was going on, and I tried to help. I talked about microtonality—every kind of explanation, all at the same time. Ornette threatened almost everybody, including all the famous players.”

“I’d heard about Ornette through Neshui Ertegun, who had recorded him in California, and Neshui asked me to join him on opening night,” Avakian recalls. “It was electric. Word had gotten out, and the place was jammed. Ornette played the first set for about two hours, only three compositions, and virtually no solos. It was an ensemble feel from start to finish. Later it became more orthodox with individual solos. But that was the first impact, and it was very powerful.”

During the final month of Coleman’s initial Five Spot run, Bill Evans was firming up a new trio at the Jazz Showplace, on Third Street, near the current Blue Note. The bassist was a recent arrival from the West Coast named Scott LaFaro and the drummer was Paul Motian, an established young veteran on the New York scene. “Bill started with Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis at Basin Street East in November, and they quit on him,” says Motian. “I was working a rock-and-roll gig in New Jersey when he called me. Then Scott sat in with us, and that was it.” Evans brought the trio into the Showplace on Tuesday, December 1st, and left on Sunday, December 27th. That night they went the studio to record the iconic trio album Portrait In Jazz.

Prior to joining Bill Evans, Motian worked most of August 1959 with Lennie Tristano at the Showplace. But his home away from home for much of the preceding year was the Half Note, two blocks north of the Holland Tunnel at Hudson and Spring, across from the loft building that houses today’s Jazz Gallery. Run by the Cantarino family, it was an old-style Village Italian restaurant, with red-and-white tablecloths, that inaugurated a jazz policy in September 1957, with an appearance by Randy Weston.

According to Motian’s detailed gig books, he played the Half Note in June 1958 with Lee Konitz, and spent August through October on a 13-week run with Lennie Tristano. After three weeks in January 1959 with the bibulous tenor tandem of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and four with Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh (the front line, with Evans in the piano chair, is in fine form on LIVE AT THE HALF-NOTE [Verve]), he joined Cohn and Sims again for April, and spent three weeks in June with pianist-vibraphonist Eddie Costa.

The area now has an active nightlife, but in 1960, Brookmeyer notes, “the only other thing there was a rough gay bar two blocks over on the river. You had to really want to go. But people came, because the food and atmosphere and music were so good. They had a regular music clientele, and we built up our own audiences. For example, Clark Terry and I were there four times a year, and John Coltrane played there often.”

“You couldn’t stumble out and go into another club, like on 52nd Street,” states Jimmy Heath, who worked there in the mid ’60s with Art Farmer, a frequent Half Note artist. Nor was it a good idea to stumble on the bandstand, a raised platform within the oval bar, facing diners in the front. “Zoot and Al learned to catch shots that the bartender would throw up to them in shot glasses,” says Mark Murphy. “They’d down them, and throw back the glasses.”

One attraction was Al the Waiter, a.k.a. “The Torch,” who wore a tuxedo and never allowed a cigarette to go unlit. “Wherever you were,” says Steve Swallow, “he would streak across the room, grabbing at his belt where he kept a pack of matches affixed, and in one smooth motion, like a gunslinger, he’d reach down, grab a cardboard match, strike it, and have it at the point of your cigarette in less than a second.”

“Once I walked in when Coltrane and Elvin were late in the set, doing a tenor and drums duo,” relates Bley of a moment when sparks of a different connotation flew. “When I opened the door there were purple lights flashing all over the club—and I wasn’t smoking. There was such a frenzy that it changed not only the atmosphere, but one’s vision.”

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In his recent memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan recalls singing “The Water Is Wide” at “a creepy but convenient little coffeehouse on Bleecker Street near Thompson” in early 1961. Playing piano was Cecil Taylor. “I also played with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins there,” Dylan adds.

Dylan paints a vivid portrait of the louche, carnival atmosphere that prevailed in the coffeehouses, Italian restaurants, and saloons that lined Bleecker, MacDougal, Thompson and West Third Streets in this period. They serviced a mix of college students, bridge-and-tunnel slummers, art-oriented Villagers, Italian-American tough guys, Washington Square Park strollers, and the alcoholics, drug addicts and other lost souls who populated the Mills Hotel, an imposing 1400-unit flophouse that occupied an entire Bleecker Street block.

“I didn’t book Dylan,” says Art D’Lugoff, who ran the Village Gate, a three-tiered space below the Mills. “He was too much like Woody Guthrie. I knew a lot about Woody Guthrie, because I was a folkie before I got involved with other things.”

In 1955, D’Lugoff, an NYU alumnus, promoted concerts by Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand and Earl Robinson at the Circle In The Square Theater, opposite the Mills. He opened the Gate—the premises had housed a commercial laundry—in 1958. Initially, he booked folk and blues acts, and even musical theater, moving into jazz in a big way in 1960, and remaining staunchly in the game until 1996, when he lost his lease.

“We were the first to bring minor or major entertainment to Bleecker Street,” D’Lugoff states in a staccato Brooklyn accent. “At first, the coffeehouses were primarily places to hang out, pick up, meet people, and so on. The coffee was the attraction. Traffic began to develop along MacDougal, and then people made the curve to Bleecker. Then things began to open up.”

As Amram relates, all streams converged at the circular fountain in the center of Washington Square Park. “Gigantic crowds would gather in the summer,” he says. “Every 4 feet, somebody was playing a boom-box, somebody else a radio, someone would be screaming about overthrowing the government, and then a banjo player from the south was singing songs about whiskey and tobacco, then some old blues player, then somebody wailing some post-Charlie Parker free style all by themselves for an hour—a different genre of music, all of it at the same time. Somehow, it all fit into this wonderful kind of great Greenwich Village-New York-American sound.”

Although the coffee houses presented primarily folk music, enterprising jazz experimentalists were able to slip through the cracks. Consider the Phase Two, a coffee house at Bleecker and Seventh Avenue, best known as the spot where, in 1963, poet Paul Haines recorded a recital of Monk compositions by Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd.

“It was totally open.” says Rudd, noting that the group first performed publicly in the basement of an Armenian restaurant called Harut’s on Waverly Place, and subsequently played “at least half-a-dozen rooms along MacDougal and Bleecker.” “There were no lawyers, no money, no agencies, no management. If you had the energy, or the need to get exposure, you would find a way to do it through one of these places, and pass the hat.”

In early 1960, bassist Steve Swallow, 20 and fresh from Yale, began to play with Bley and trumpeter Don Ellis Saturday afternoons at the Phase Two. After Ellis left, Bley and Swallow remained there for many months as a piano-bass duo. “It paid $5 and a lot of coffee,” says Swallow, who notes that he paid 15 cents for a subway ride and $45 rent on his spacious Flower District loft. “It was a sitting-in situation. Al Foster lugged his drums over now and then. Albert Ayler a couple of times. Bill Dixon. The usual cast of characters. I even remember Lamonte Young coming by to play.”

“A pianist and bassist won’t upset anybody, so we didn’t make an impression,” says Bley. “The performers were the wallpaper. But at coffeehouses you had a license to do whatever you wanted.”

In early 1961 Bley brought Swallow into the Jimmy Giuffre Three, which made two pathbreaking recordings for Verve that spring. The following winter, they accepted an engagement at the Take Three, located above the Bitter End about a half-mile east down Bleecker Street. For second sets, Swallow played bass-vocal duos with Sheila Jordan; Ornette Coleman came out to hear them.

“We played several weeks for the door,” Swallow says. “On one particular night we’d made less than a dollar each—and Wilbur Ware had stopped by, so I didn’t even have that. After the gig we went to a late night eatery called the Hip Bagel, which named bagels after Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and decided we’d better bag it, that it wasn’t working. The music was glorious, but it seemed futile to continue.”

Foreshadowing the British Invasion, the South Village milieu shifted from Beat to Pop in a flash.

“One singular event perfectly encapsulates the very swift change that blew through Bleecker Street,” says Swallow, referring to a jazz-and-poetry gig at the Bitter End with a straight-looking poet named Hugh Romney, who subsequently changed his name to Wavy Gravy and became the symbol of ‘60s commune culture with the Hog Farm. “One night management told us that there was another act, two guys with a guitar and a girl. After we finished our set, we encountered them in the kitchen before they were about to go on, and the two guys were arguing about the third of the four chords in the piece they were about to play, and they had a repertoire of five or six tunes. We were utterly contemptuous. A little concerned, too. Something did seem to be in the air. Within a couple of weeks, we were gone, and they were carrying on. They were Peter, Paul and Mary.”

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“Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy here,” says Lorraine Gordon. “Plenty of slow times. Who knew if Max was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how. He was a very tenacious man.”

Thousands of musical explosions have transpired on the Vanguard bandstand since 1957, when Gordon started to “use a provocative mixture of the greatest in modern jazz, from Chico Hamilton and Stan Getz to J.J. Johnson interspersed with verbal entertainment by performers who…were hip enough or sufficiently jazz-associated to please the audiences who had come primarily to inspect the music.” The words are Leonard Feather’s, from the liner notes to Live At The Village Vanguard, a Sonny Rollins classic from that year. It’s the first in a succession of legend-building location recordings by—the list merely scratches the surface—Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Earl Hines, Albert Ayler, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Motian, Josh Redman, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, and Jim Hall.

“For some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard,” says Hall, who was married during a Vanguard engagement in 1965. “The sinkhole! I mean that in a good way. You go down there, and you’re in an environment. I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there with Slam Stewart. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over. I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and also in a duet opposite Miles’ group with Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Hank Mobley. Professor Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, too. Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.”

But when asked to recall the years when modern jazz stamped the Vanguard’s identity, most musicians don’t speak about the music. Instead, they talk about Max Gordon.

Ironic and philosophical, Gordon never mired himself in the status quo, and sustained equanimity whether the house was full or empty. “Max had a great sense of humor and resilience,” says Nat Hentoff. “He often had to deal with fractious personalities, but he always stayed calm, and he was a decent guy. You could trust him.”

In point of fact, as Keepnews states, “A tremendous variety of people, some of whom can’t stand each other, have very fond recollections of Max. If you were to take a poll—though you can’t because most of the people are dead by now—this is easily the best-liked club owner there ever was.”

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