Village Vanguard: Max Gordon's 50-year jazz fete

It's a little hole in the ground on Seventh Avenue South at 11th Street. But to New York jazz musicians and fans, it's home: the Village Vanguard, this city's oldest and most prestigious jazz club. This year it celebrates its 50th anniversary. No other jazz club has lasted so long, or been so consistently good. Dark and cramped, with photographs and drawings of jazz musicians on the walls and a bandstand against the back wall, it's anything but elegant. But to descend the stairs of the Vanguard is to enter a piece of jazz history.

The Vanguard's owner, Max Gordon, can be found at the club every afternoon doing his paper work in the back room. Later on, he's back sitting in a corner, talking to friends, musicians, and customers, and listening to the music. A diminutive, sweet-faced man who recently celebrated his 83rd birthday, Gordon is a legend in the jazz world. This past summer the entire Kool Jazz Festival was dedicated to him.

In a book, ``Live at the Village Vanguard,'' Max Gordon describes his arrival in New York in 1926 from Portland, Ore.: ``Little did I know when I landed in the Village that I'd end up opening a nightclub, a joint in the Village. I'd never been to a nightclub. I didn't have any money, and I knew nothing about running one.'' Then he adds, ``And here I am, nearly 50 years later, still at it, still running the same place. . . .''

Max didn't start the Vanguard as a jazz club. The first acts he booked were poets. The Vanguard of the 1930s was a home for the intellectuals, the ``Bohemians,'' including Maxwell Bodenheim, John Rose Gildea, Harry Kemp, and Eli Siegel. In 1939 Gordon hit on an act that he billed ``The Revuers'' but that he affectionately called ``Judy and the Kids,'' a group of young, unknown songsters. Max liked their act, and he gave them a chance at the Vanguard. How could he have known what the future would hold fo r Judy Holliday, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Alvin Hammer? In the early '40s the Vanguard slipped into a folk/blues vein, with greats like Josh White, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie. Later, Richard Dyer-Bennet presented his early Scottish, Irish, and English ballads at the Vanguard, accompanying himself on the lute.

How did the Vanguard end up a jazz club? Why did Max stop booking cabaret acts, poets, and the like?

``It became hard to find good acts. I'd always had jazz anyway, with the poets -- there was always a jazz trio. It just happened this way, and now I'm in it.''

And he's stayed in it, hanging in there through the hard times -- the advent of rock in the late '50s and '60s, which put a lot of jazz musicians out of work, and the rough economic times that have caused a lot of other clubs to fold.

``Business is better now,'' he says. ``But things haven't changed much for the musicians. A jazz musician's life is hard. It's hard to find a place to play. Even the old-timers and the established names find it hard.''

What about the audiences? Have they changed much over the past 50 years?

``A lot of young people come to hear the music, but aside from that the audiences are about the same . . . except for one thing -- the Japanese. Any night at the Vanguard you can find 10 or 15 Japanese in the audience. The Japanese love the Vanguard. They want me to go to Japan. They're going to make a replica of the Vanguard in a big department store in Tokyo.''

Max and his wife, Lorraine, live right in the Village, not far from the Vanguard. He has two grown daughters, and he considers the musicians to be part of his family, too. They often come to visit him, bringing their wives, or their new babies.

Max's own musical taste has determined what groups play at the Vanguard: ``I like the kind of music I grew up with, traditional music. It has to swing. But not Dixieland -- the room isn't right for it.''

Gordon operates the musical end of his business to a great extent by intuition. His sense of what's right for the club has led him to hire many of jazz's greatest musicians over the years, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Billie Holiday, Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, and on and on. Many have recorded live at the Vanguard. Mel Lewis's big band has been holding forth on Monday nights for over a decade and a h alf.

Max has helped many musicians get a toehold in the New York jazz scene. He's open-minded, willing to try something new, but he won't take wild risks.

``I'm booking [tenor saxophonist] David Murray. He plays bop, but with a more modern sound -- I like to try something new. So, you see, I'm growing.''

The building that houses the Vanguard has recently been bought by people who plan to triple the rent. What will become of the Village Vanguard?

``I have a lease for five years,'' Gordon says. ``They can't raise the rent for five years. What will I do? I'll just keep going. Why should I worry? If I'm still alive when they raise the rent and I can still keep the place going, I'll do it. It's been a good life. This place has been good to me. I'm going to stick with it. I don't plan to retire -- to do what? Watch television?''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.