Here's to life at the Vanguard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

Most jazz clubs have a limited life expectancy, and those that do stay the course sooner or later generally have to modify their style and compromise their programming to stay in business.

So it is with London's iconic Ronnie Scott's, which continues, fortunately, to present jazz, but mixed in with a much more populist mix of music than would have been considered when its founder was alive, and at much higher prices. Hong Kong's Jazz Club in D'Aguilar Street went the way of most and eventually collapsed under the twin burdens of hard times and high rent.

The shining exception to this rule is the Village Vanguard in New York. Founded in 1935 as a venue for poets to read their work, the club was one of the first to consider jazz complementary to verse and to try to present both.

At 178 7th Avenue South, a former prohibition-era speakeasy, since 1936, the club continued to present poetry and jazz alongside folk and blues and cabaret artists. Lenny Bruce was one notable comedian who played the room.

In 1957, however, an all-jazz policy was instituted, the half century of which was marked with the publication in 2006 of Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life in and Out of Jazz Time, by Lorraine Gordon - Max's widow who has kept the club going since his death in 1991 - and Barry Singer.

The book, which has just won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, is published by Hal Leonard and available from the club's website (

The basement room itself offers a telling contrast to, say, the glitzier Blue Note chain of clubs. The Village Vanguard's first concern has always been the music and the musicians who've played there and whose pictures hang on the walls, and Lorraine Gordon has been a loyal and effective guardian of its values.

'She's maintained the integrity of the Vanguard as a room where musicians play,' says Wynton Marsalis. 'It's a great feat, especially in our time when integrity is a curse word and selling out is a religion in our country.'

'Lorraine Gordon is why the Village Vanguard is what it is, and why it is,' adds Bill Frisell.

Marsalis and Frisell belong to a lengthy tradition among leading jazz musicians not just of playing the club, but also of recording there. That tradition dates back to 1957 when the club's new all-jazz era was ushered in with Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard, and has produced several of jazz's landmark recordings including those made during two spectacular residencies in 1961 by Bill Evans and John Coltrane.

In June, Evans settled into the club with his definitive trio of Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Just days before LaFaro's death in a car crash the three men cut the music originally released as Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, now available as The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961. The three-CD set on Riverside is one of the essential modern jazz recordings.

In November of that year John Coltrane brought recording engineers with him. Some of the material from those sessions came out on Live at the Village Vanguard, but much was scattered over later releases.

More than 100 live albums have been cut in that historic and acoustically fine room, including the latest from saxophonist Chris Potter, Follow the Red Line on Sunnyside.

Potter, who also recorded 2004's Lift at the club, returned for these recordings with his tenor sax, a bass clarinet and a band consisting of Adam Rogers on guitar, Nate Smith on drums and Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes electric piano, also covering the bass.

Potter is one of the most impressive tenor saxophonists of his generation and his bass clarinet work here is also of the first order. This is essentially a fusion set, by turns fast and furious and melancholically melodic.

It's not perhaps quite the musical landmark the Evans and Coltrane recordings are, but it's certainly a worthy addition to the long list of live sets captured at the Village Vanguard over the years. The album has been simultaneously released with a studio set, Song For Anyone.