Photo by Eric Ogden
The owner of the legendary club, The Village Vanguard, talks about her life in jazz. [32:52]
Lorraine Gordon—Podcast Transcript
LORRAINE GORDON: There's no heat and it's definitely a basement that nobody in their right mind would have ever rented except Max Gordon. Anyway. Once you get down those stairs, you're in heaven. You're away from the world, your in a womb. It's lovely.
JO REED: That's Lorraine Gordon, she's the owner of the legendary New York Jazz club, the Village Vanguard and a 2013 NEA Jazz Master.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
What jazz musician hasn't played at the Village Vanguard in New York City? They are few and far between, as the legendary jazz club has hosted everyone from Mary Lou Williams to Jason Moran. A jazz haven for more than 55 years, the Vanguard is still going strong under the ownership of Lorraine Gordon.
From her teenage years in Newark, New Jersey to her current stewardship of the Vanguard Lorraine Gordon has devoted her life to jazz. In fact, she named her compulsively readable 2006 autobiography Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time.
Her first husband was Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records. She joined the small company and together, they recorded legendary jazz artists such as James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet and Todd Dameron. They became advocates for the young and virtually unknown Thelonious Monk whom Lorraine most particularly championed.
After the Lions divorced at the end of the 1940s, Lorraine married Max Gordon who had opened the Village Vanguard in 1935. Lorraine was a regular, listening to the music as the club's reputation grew among jazz musicians and becoming according to Nat Hentoff "the closest we have to the Camelot of jazz rooms." When Max died unexpectedly in 1989, Lorraine closed the club for one night. she reopened it the next day, took over management and never looked back. For 23 years, Lorraine has made sure that the Village Vanguard remains synonymous with great jazz. It's no wonder that Lorraine Gordon has been chosen for the 2013 A.B.Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, which is given to an individual who has made major contributions to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of jazz.
I spoke to Lorraine Gordon in her Greenwich Village apartment soon after the award was announced. I wanted Lorraine tell me about her teenage years in Newark in the 1930s, when she and her other jazz-loving friends began what they called The Hot Club.
GORDON: Jazz can be hot, and everybody knows what that means if you like jazz. Anyway it was just a group of kids in Newark that found each other, who had the same likes. We did model it after the Hot Club of France, at least the name. And we'd all have a topic that we'd have to come and bring to, and discuss and our records that we liked. And, say, we don't know who's on this record, does it sound like Louis Armstrong or is it Bix Beiderbecke, you know we had to identify. And it was wonderful, and we loved it. That was my beginning of loving jazz and indulging it. When we were kids, believe it or not, we came here to the Village Vanguard.
REED: You had your first encounter with Max Gordon then, didn't you?
GORDON: I mean actually, he threw down the… gauntlet. I picked it up many years later.
REED: Your brother introduced you to one of the most famous and also one of the very few DJs who played jazz.
GORDON: Oh yes. Well look. We always listened to Ralph on the radio; he was the only connection we had to radio and to jazz. Ralph was giving a speech in New Jersey at the time. And my brother met him at this… place where he was speaking and offered to drive him home to New York. But on the way, [LAUGHS] my brother called me up on the phone and said, "Get downstairs, we're going to take Ralph back to his house in New York." Whoah! I got all dolled up and rushed downstairs, and they did pick me up, and that's how I met Ralph.
REED: You knew the music. He was really instrumental in introducing you to the people who made jazz.
GORDON: Well, he took me to 52nd Street, I will give him credit for that for the first time. I had never been to 52nd Street. That was the most famous place in the world. All those great clubs were lined up, and all those great artists would play. You could go into one club, hear Art Tatum, go into the next one, hear Billie Holiday, go over across the street, you'd hear Lester Young. It was heaven. It was the golden age of nightclubs for me.
We went to Jimmy Ryan's, and sitting across from the banquette I was in was Alfred Lion and Frank Wolf, his partner. And Ralph said, "Do you know who that is?" 'Cause I used to collect all those Blue Note records, the fabulous early Blue Notes. The big 12-inch ones and the 10-inch ones, they were very expensive but that to me was, they were the most modern records I had heard 'cause it was all improvisation, a lot of it was, by certain artists. He introduced me to them. And I don't know, Alfred and I looked at each other, "Hi," you know. Somehow there was a connection, course a couple of years later we were married. I don't remember what happened. And he got drafted into the army, I was a war bride, actually. In any event, he got mustered out of the Army very early in the game
Then Alfred restarted Blue Note records, which he had left in the care of Frank
REED: Frank Wolf.
GORDON: Frank Wolf. Well, Frank couldn't do much without Alfred… And then I came along and became the third wheel there.
REED: How did Blue Note operate as a company? How did you choose who to record?
GORDON: Well, we had this little office on the top floor of 767 Lexington Avenue, and Lambert Brother Jewelers was on the first floor. Well, we had [GESTURES] two rooms. One was where we stocked the records…and Frank did the shipping and orders would come in. And then we did all the recordings with the musicians.
REED: Where did you record them?
GORDON: Oh, well we used to record at… on Broadway there… the wonderful studio.…
GORDON: Yeah, WOR, right. And there was a wonderful guy there who was our engineer and we always used him. Very handsome, I couldn't concentrate on the music. Anyway, we did a lot of recordings there, and I have some pictures of those days. And then we would have to get them pressed. And then we'd have to sell them. I went out finally on a salesmanship tour of the country with my portfolio and sold records. Went to places alone where I'd never been -- Chicago, St. Louis. Whatever was close and had a record store [LAUGHS] I went to them. So, I did that. And then I worked in the office when I'm back. I was the secretary, I did the public relations. I did everything that one had to do to keep the company growing.
REED: When you and Alfred and Frank had an artist in the studio, how many takes would you do? How did that process work of recording them?
Yeah…We never did more than three takes. Usually the first take was it, because there was a rehearsal, they didn't just come in cold turkey and say, "Now we're gonna play la-da-da." Well they got together, they had to know what tunes they were gonna play, they had to like each other, they had to be a cohesive bunch of guys. And if we did three takes, that was a lot. It was usually a first take.
REED James P. Johnson was one of the early artists that you recorded at Blue Note and he's also someone you said was a "true genius."
GORDON: Oh, I think he was, he was the forefather of so many things. And he was a beautiful man on top of it. I mean, to meet him, whoah! You know you're in the presence of someone very special. He was beautiful, not beautiful, beautiful, but monumental man, huge. And he's very kind and sweet, and he'd just want to get down there and play piano and he was the king of that… that beat. That stride piano. We loved that. That was our thing.
REED: Tadd Dameron was part of the Blue Note family. What was he like?
GORDON: Well, he was a terrific composer. A very serious man. And another person who became a friend. All these artists became your friend because you spent a lot of time with them. And we gave him carte blanche. He was the leader. He's writing the music, he's got the groups he put together, well, he was wonderful. He was a really avant-garde at the time.
REED: He wrote the song "If You Could See Me Now."
GORDON: [SINGS] "If you could see me now, you'd know…" [SMILES] That's right. Yeah. That's so beautiful. I love it to this day. When the guy's in the band, or whoever's playing there, I nag them: "Play me something I like!" They say, "Well what do you like?" I said, "If You Could See Me Now." See how many play it.
REED: Somebody else you called a true genius, Sidney Bechet.
GORDON: Oh, well. Sidney didn't need us. He was a genius no matter what. Wherever Sidney went, he left a huge aura of his personality. He was a fabulous guy and the greatest -- who was playing the soprano sax in those days? Only Sidney. He played clarinet as well, but the soprano was where he shone. The big hit was Summertime.
And we got very friendly with him. But he was great, and he was a great cook. He used to come to our apartment down here in the Village and make real southern, New Orleans food for us. Because I, I was not into cooking at the time. And he was great at that. We had a family thing with him.
REED: You had a deep friendship with Ike Quebec.
GORDON: Oh yeah, Ike was a wonderful guy. I thought he was one of the great saxophonists. Never quite made it, but he knew everybody and he was a real terrific musician. And… he was instrumental in introducing us to Thelonious Monk, who we didn't know at the time. You know, we were now, Alfred and I were venturing into new forms of jazz, or new people, the company was zooming along, it got bigger and bigger, and better and better, and we worked at it very hard. And he brought us to Monk who we didn't know. At. All. Didn't even know about him. So that was a great experience, to this day I will never forget it as a cornerstone in my life, meeting Monk, and going to his house and watching him play, and sitting there for the first time, hearing -- the first time I ever heard such music. It was so different than anything that I had been listening to or knew about, and I immediately fell in love with it. I just went 100% for Thelonious and his music. And I spent time there at his apartment, his mother and sisters lived there, we were in and out all the time. We were buddies.
REED: And you recorded him at Blue Note.
GORDON: Well, yeah, those recordings were fabulous. I still love -- I still think they're the best, naturally, but I know they are.
REED: In some ways you were a one-person Thelonious Monk parade. You were just his champion!
GORDON: That's true. I remember I sat down in our little office on my typewriter, and I wrote a letter to Ralph Ingersoll at the time, I said, "There's a genius living in this town and you have to come and hear him or do something about it. He should not remain unknown forever," and blah blah blah, and Ralph Ingersoll called me up and said, "Yes, we're gonna send a reporter to do this man that you're talking -- this genius that you're [LAUGHS] talking about." And he did. He sent me… Seymour Peck. And I had a car, and I drove Seymour to [GESTURES OVER SHOULDER] Hell's Kitchen, is where Thelonious lived. And he got out of the car and I got out and he said, "Where are you going?" to me. I said, "I'm going with you." "No you're not," he said, "I don't have anybody sitting in when" -- I said, "He's not going to talk to you. I'm sorry. You'll see." "No!" I said "Okay, goodbye." So I went and sat back in the car.
And sure enough, he came out a little later and said, "There is no story there." I said, "Not without me there is no story. I told you." I went back to the Ralph Ingersoll, and told him what had happened. He said, "I'll send another reporter. You will go in with him." And I did. And that huge story came out, a double-page spread in the middle of the paper and they wrote all about Monk.
REED: Thelonious Monk was notoriously a quiet man, why do you think he opened up with you?
GORDON: Well I don't know how far he opened up, frankly. He accepted me, you know, if he didn't want to talk, he didn't. Or he'd talk in riddles. You know, riddle me this, riddle me that. He had a style like his music. To me his personality was as quirky as his music. And it just fit together, that's the way he was, that's the way his music was. It was all of a piece. He sat at the piano from morning til night in his one little room, his little bedroom was the size of a long closet with a bed here and the piano there. An upright piano. We would sit on the bed with our feet out -- a cot, kind of -- and look at his back and his hands as he played the upright piano. We did all that we could with Thelonious because we thought he was so great. At that time, the records did not sell that well, but it took time.
REED: It was through Monk that you encountered Max Gordon again.
GORDON: Oh, well, yes… I always call Monk a cupid. He didn't know he was cupid Yes, I inadvertently, I booked Monk into the Vanguard because I met Max at the Fire Island summer place. I happened to be there, he was there. I knew who Max was, although I didn't know him. And he was sitting in a little coffee house there, and I was in there, and I said, "You know, there's a great artist. You ought to hear him." I just went up to him cold. Well, that was easy to do in the summer because I had a cute little yellow bathing suit on. And he's nice and I'm nice [LAUGHS] and he says, "Sit down, tell me all about it." And he booked. He said, "I just happen to have some room in September." Great! I booked him. I didn't even know I was a booking agent now. Booked him. And he did come with a great band: Art Blakey on drums, Sahib Shahab and was there. And nobody came because nobody knew him, and we never had time to promote him or whatever. Max didn't even know who he was, frankly. Max just did it for me. He'd never heard of Thelonious in his life and knew nothing about him.
REED: How did Max respond to Thelonious?
GORDON: Well, not well, not well. Well, not well. Thelonious plays and then he gets up from the piano and dances his little dance, a little jig around the piano. Then sits down and right on the beat. And that song is over and then he gets up and says, "And now human beings, I'm going to play"… Max called me over, he says, "Listen, what kind of an announcement is that?" I said, "Mr. Gordon, you don't understand. The man is a genius. Why don't you listen?" He was Mr. Gordon to me then.
REED: You went from calling him Mr. Gordon to becoming Mrs. Gordon. How did that happen?
GORDON: Yeah, right. He used to call me Lorraine after a while. How did it happen? Well, I don't know. Max was a bachelor supreme and he had no problem en joying his private life as a bachelor. Somehow we connected, and I got tired of living in this little one-room down in the Village, and [GESTURES] Max offered me a big room [LAUGHS] further on the other side of the Village. I decided to take it.
REED: At the time, Max owned not just the Village Vanguard but also the uptown club The Blue Angel.
GORDON: Oh, yeah, that enticed me as well. [LAUGHS] That was the Blue Angel, oh my dear. Those were the beautiful days, you know, where you saw the best acts ever. And the most gorgeous atmosphere, and great food, great wine, great everything. That's where I spent a lot of time. I didn't spend much time at the Vanguard.
REED: Because at the time it wasn't exclusively a jazz club.
GORDON: It wasn't a jazz place at all, it never started out as a jazz place, and Max wasn't a jazz nut like me. He wanted to be a writer. He loved poetry and he loved writing and artists. He was an intellectual, he came to live in the Village, so he decided to open a club where he could invite poets just to read their poetry. And he did. People used to throw money on the floor, that's how they got paid. And Max kept that going because he enjoyed it. And then the break came when these four kids came down the stairs and asked if, Max, if they could show him their act, if they could get up the stage and do their thing. He said, "Yeah, go ahead." And he loved them. And he hired them. And that act, called the Reviewers, with GD Holliday, Betty Comden, and Adolf Green. There was another guy. And sometimes Leonard Bernstein came and played piano for them. These were the kids from New York who were the up-and-coming brains of that musical season. Well, they got so famous that they left and went to the Rainbow Room uptown. But it opened Max's eyes to alternatives.
So that's what happened. And then Max got involved more with jazz musicians. He didn't know them all, but people would come to him. And he listened. And it became a jazz club. Total jazz club. Meanwhile the Blue Angel went bankrupt uptown. Why? Because all the acts that Max and his partner hired up there were now on -- Television came in and changed the whole face of everything. That's how it started in the 50s and that's how it's remained in the 12s.
But, you know, there's a band that plays there, it's now called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, it was originally Mel Lewis / Thad Jones band. 47 years it's been there. Both leaders died: Mel died, Thad died, but we kept the band. And a lot of the same musicians who are in it, or new musicians came and went, and when I had to come down there, I said, "Let's keep the band every Monday night." And today you can't even get in on a Monday night. They built themselves up… Every club in New York that's a jazz club has a band on a Monday night. That is protocol. [GESTURES/CHUCKLES] And it all came from that band at the Vanguard. And they're wonderful still today.
REED: How many people does the Vanguard seat?
GORDON: Oh, a hundred and twenty-three.
REED: So it's very small, it's an intimate space.
GORDON: Oh, it's very small. It's the littlest club ever, it's incredible. You can't get in half the time, you have to have a reservation. You have to have a reservation or you can't get in. And there's two shows a night, that's it.
REED: How did the "Live from the Village Vanguard" recordings begin?
GORDON: Well, I'll tell you how it starts. The sound at the Vanguard is so incredible, there is no recording studio that can equal it. And that's why the musicians like to play there because they like to hear themselves, and they can hear -- relate to the audience and it is a perfect venue for jazz artists and the sound. Because of the shape of the room, the pie shape, I don't know. It's just beautiful sound. And so they say, "Let's do a record down here." And they did come, companies would come or the artists themselves would get some engineers and do it. But mostly it was a record company. And then Coltrane recorded his masterworks there and that became very famous. So now there's been over 100 recordings done down there.
REED: What was it like being in the audience and seeing John Coltrane in that famous set?
GORDON: Well, but nobody thought of it that way then. Nobody knew Coltrane was that great. Miles Davis was there. Bill Evans played for weeks on end, well he was beautiful. They're all wonderful today and they all have records to prove it. But Coltrane was a turning point because he changed the music a lot. They all had different ideas about what it should sound like. And he was very original in that way.
REED: For as much as you knew about jazz, Max wasn't consulting you a lot about who to bring into the Vanguard.
GORDON: No, it was Max's club, I never interfered. I went there to hear the music, he seemed to know what he was doing. People liked him very much, he was a nice guy. I had a job at the Brooklyn Museum, by the way. I've been working all my life. Before the Brooklyn Museum, I had been working at the Post Originals for 15 years, I was in the art world. I did that every day of my life. I raised two children… I went to the clubs at night, and I worked during the day. And after… the poster gallery, I went to the Brooklyn Museum for five years and worked there. I mean, what's it like not to work? [LAUGHS] I have no idea. I can't remember.
REED: In your book, you said while it was never discussed that you would take over the Vanguard, you said and I think this is true, everything in your life prepared you to do so.
GORDON: Well, I had to… You know, make some deep thinking there for a sentence or two. [LAUGHS] But it seemed my whole life was motivated. At the end of the road was the club. All those things along the way were just along the way because the goal was there. And… you finally reached it without trying to. But it was preordained, I think. I think and I think he had confidence it might happen that way. I don't know, I'm guessing.
And then when Max died, you know, I had to take -- I didn't have to take the Vanguard over, he never asked me… Never thought about frankly. But I did. And that's been since 1989.
REED: Lorraine, I want you to describe a typical day. Don't cross your eyes. What time do you get up, what do you do?
GORDON: I generally get up by 10, 11 o'clock, if I am allowed to sleep. If these new people upstairs don't make noise in the bedroom… But I cannot get up early in the morning. I mean, I don't have to because I don't want to, for one thing. And then… you know, I make my breakfast. Max is gone, I'm on my own. I love it. I [LAUGHS] do what I want, I eat what I want, and I read my New York Times religiously every morning, that's my bible. And then I have errands to do. I have to go to the bank. I make the deposits, I do things like that. And I go to the club by 2:30, 3:00. 3:00 is when the club opens for the day for us.
So there I am and the phones ring, the phones, the phones. No wonder I'm deaf because all I do is answer telephones. I don't have to do that, I could hire someone to answer the phones. But it's not the same because I like to hear what people have to say on the other end. I encourage them or I discourage them. So, we do that. And then there's a lot of paperwork. And now that someone invented a computer with an e-mail, I'm swamped with e-mail that I [GESTURES] throw in the basket. I cannot answer those silly questions, as important they are to the people who sent them. I would spend my day doing that, but I don't… And then musicians come down to rehearse. If it's a Tuesday night, they want to come down and they rehearse.
Anyway… I leave the club, I would generally say around 6:00. And if nobody's there, just lock it up 'cause someone comes at 7:00. And I come home. Unless I'm eating out with someone which isn't too… I don't encourage that anymore. 'Cause I come home and I have to take a little nap because I gotta go back at night. And I cook my own dinner and I love to cook so that's a good thing, because it's very creative. Since I don't play an instrument, I like to cook. And and then I go back to the club. 9:00 is the first show. I go for my reward to hear the music. If I like what I'm hearing, I'm happy. I don't stay til closing, you know, I stay for probably one show. And then friends come, you sit and you talk, you know, a little socializing. I get home by 12 or so. You have to unwind because you've been wound up tight all day with a million chores or errands or things happened. There's a leak in the ceiling, you get a carpenter to fix that, you need the electrician, you know… you're constantly babying this room, fixing it up before it falls apart.
REED: Who decides who plays at the Village Vanguard?
REED: And how do you choose?
GORDON: I do it because I know the music and I know what I like. And I'm very selfish. Look, a lot of acts are coming up that people, their managers or agents tell me, "You gotta have this." And I know they're playing all over. I don't like them. I listen. I take -- I listen to records here all the time. But they're not artists that make me happy or make the Vanguard's… aura of what it's like and how it's been, it doesn't make it any better to put in someone you just don't like because they happen to be getting popular. I'm a jazz person. I don't like all those extra, added-on frills that have nothing to do with what I consider jazz. That's how it works for me. It's very simple.
REED: In your book, you write "jazz is more alive today than ever."
GORDON: Yes, well, a couple of years ago, you would hear from people is, "Jazz is dead! Jazz is dead!" I said, "Really? When's the funeral?" I said. Because there's so many people coming here to hear jazz it's not dead. It can't be. You can't even get into the club half the time. So it's hardly dead. Hardly.
REED: That was 2013 Jazz Master and owner of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon. Lorraine and the other 2013 Jazz Masters will receive their awards at the Jazz Masters ceremony and concert on January 14th at 7:30 PM Eastern Time. The NEA is webcasting it live. Go to Arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information.
You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "Summertime," composed by George Gershwin and performed by Sidney Bechet, from the album, The Best of Sidney Bechet, used courtesy of EMI Capitol.
Excerpt from "Let's Cool One," and "Evidence," from the album, Misterioso, composed by Thelonious Monk and performed by The Thelonious Monk Quartet, used courtesy of Concord Music Group.
Excerpt from "Ruby, My Dear" composed by Thelonious Monk and performed by Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, from the album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, used courtesy of Concord Music Group.
Excerpt from "Straight, No Chaser" from the album, Straight, No Chaser, composed and performed by Thelonious Monk, used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
Excerpt from "Spiritual" and "Chasin' the Trane," from the album, Live at the Village Vanguard , written and performed by John Coltrane, used courtesy of Universal Music Group
Excerpt from "Sonnymoon For Two" composed and performed by Sonny Rollins, from the album A Night at the Village Vanguard, used courtesy of EMI Capitol.
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Next week, 2013 NEA Jazz Master, Eddie Palmieri
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.