Live At The Village Vanguard
Da Capo Press, 1982
Reading "Live At The Village Vanguard" is like listening to your old Jewish uncle reminisce about the good old days, except that unless your uncle happened to own one of the most historically important, culturally significant nightspots in Greenwich Village, it's a little bit different. As Nat Hentoff notes in the introduction, "...however Max emerged as a writer, he has created here a singular chronicle in the annals of urban (and sometimes urbane) life after dark. Musicians and other performers have detailed their odysseys - with themselves at center stage, of course. And there have been impressionistic accounts of certain streets and districts of historic importance in entertainment history. But this is the first long-range view of one vital and influential room by someone who saw it all - every night of its existence."
Before there was a "Village Vanguard," there was a boy named Max Gordon, born in Lithuania, who came to live in Providence, Rhode Island, by way of Ellis Island. Before long, the family was transplanted once again, this time to Portland, Oregon, where Max spent his youth and attended Reed College. His parent's decree was that Max should be a lawyer, his brother, a Rabbi. The brother goes to Cincinnati to become a Rabbi, Max moves to New York City, ostensibly to become a lawyer. And that is how the seeds were planted for the vociferous growth of a basement joint called the Village Vanguard.
For the first few years of its existence, the Vanguard's entertainment sounds as if it were a form of Vaudeville. Eli Siegel, well known village character, was the Master of Ceremonies, performing his own poems, and introducing other poets. A singing hat check girl, or visiting artists and writers could be called into the spotlight for a brief performance. The Vanguard gained in reputation and drew a crowd, but eventually Max decided it wasn't quite the crowd he had envisioned. By 1939, Max decided that a change was due, and when talking to a patron named Judy, invited her to bring her friends in to perform some of the skits and songs they had been rehearsing. Thus, the Revuers were born. A group made up of Judy Holliday, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, John Frank and Alvin Hammer, Max refers to them as "The Kids," and indeed, in their late teens when they began performing there, that's what they were. Many people cite Max Gordon's contribution to Jazz, but few know that he gave a start to the highly respected Comden and Green, or the much loved Judy Holliday.
Following the "Revuers" departure for the Rainbow Room, a friend of theirs, Nick Ray, who later directed "Rebel Without a Cause," suggested that Max book Huddie Ledbetter, otherwise known as "Leadbelly," and Josh White. This chapter alone is worth reading the book for, as it reprints in it's entirety a letter from Woody Guthrie to Max, following his attendance at Josh and Leadbelly's opening night at the Vanguard. Woody's voice shines out, as pure and true as it ever was, regarding his feelings on the multiple gifts that each of these gentlemen possess in terms of music, performance and philosophy, and Woody's own feelings on American music and what it's all about.
For a majority of readers, I can imagine the main draw of this book would be in hearing about the period of the Vanguard's history after Jazz was established as the focal point of the club's entertainment. And if you are one of them, there is plenty here to keep you reading. Max tells a hilarious story about Dinah Washington in his chapter on the agent, Joe Glaser. His saga of Sonny Rollins is a take that you probably won't find elsewhere, or with as much humor. His accounts of conversations with Miles Davis are mostly about money, and Mile's feelings about performing. While he was appearing at the Vanguard once, Max asked Miles, "Why not announce a number? Why not take a bow at the end of a number? Why not announce the names of the men in your band, let people know you're Miles Davis? They don't know you, never saw you before, some of them." Then he says, "He looked at me with a puzzled, suspicious look, as if I were crazy. "I'm a musician, I ain't no comedian. I don't go shooting my mouth off like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Don't get me wrong, I like Rahsaan. If you want a big mouth in your place, don't hire me. I don't smile, I don't bow. I turn my back. Why do you listen to people? The white man always wants you to smile, always wants the black man to bow. I don't smile, and I don't bow. OK? I'm here to play music. I'm a musician."
The only real disappointment in this book is the lack of any information or accounts of all the great "Live At The Village Vanguard" recording sessions, and the fact that the only real reference to the great Bill Evans, known widely for his Vanguard sessions, is in the caption to a photo of Bill in the later years. Alas, one of the few, if not the only real reference to the revered John Coltrane is also to be found in the caption of a photo of him playing. In the liner notes to Coltranes Vanguard sessions, Coltrane says "I like the feeling of a club, especially one with an intimate atmosphere like the Vanguard. It's important to have that real contact with an audience because that's what we're trying to do - communicate." He was obviously not alone in those feelings. Many musicians have recorded records there, from Coltrane, Evans, Dizzy Gilespie and Benny Green, to the more current crop of younger players like Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau and Wes Anderson. One can only hope that eventually someone will come up with a history of at least some of those dates, and the events around them. Lorraine Gordon has carried on the running of the club since Max's death. Might she also aid in the next written history of this venerable nightspot, and fill in some of the missing pieces? The book Max Gordon wrote is humorous, earthy, and contains much of the history of the club. Unfortunately, there is still much to be said about the Village Vanguard regarding it's place in Jazz history.