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Lorraine Gordon of the Village Vanguard Celebrates the Jazz Haven's 75 Years

Thursday, February 04, 2010

"I got mixed up with my husband, that's how I got mixed up with the Vanguard."

That's Lorraine Gordon, owner of the The Village Vanguard jazz club. Later this month, the legendary spot will celebrate its 75th anniversary. The former speakeasy turned variety venue eventually became a mecca for jazz. Giants such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans have performed in the triangle-shaped room and helped make the basement club hallowed ground for music. At an age when many are retired, 87-year-old Lorraine Gordon has been running the Vanguard since her husband Max died more than 20 years ago.

Gordon recently sat down with WNYC's Kathleen Horan, recalling her love affair(s) with her husband, the club, and jazz:

WNYC: Have you always been a jazz enthusiast?

Gordon: Well, that was the lucky thing I had in my favor because you have to like something in order to do it. There was a big cult of us in Newark, N.J., where I grew up. We had the Newark Hot Club and all these young kids, not a lot, a few formed this club and we just loved jazz and that’s the kinds of people I hung out with…you know, I wasn’t a Jersey Shore person. I used to go hang out at the bar (Vanguard). You know, Max didn’t look at us too favorably. We had no money. We’d buy one beer or two and pass it around and he’d say, ”Get rid of those kids!” and I vowed revenge.

But I met Max -- I didn’t meet him, I saw him in a restaurant and accosted him. He said sit down, I sat down. I said I have a great artist. He said who? He never heard of him. I have an opening in September…I said great, I’ll take it. And so now I was a booking manager. Anyway, that’s how I met Max.

Did [Thelonious] Monk play in September?

Gordon: Yes, yes he did, indeed he did. He came down with a wonderful group…and nobody came, nobody knew him. And Max thought I was surely ruining his business, what was I doing –- there’s nobody here. I said, Max, Mr. Gordon I called him, wait, wait, you’ll see, you’ll find out someday. Many years later, I’d hear Max say to other people this man is a genius, he’s great artist. I said where have I heard those words before?

How many shows a week do you see?

Gordon: I don’t count them. I go sometimes once, sometimes four or five times. I don’t always love everything that’s happening there and once I’ve heard it, I’ve heard it. It’s happening for six nights, I don’t have to sit there for six nights. And sometimes I go because there are certain friends who come and I want to go to be there. People know that there’s a person there, it’s not just a corporate thing, where there’s no face, no body. You know, it has roots. There are three generations coming to the club and they are so appreciative -- the thing that I like so much is that they are grateful that I kept it open. Ugh, they say, thank goodness, you kept it open, we just love to come here, it’s a real jazz place.

Has the Vanguard been landmarked?

Gordon: Oh no, no. I’ve been trying to landmark it for 20 years and nothing has happened. Go rip down that building over there, just change the city as fast as you can but you better landmark what’s left.

What kind of festivities do you have planned for the 75th anniversary?

Gordon: Oh yeah, well I don’t want to make it too loud, but we are going to close the club on that night, just gonna have a major party and invite the people who help make it the Vanguard. You know, the musicians who play there, the customers I can remember who come. Lets drink, lets have some food, let’s party, that’s my thought…and then go home to bed.

Is there an instrument you relate to the most?

Gordon: Well of course, piano, piano, piano is always wonderful. I love a tenor sax, I really do. That’s a sexy instrument, I say. But depends on the instrument…what can you say wrong about a trumpet? You know, depends who’s playing it.

Pardon the corny question but is there a song that you feel like most describes your personality and who you are?

Gordon: A song? Well, a song…I don’t think they wrote it yet. I love ballads you know. Sometimes the groups who come in play their own original music and I always say, do me a favor, play me one ballad! Because the people want to hear something familiar in between all this new music you’re laying on them. So they’ll always play a ballad, for me.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Gordon: Yeah, I have to go to work, what time is it?

The Greenwich Village club will celebrate its 75th birthday on February 23.

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