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The Village Vanguard: A Jazz Treasure, Research Paper Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1232

Research Paper

Introduction

Since it opened its doors in 1935, the Village Vanguard has steadily become an iconic location and the premier site for jazz. Still located at 178 Seventh Avenue South in New York City, the club’s reputation is such that its fame as a jazz venue extends far beyond New York; the Vanguard is known and respected globally, and continues to serve as both a springboard for new talent and a stage upon which legendary artists choose to perform.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Village Vanguard actually lies in its longevity and location. Clubs come and go in New York City all the time, and those that survive at their original locations frequently must adapt their offerings to new generations, as has Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre. The Vanguard, however, enjoys an unparalleled standing. By way of comparison, its chief rival as a home for jazz is the legendary Blue Note, which opened forty-six years after the Vanguard. Quite simply, no other forum for popular music in the United States can boast the history and prestige of the Village Vanguard.

History

That the Vanguard survived its first few years at all is remarkable, opening as it did in the midst of the Great Depression. As original owner Max Gordon reflects, the desperate economic climate was certainly reflected within the club: “These were the years of the deepening Depression. You could spend a night at the Vanguard for a buck. If you were broke and a member of the Greenwich Village Cafeteria Society, you were in free” (Gordon 28). In accommodating the hard times, the Vanguard as it opened made the adjustments every entertainment venue of the time had to make in order to survive.

Moreover, the Greenwich Village of the era possessed a bohemian spirit that has endured only in aesthetic appeal and remembrance, as the artists and musicians of the day drawn to the neighborhood were typically young, struggling, and poor. Nor was this new to the 1930’s: “Greenwich Village had been an infamous ‘bohemian’ neighborhood within New york since the 1890’s. Artists, writers, and social rebels of various kinds lived among the district’s peculiar mixture of genteel urbanites and…Jewish and Italian immigrants…. (Mitchell 114).

As the artistic and independent atmosphere of Greenwich Village had been in place for decades, so too had jazz music been acknowledged as an established, if still somewhat controversial, force. In the Northeast, if not the nation, there were two primary places to go for it: “The most active districts (for jazz) in the 1930’s were 52nd Street and Greenwich Village in New York City” (Lopes 167). What was missing was a single entrepreneurial ambition, one that would create a fixed location in the heart of the community to promote jazz and other, less fashionable styles of music. This was Max Gordon’s contribution.

The following decades reinforced the Village Vanguard’s initial popularity, and owner Gordon moved with the spirit of the times. While jazz was never wholly absent from the Vanguard’s offerings, it would not become the truly defining element of the club until the late 1950’s, for Gordon showcased many genres of music and performance. There were poetry readings and improvisational sketch comedy acts. Folk music shared the stage with cutting-edge political satire, and the 1940’s and 1950’s saw a remarkably eclectic mix of talent and presentation. Gordon was particularly attracted to comedy: “Wally Cox, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May….all got their start at the Village Vanguard” (Reaven, Zeitlin 189).

By the 1960’s, however, jazz and the Vanguard had become synonymous. From that point on, Max Gordon’s original basement club took on a new identity. It was and would still be the place where new talent could debut, but it was then as well the acknowledged site where any premier jazz artist virtually had to appear. For another type of New York entertainer, the penultimate goal was “playing the Palace”, the grandiose Broadway theater of legend. For the jazz musician, sitting in at the Village Vanguard meant that he or she had truly arrived.

Performers and Recordings

The list of well-known jazz talent which either debuted at the Vanguard or played there over the years is a virtual “Who’s Who” of popular music and jazz. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Woody Shaw, Theolonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and Dizzy Gillespie are among the most renowned names, but nonetheless represent only a fraction of the musical talent the Vanguard has showcased in its seventy-five year history. Not surprisingly, the legendary performers of the past act as a powerful draw to less established talents. Musician Shirley Horn opened for Miles Davis in 1961: “’I was completely overwhelmed. I had never been in a nightclub, and there I was in the Village Vanguard…playing my twenty-minute sets before that wonderful band’” (Szwed 150). The ensuing decades have not diminished the impact of the experience for jazz musicians.

The history and reputation of the Village Vanguard has been augmented by something other than its actual physical presence as a club and its impressive roster of artists who have entertained there: the Vanguard live recordings. These release, recorded over many decades and typically to great critical acclaim, vastly increase the standing of the club itself, as what had performed in the venue has become accessible worldwide.

Over a hundred live recordings have been taped at the Vanguard, featuring performances from the Bill Evans’ Trio, Gerry Mulligan, Fred Hersch, Hank Jones, and Wynton Marsalis, among others. The most definitive and well-regarded such recording, however, must remain John Coltrane’s 1961 series of performances at the club. It has taken on a reputation in jazz circles as illustrious as the of the Vanguard itself: “The original album, ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’, is part of every progressive jazz musician’s collection; its influence on jazz is incalculable” (Barron, Quindlen 177).

Conclusion

Still thriving in its original location on Seventh Avenue and under the ownership of Lorraine Gordon, the widow of the founder, the Village Vanguard bears historical landmark status in the city of New York. This honor, however, only serves to reflect the greater position it occupies both in New York and internationally, as the cradle of modern jazz expression.

Very much the somewhat small and pie-shaped basement it always was, the history of the Village Vanguard safeguards its future. It is regarded as a vibrant, living shrine to jazz and for jazz musicians, and as the place where progressive expression and cutting-edge musical style would not be turned away. Simply expressed and deeply believed by all New Yorkers and jazz fans, after seventy-five years: “The Carnegie Hall of jazz, the Vanguard…is jazz’s heart and soul” (Barron, Quindlen 177).

Works Cited

Barron, J., and Quindlen, A. The New York Times Book of New York: 549 Stories of the People, the Events, and the Life of the City, Past and Present. New York, NY: Black Dog Publishing, 2009. Print.

Gordon, M. Live at The Village Vanguard. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Print.

Lopes, P. D.  The Rise of a Jazz Art World. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Mitchell, G. The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945 – 1980. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007. Print.

Reaven, M., and Zeitlin, S. J.  Hidden New York: A Guide to Places That Matter.  Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Print.

Szwed, J. So What: The Life of Miles Davis. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.

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