Published On: Wed, Jun 13th, 2018

Lorraine Gordon, queen of the Village Vanguard

IF YOU were to ask Lorraine Gordon to draw a map of the jazz universe, she wouldn’t focus on New Orleans or Chicago or Memphis. No: the Village Vanguard in New York, one of the city’s oldest jazz clubs, would be at the centre for her. Shaped like a pie slice and blessed with perfect acoustics, the Vanguard hosted jazz’s most influential and renowned musicians. Rising stars and legends alike chose the venue to capture their jazz live; more than 100 recordings were produced there, some of which won Grammys. Presiding over all this was Ms Gordon, who died on June 9th. She treated the basement-level club on Seventh Avenue South as something between a shrine and a public music salon. 

Born Lorraine Stein in 1922, Ms Gordon was already a jazz fan before she made her first visit to the Vanguard aged 17. There she fell in love—with the genre’s scene and with Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records. With marriage came a job at the label in the 1940s, which, alongside a thriving live-music field in Manhattan, introduced her to new performers and new styles. Her life changed again when she met Max Gordon, the owner of the Vanguard. She pitched artists to him—including a young, must-see pianist named Thelonious Monk—and the two worked in harmony. Ms Gordon divorced Lion, marrying Gordon in 1949. The club became a part of her life for good.

She would become a jazz historian of sorts, and she met just about every major musician of the modern era. Ms Gordon recalled with fondness how she watched John Coltrane practising the saxophone backstage. And in her memoir, “Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time” (2006), Ms Gordon recalled going to Monk’s apartment on West 63rd Street in Manhattan. She sat in a tiny room which had a picture of Ella Fitzgerald taped to the ceiling and watched him play the piano. “He had enormous hands,” she wrote. “Those hands almost stammered, it seemed to me, right above the keys. It was riveting to watch.” She lived for those moments.

When Gordon died in 1989, she closed the Vanguard for a night to mourn his death and ponder the club’s future. The next day, she reopened it under her ownership and management. She made the decision to preserve its aesthetic so that it looked as it would have 50 years ago: she wanted visitors to see jazz performed up-close, to feel the chemistry of the players and the music. A customer sitting at a front table could look into the bell of Sonny Rollins’s saxophone and hear the fierce, smoky sound of his brilliant improvised solos.

Ms Gordon was respected for her knowledge of jazz, her championing of young musicians and her passionate advocacy for the art form. In 2013 the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed on her America’s most prestigious honour for jazz: the Jazz Master award for lifetime achievement. Even though she never had performed onstage, she joined a club of luminaries that includes Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Ella Fitzgerald. “I’m not a musician; I’m not a singer; I’m not a painter; I’m not an actress. I’m none of those things,” she said. “But throughout my life I followed the course of the music that I loved.”

With her raspy voice and zero-tolerance policy on back talk, Ms Gordon could be dignified and gracious one moment and severe the next. One night, Henry Kissinger, a former American secretary of state, came to see a show with Vaclav Havel, then president of Czechoslovakia. Ms Gordon, an anti-Vietnam war activist, refused to shake Mr Kissinger’s hand. “The Vanguard really is a leveller,” Ms Gordon said. “Even the loudest big shots get quiet at the Vanguard. They simply have to.” People came to the Vanguard to witness thrilling jazz performances, but it was always Ms Gordon’s show.

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Lorraine Gordon, queen of the Village Vanguard