With our previous exploration on the Comedy Cellar and its role in the world of standup, I wanted to follow on that path a little bit further to explore other ways that club-organized events has influenced and shaped our culture. In my mind, the natural subject for this next exploration is the legendary West Village jazz club, The Village Vanguard.
The Vanguard is just a 10 minute walk away from the Comedy Cellar, but within their walls, these two West Village institutions move two entirely different worlds. The Village Vanguard was first opened in 1935 by Max Gordon. For the first two decades, this nightclub actually had very little to do with the jazz scene. Gordon’s initial ambition was for creating a successful nightclub, and not necessarily to promote the niche-genre of jazz to its golden era. The Vanguard of the 30’s and 40’s showcased artists of all kinds — there were poets, comedians, philosophers, sociologists, folk musicians, singers, pianists — an eclectic platform that gathered the bohemian communities of West Village.
Jazz at the Village Vanguard started in the 40s as mere background music for the club. The Vanguard was open 7 days a week, and local patrons would come hang out without any necessary agenda beyond to pass the time. In this sense, the early Vanguard platform is unique from clubs like the Comedy Cellar that are entirely driven by events. The Vanguard’s historical function during this early era could almost be analogous to cafe’s or bars, a setting that organically formed its own community just by the patrons who interacted there over time.
As far as the world of jazz was concerned though, the Vanguard was already becoming known as a haven. Jazz was still very much a niche genre back in those days, and young local musicians knew that Max Gordon of the Village Vanguard was one of the few proprietors who was always looking to book a jam session.
As the decade drew into the 50s, jazz music began to blossom into its golden era, and the Vanguard saw more and more patrons coming just to hear the jazz. In 1957, Max Gordon decided to switch the format of the Vanguard to an exclusive jazz club. Already being very much established at this point in New York’s jazz scene, Max was able to book some of the top talents in the world of jazz. Everyone from Miles Davis, to Mary Lou Williams, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans, and so many more, became regulars at the Vanguard and made the club a legend.
An establishment that gains credibility inevitably becomes an influencer and tastemaker in its own world. For the Village Vanguard, its status in the world of jazz has enabled it to not only book some of the top talents, but also to launch the careers of many who ended up becoming legends in their own rights. Thelonius Monk was a premier example, a legendary pianist who got his start to notoriety by opening at the Village Vanguard. Additional to live performances, the Village Vanguard also began hosting recording sessions on site, and the hundreds of “…at the Vanguard” LPs over the decades have shaped and evolution of jazz music around the world.
If there is one lesson to be learned from Max Gordon and how he made the Village Vanguard such a legend over the course of his lifetime, it is that persistence can ultimately prove to be the key to success. Talents came and went, but in the world of jazz, the Village Vanguard has stood unwavering, every single day since it opened in 1935.
See you at the next exploration!