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STILL ALIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
I returned to the Village Vanguard recently. At last. It had been quite a while—three years, at least; pre-pandemic for sure.
It felt good.
I was a little surprised by how good. I mean, I knew I’d been missing the place, checking on it online during my years (!) of absence, watching livestreams early on from the empty club during the Vanguard’s own lockdown absence (it finally reopened in September 2021) — livestreams handsomely shot, with good sound. But the music just made me miss it more.
Not only the music. I missed the stairs down to that funky oblong basement and all the photos on the wall. I missed Lorraine Gordon, who owned the Vanguard until her passing in 2018 (at 95). I wrote Lorraine’s memoir with her, Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life in and Out of Jazz Time, spending many nights beside her at her two-top near the Vanguard kitchen, cooling out to the music after heated hours spent debating footnotes and facts in her apartment.
Lorraine, sadly, is not coming back. I, on the other hand, simply had not gone back, out of sheer pandemic panic. The Vanguard’s low ceiling and ancient air circulation made me catch my breath at the thought of returning.
Reassurances, though, from Lorraine’s daughter, Deborah, that a substantial chunk of the Vanguard’s COVID loan money had gone into a new air system finally sunk in. And, so, down those stairs I descended.
The place was packed. What a delightful sight. And not for some hoary jazz legend (much as I love hoary jazz legends), but rather for a quartet of future stars — booked by Deborah on her own strong hunch — all four clearly in their 20s.
A stageful of kids playing to a roomful of all ages. Welcome back to the Village Vanguard in the 21st Century.
The bandleader’s name was Joel Ross. A vibraphonist. Actually the new young vibraphonist on the scene. I don’t believe I’d heard a vibraphone at the Vanguard since Stefon Harris. And young Ross, as it turns out, is a Harris protégé; now signed to Blue Note Records himself, with three warmly received pandemic-era albums out: Kingmaker (2019), Who Are You? (2020) and Parable of the Poet (2022).
His gorgeously tempered sound seemed keyed to the Vanguard’s euphonious contours, as if the cool plunk of a vibraphone was just what the club had been waiting for. With lyricism and dissonance, Ross chased down any number of explorational echoes from the Vanguard’s past, imbuing them with futuristic sonic expansion. His side-persons — Jeremy Corren on piano, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, Jeremy Dutton on drums — could not have been more sympathetically attuned, generating a masterful group improvisational simmer.
I left feeling I’d made a new discovery — an essential aspect of the Vanguard’s magic for decade after decade now. Somehow it never gets old.
I’m definitely going back.