Let’s continue our Black Music Sunday tour of jazz clubs and the music that made them famous, picking up where we left off after visiting The Cotton Club. Just one club in jazz history can boast that over 100 live albums were recorded there—many of which have since gone on to become classics. I’m speaking, of course, of New York’s Village Vanguard, which opened in 1935 and is still going after all these years, even after an 18-month closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s founder, opened the club as a Greenwich Village venue for beat poetry and folk music, but by the late 1950s, jazz was the club’s main attraction. The list of musicians who have played the Vanguard reads like a who’s who of jazz: Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Anita O'Day, Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Roy Haynes, Betty Carter, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae … I can’t begin to list them all.
Nor can I list all the albums recorded live there, so allow me to introduce you to just a few.
I’ve probably been to every major jazz club in the States, and quite a few in other countries, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Vanguard. I lived right around the corner for a period of time, making it even easier to just pop in.
In order to understand what makes the Vanguard so special, it’s important to discuss its ownership. Lorraine Gordon, who took over the Vanguard after the 1989 death of her husband Max, was the first jazz club owner to have been honored as a National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters Fellow. Lorraine, who passed in 2018, lived to the age of 95; after her death, her daughter Deborah took over running the club.
Lorraine’s NEA honors came in 2013; this short clip of an interview with her at the time details how she got involved in the New York jazz scene, and how the Vanguard’s history as an iconic jazz venue (and her relationship with Max) began.
As noted above, there is no way to squeeze even one-tenth of the music recorded at the Vanguard into just one story. But I’ll start at the beginning, with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who recorded the first full-length live album in the club. Rollins’ website offers his bio:
Walter Theodore Rollins was born on September 7, 1930 in New York City. He grew up in Harlem not far from the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the doorstep of his idol, Coleman Hawkins. After early discovery of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, he started out on alto saxophone, inspired by Louis Jordan. At the age of sixteen, he switched to tenor, trying to emulate Hawkins. He also fell under the spell of the musical revolution that surrounded him, bebop.
He began to follow Charlie Parker, and soon came under the wing of Thelonious Monk, who became his musical mentor and guru. When he was living in Sugar Hill, his neighborhood musical peers included Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor, but it was young Sonny who was first out of the pack, working and recording with Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis before he turned twenty. “Of course, these people are there to be called on because I think I represent them in a way,” Rollins has said of his peers and mentors. “They’re not here now so I feel like I’m sort of representing all of them, all of the guys. Remember, I’m one of the last guys left, as I’m constantly being told, so I feel a holy obligation sometimes to evoke these people.”
In the early fifties, he established a reputation first among musicians, then the public, as the most brash and creative young tenor on the scene, through his work with Miles, Monk, and the MJQ.
For the 60th anniversary of the recording of Rollins’ Vanguard album, A Night at the Village Vanguard, jazz critic and author Nate Chinen dove into the history and interviewed the legend—then 87—for NPR in 2017.
"The Vanguard was sort of the premier room at that time," [Rollins] recalls, speaking by phone from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. "A lot of guys played there, and they all seemed to express the music without any sort of impediment. I felt particularly comfortable."
In the original liner notes to the LP, released on Blue Note Records in 1958, Leonard Feather notes that it "constitutes a double premiere." He's referring to A Night at the Village Vanguard being both the first live documentation of Rollins as a bandleader and the first album recorded the Village Vanguard, a wedge-shaped basement room regarded, then and now, as "one of New York's foremost havens of contemporary jazz."
Feather doesn't make much of it, but A Night at the Village Vanguard is a slightly misleading title, because the album also includes material recorded at an afternoon matinee. The evening trio features bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones, an assertive rhythm team that combined high-end volatility with the feeling of firm traction underfoot. In the afternoon, Rollins used Donald Bailey on bass and Pete La Roca on drums — a pairing with plenty of firepower but less mystery and nuance.
Joseph Neff, senior editor at The Vinyl District, wrote his own paean to Rollins’ album in 2014.
What these musicians achieved is amongst the very greatest jazz ever laid to tape. Surely no release in Rollins’ discography ranks higher, with the horn solos in “Old Devil Moon” alone more than justifying the full cost of this LP. And as he plays, Jones and Ware are in constant communication with the saxophonist and each other. Rollins is still clearly the leader; he called the tunes and was the one who chiseled the marble of this splendid audio sculpture down to a three-piece in the first place.
But all it takes is a listen to the vibrant elasticity, the assured balance of the rhythmic imperative in tandem with the desire for melodiousness, in Ware’s opening bass-line on “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” to comprehend that in the creation of this music, hierarchy was on nobody’s mind. So logically Ware’s solos are ceaselessly interesting and never in service to formula, with this feature easily extending to Jones’ responsive work at the kit.
Over half a century later it’s Rollins that impresses most though, mainly because few have sounded this nervy while unfurling so naturally, his improvising free-flowing but reliant on vital swing. But while he was always connected to a savvy classicism, he also wasn’t chained to it. For example, by imbuing the concise “Striver’s Row,” the first of Rollins’ tunes, with increased freedom, the group simultaneously references bebop and transcends it.
Here’s the whole album—just 43 minutes long.
Next up: John Coltrane. I wish I could say I was at the Village Vanguard for this session, but alas, when it was recorded in 1961, I was only 14. I’ve featured ‘Trane here before and shared the impact he and his wife Naima had on me, but I’ve never written about his first live album. I was surprised, when exploring the album’s initial critical reception, to learn that many of the people paid to weigh in were upset by it, and felt compelled to pontificate and pass judgment on their bailiwick of “jazz.” The critiques at the time were so harsh that Downbeat Magazine gave Coltrane and Eric Dolphy a chance to “answer the jazz critics” in April 1962.
Much of the vituperation thrown at Coltrane was fueled by his association with Dolphy.
Dolphy’s playing has been praised and damned since his national jazz-scene arrival about two years ago. Last summer Dolphy joined Coltrane’s group for a tour. It was on this tour that Coltrane and Dolphy came under the withering fire of DownBeat associate editor John Tynan, the first critic to take a strong—and public—stand against what Coltrane and Dolphy were playing.
In the Nov. 23, 1961, DownBeat, Tynan wrote, “At Hollywood’s Renaissance Club recently, I listened to a horrifying demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend exemplified by these foremost proponents [Coltrane and Dolphy] of what is termed avant-garde music. “I heard a good rhythm section… go to waste behind the nihilistic exercises of the two horns.… Coltrane and Dolphy seem intent on deliberately destroying [swing].… They seem bent on pursuing an anarchistic course in their music that can but be termed anti-jazz.”
The anti-jazz term was picked up by Leonard Feather and used as a basis for critical essays of Coltrane, Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and the “new thing” in general in DownBeat and Show. The reaction from readers to both Tynan’s and Feather’s remarks was immediate, heated and about evenly divided.
Journalist and music critic Ben Ratliff wrote a very long piece for The Washington Post last year about “Coltrane and the essence of 1961.” Sadly, Ratliff spends most of the story discussing what was going on in the world in 1961, and not much time discussing the music.
A culling from those nights was released as a single LP in February 1962, with only three tracks. They were the serious and easeful “Spiritual,” which later helped define a sort of music lately called “spiritual jazz”; his version of the standard “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” which (via this recording) helped define the straight-ahead jazz mainstream; and, for all of side B, the volatile 12-bar blues in F called “Chasin’ the Trane,” which starts abruptly, as if from a tape splice, and flies forward in lunges, defining nothing and beholden to nothing. It ends when it ends and it could conceivably go on much longer. It doesn’t know the meaning of “sufficient.” Sometimes it gets unbearably exciting. It can make the listener think: What exactly is going on here?
Rather than post more snippets of other people’s opinions, how about you take a listen to the 36-minute performance and be your own judge?
One key feature of the Vanguard’s history is that it will forever be the birthplace of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Resonance Records produced this short documentary about the Feb. 7, 1966 debut of the band. I most enjoyed the interviews with the recording engineers and musicians.
In 2016 NPR’s Jazz Night In America highlighted the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra’s 50th year at the Vanguard.
In 1965, the trumpeter and composer/arranger Thad Jones and the drummer Mel Lewis found themselves with a book of big band music originally intended for the Count Basie Orchestra — and nobody to perform it. So they made their own. They handpicked some of New York's top talent and called rehearsals on Monday nights, when the studio musicians could actually make it. And by the time they debuted on a Monday in February 1966 at the famed Village Vanguard, they were already a force to be reckoned with — soon to become the most influential big band of the last 50 years. The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, still plays every Monday night.
You can watch the full episode below.
The Thad Jones Archive offers this biography.
Thad Jones, trumpeter, cornetist, bandleader, arranger and composer, was born near Detroit in Pontiac, Michigan on March 28, 1923. He is one of three brothers who have had prominent jazz careers: Hank Jones, the oldest of the three, has had a long career as a master pianist; the youngest, drummer Elvin Jones one of the most influential drummers in the modern era.
After Army service including an association with the U.S. Military School of Music and working with area bands in Des Moines and Oklahoma City, Thad became a member of the Count Basie Orchestra in May 1954. He was featured as a soloist on such well-known tunes as “April in Paris,” “Shiny Stockings” and “Corner Pocket.” However, his main contribution was his nearly two dozen arrangements and compositions for the Basie Orchestra, including “The Deacon,” “H.R.H.” (Her Royal Highness, in honor of the band’s command performance in London), “Counter Block,” and lesser known gems such as “Speaking of Sounds.” His hymn-like ballad “To You” was performed by the Basie band combined with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in their only recording together, and the recording “Dance Along With Basie” contains nearly an entire album of Jones’ uncredited arrangements of standard tunes.
Jones left the Basie Orchestra in 1963 to become a freelance arranger and studio player in New York. With former Stan Kenton drummer Mel Lewis, he started a once-a-week rehearsal band of leading studio musicians who needed a creative outlet after the long hours of the then-thriving New York studio recording scene. Armed with only a handful of arrangements, they approached Village Vanguard club owner Max Gordon and were booked for three Mondays in February 1966. This first engagement at the legendary jazz club carried on continuously, gained an international reputation for Jones and the ensemble, and made several foreign tours including a historic 1972 Soviet Union trip. During this time, he also collaborated as an arranger in projects with trumpeter Harry James, and a Bessie Smith tribute with vocalist Teresa Brewer.
Rick Mattingly, of the Percussive Arts Society, and former Senior Editor of Modern Drummer magazine, wrote this detailed bio of Mel Lewis for the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame website.
Mel Lewis, whose real name was Melvin Sokoloff, was born in Buffalo, New York. He began playing professionally at age fifteen and worked with the bands of Lenny Lewis, Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Tex Beneke, and Ray Anthony. When Lewis joined Stan Kenton's band in 1954, many jazz critics credited him with being the first drummer to make the Kenton band swing [...]
Lewis moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and worked with the big bands of Terry Gibbs and Gerald Wilson, and with pianist Hampton Hawes and trombonist Frank Rosolino. He also co-led a combo with Bill Holman. In 1962 he made a trip to Russia with Benny Goodman. In addition, Lewis did a variety of studio sessions while in L.A. (My favorite trivia fact about Mel is that he was the drummer on the early '60s rock song "Alley Oop.")
After returning to New York in 1963, Lewis worked with Ben Webster and Gerry Mulligan. In 1965, Mel and trumpeter Thad Jones (Elvin's brother) formed the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, which began a steady Monday-night gig at the Village Vanguard club in February 1966. The band also recorded frequently, and the group toured the Soviet Union in 1972.
Enjoy the band’s Vanguard album, recorded live in 1967.
While scrolling through the list of all the jazz artists who recorded live albums at the Vanguard, there was an obvious dearth of women. It’s not that women never played or sang at the club; rather, the live album pickings are pretty damn thin. Thankfully, two of my all-time favorite female jazz artists—Betty Carter and Shirley Horn—as well as Mary Stallings, a vocalist you may not be familiar with, are on that list.
Pianist and music editor Kyle Kevorkian wrote Carter’s bio for Musician Guide.
Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1930, in Flint, Michigan. She grew up in Detroit and as a high school student studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. It was a time when a brilliant and bold new music was sweeping the country--bebop, the postwar jazz style that was being pioneered by the great saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, and horn player Dizzy Gillespie. Lillie Mae was immediately turned on to it. She often "played hookey at the soda joint across the street from my high school and listened to the jukebox, which was filled with bebop singles," she told Pulse! "We would sit around and learn the solos, and go to see them whenever they came to town--we met Bird and Dizzy when they came to our school." Soon she was singing Sunday afternoon cabaret gigs; by the age of 18 she had sat in with Bird, Dizzy, trumpeter Miles Davis, and other greats. Her first employer, though, was not a bebopper but a veteran of swing music--the vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. In a 1988 interview with AP writer Campbell, Carter recounted their first meeting: "I went with some classmates to hear Lionel's band. We were standing in front of the bandstand. A guy said, 'Why don't you let Lillie Mae sing?' That was my name then. He said, 'Can you sing, Gates?' I said yes. He said, 'Then come on up, Gates.'"
The impromptu audition landed her a job. From 1948 to 1951 she toured with Hampton, standing in front of his big band and scatting (improvising with nonsense syllables) segments of the tunes they played. "I didn't get a chance to sing too many songs because Hamp had a lot of other singers at the same time; but I took care of the bebop division, you might say," she told Pulse! with a chuckle. "He'd stick me into songs they were already doing, so I was singing a chorus here, a chorus there; I didn't realize at the time what good training that was. And I had the late Bobby Plater teach me to orchestrate and transpose, which I really needed later on." While she was learning from Hampton she was also learning from his wife. "I had this role model of Gladys Hampton to emulate. She took care of the band, saw to it that everything ran smoothly, that everybody got paid and such. That was the first time I'd ever experienced dealing with a woman who was the boss--and she was a black woman. It was very unusual at that time, and still is."[...]
In 1952, after two and a half years of "doing what Hamp wanted me to," as she told AP writer Campbell, "I struck out to find out what more I could do with myself. I came to New York and got work right away at the Apollo Bar, a couple of doors from the Apollo Theater." Thus began a grueling period of dues-paying. "I did the usual, playing dives and joints, wherever I could," she told Pulse! "There were a lot of places around to do the hustling then.... Besides all the clubs that were in New York, we had Philadelphia to work with, and Boston, and Washington, D.C.; all up and down the East Coast there were lots of places to work. And Detroit was still good then, and Chicago." It was a golden time of opportunity. "There was a big, beautiful music world for us in the '50s," she told the Daily News Magazine. "We played and learned together, because we all loved music and musicianship. It wasn't about money--we weren't making any of that--it was about a whole community. No one had to dominate. We liked each other. I'd hang around clubs with Sarah Vaughan or Ruth Brown. I played on bills with Sonny Til and the Orioles, the Temptations, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Miles Davis. It didn't matter what you did; you just had to be good at it. At the Apollo, you could play classical music if you did it well.... Someone should write a book about those days. There was such joy. We thought that world would never end."
I had the good fortune to interview Carter for my radio show in Washington, D.C., and later, spend time with her in her home in New York City. I also saw her perform live numerous times. Though the YouTube upload of this amazing live album by Betty Carter at the Vanguard has some pops and crackles from the vinyl (find pristine clips here), I chose this video because it’s the complete 21-minute album.
When you listen you can feel the rapport Carter had with her audience.
Pianist and vocalist Shirley Horn, who I featured here in April 2021, played the Vanguard in 1991; a film of her performance was released in 2006. Horn’s stylings are both understated and exquisite.
Finally, Mary Stallings. Her website offers this biography.
Born and raised in San Francisco, the middle child of 11 siblings, Stallings started performing professionally before the age of 10 with her mother and two older sisters in a family gospel group. She got her first real taste of jazz at home, sitting in at rehearsals with her uncle, tenor saxophonist and bandleader Orlando Stallings. Stallings’ career got off to an early start in the late ’50s and her supple voice landed her in rarified air: performing with such luminaries as Ben Webster, Cal Tjader, Earl Hines, Red Mitchell, Teddy Edwards, and the Montgomery brothers (Wes, Monk, and Buddy) in Bay Area night clubs such as Hungry i, The Purple Onion and El Matador.
Perhaps Stallings’ best-known recording was the 1961 Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings on Fantasy Records, which brought engagements in Tokyo, Manila and Bangkok along with work up and down the West Coast. She spent a year in the late 1960s performing in Nevada with Billy Eckstine, and toured South America with Gillespie’s band in 1965 and 1966. She has shared the bill with such luminaries as Joe Williams, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. From 1969-1972, she enjoyed a successful three-year residency in the Count Basie Orchestra. After touring with the Basie orchestra, she devoted her time to raising her only child, R&B singer Adriana Evans.
And since it’s a Sunday, here’s “A Sunday Kind of Love,” from Stallings’ album, recorded live at the Vanguard, in 2001.
No exploration of the musical legacy of the Vanguard would be complete without pianist and composer Bill Evans, who was virtually a fixture at the club.
Robert Dupuis at Musician Guide describes Evans’ early musical beginnings.
Evans studied piano at age six, soon adding violin and flute to his arsenal,but he later claimed "it was always the piano." Disdaining formal practice as a child, he worked his way through stacks of used sheet music marches, songs, and classical music that his mother had bought. Thus did he acquire a skill at sight reading that served him all his life. He earned a scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana College and in 1950 was awarded degrees both in music (as a piano major) and in music education. Though he often avoided the specific exercises prescribed in college courses, he regularly demonstrated his ability to play the concepts those exercises were purported to teach by encompassing them in his playing of compositions. With uncharacteristic bravado, he told writer/lyricist Gene Lees, "They couldn't flunk me because I played the instrument so well."
Throughout his years at college Evans played not only in the school groups, but on his own as well. After graduation, he worked with the band of Herbie Fields before being drafted into the U.S. Army. While playing flute in the Fifth Army Band throughout his 1951-54 assignment at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, near Chicago, by night Evans became a part of the city's jazz scene. During this period he played with the bands of Tony Scott and Jerry Wald, among others. Evans collaborated with avant-garde composer George Russell for several years beginning in about 1956, integrating modal music (stressing structure and form) into jazz playing and producing such recordings as "All About Rosie" and "Concerto for Billy the Kid." In 1957 Evans was featured on the "East Coasting" album with bassist Charles Mingus.
Though Evans etched his first Riverside album as a leader and drew increasing attention from music insiders, it was his eight-month stint with trumpeter Miles Davis's sextet in 1958 that propelled the pianist toward stardom and instilled some measure of self-confidence. This all-star group included such luminaries as alto saxist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, tenorman John Coltrane, and bassist Paul Chambers.
A website dedicated to Evans continues his story and describes his artistry.
After his collaboration with Miles Davis, resulting in several albums in one year, Evans worked with his own trio, until 1961 when Scott LaFaro was tragically killed in a car crash. Bill Evans was a quiet revolutionary whose Bud Powell, Ravel and Chopin based pianisms introduced a more florid way of playing ballads. Evans was an incredibly lyrical pianist, but he had the ability to be forceful and ambitious as well. Evans’ expressive piano work inspired a whole generation of players who appreciated his unique harmonic approach, his introspective lyricism, and his unhurried improvisation along with an analytical perfection.His chords have its own intrinsic colour, which creates a particular climate. Evans’ essence was defined by his tasteful economy of expression. The notes he chose not to play were fully as crucial as the ones he did, “the breath in between the phrase”. The following statement by the famous classical pianist Arthur Schnabel certainly applies to Bill Evans: “The notes I handle are no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes, that is where the art resides!” No pianist plays “deeper” in the keys, extracting a richer, more complex piano sound than Bill Evans. Most jazz pianists tend to think“vertically” in terms of chords and are concerned with the rhythmical placement of these chords than with melody and voice leading. His sparse left-hand voicings support his lyrical right-hand lines, with a subtle use of the sustaining pedal. The long melodic line, which, says Bill Evans, is “the basic thing I want in my playing because music must be always singing”.
Music writer S. Victor Aaron shares his views on the album that has now become a classic: the Bill Evans Trio’s 1961 Sunday At The Village Vanguard.
The album opens with “Gloria’s Step,” with its descending chord patterns that start somewhat bright and work its way down to a somber mood. Evans interprets the melody in short but rich phrases, and Lafaro is playing lines of his own that exhibit limitless range and yet never ignores what Motian and Evans are doing. After a solo brimming with full chords, Evans gives way to LaFaro who makes his bass sing and finds himself making a home in the upper register. As the second take of this song, it’s the best overall performance of the entire day.
LaFaro’s other tune, “Jade Visions,” was performed for the first time that night and played a second time at the end of the evening set. As the last song this trio ever played together, “Jade Visions” is a slow-paced meditative piece centered around a bass riff. Evans plays with much thoughtfulness, adding nomore notes than needed, understanding that to do so would obscure that keyriff. Motian, ever the master colorist, put that skill to great use for this song.
The rest of the songs chosen for the day are covers, most of which were familiar movie and show tunes. Throughout his career, Evans had a penchant for selecting easily recognizable, often overworked numbers and recasting them as harmonically robust songs that became distinctively his own. A notable exception to this Broadway pattern is the choice of Miles Davis’ “Solar,” but even then, it’s adorned with chunks of minor scale motifs in Evans’ remarkable hands. All of these tracks of course feature LaFaro contributing expressive solos from an instrument not previously known to be so impressionistic.
Sit back, relax, and chill with Bill.
That, dear reader-listeners, concludes this edition of Black Music Sunday, but trust that I have lots more music from the Vanguard in store for you in the comments. I look forward to hearing your favorites as well.