As the Village Vanguard Turns 80, It Remains New York's Most Cherished Jazz Club

"It's really the only quote unquote holy place left in jazz – period.

By Matthew Kassel
New York Observer

On any given night, one can descend the flight of creaky steps that lead down to the dark basement club of the Village Vanguard, whose green felt walls and other decorative trappings have remained unchanged for decades, and feel at once deeply connected to the city and completely removed from it.

It has been called the “Camelot of jazz rooms,” the “Carnegie Hall of Cool” and the “prototypical Village bohemian club,” but regardless of analogies, the Vanguard is simply one of those hallowed New York institutions—like the Grand Central Oyster Bar or, for that matter, Grand Central itself—that seems to have always existed.

This Sunday, the Vanguard, which is the oldest jazz club in the city, turns 80. To celebrate that occasion, the pianist Jason Moran is presenting a weeklong string of concerts, running March 10-15, that attest to the club’s rich history. There will be solo piano performances, poetry readings, comedy and an evening devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk, among other things.

“There’s no other place on the planet where so many greats played for so many years, and that’s one of those statements that seems like hyperbole, but it’s not,” said Loren Schoenberg, the artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. “It’s really the only quote unquote holy place left in jazz—period.”

The Vanguard, the Zelig of New York nightclubs, has borne witness to some of the greatest performers in the history of American entertainment. Opened in 1935 by Max Gordon, a Lithuanian immigrant and impresario, it originally operated in the tradition of a Viennese cabaret and poetry house, featuring the likes of Maxwell Bodenheim and Joe Gould, described by Vanity Fair as “notorious bohemian poet-alcoholics.”

Those who have never been can look forward not only to its authentic feel but also its distinct, wedge-shaped room—and its acoustics, which musicians and listeners in the know say can’t be beat. The clarinetist Anat Cohen, who has recorded a live album there, described the room’s sound as “eternal.”

“You have a week to get used to the sound, and every day it builds on what you did the first day, which really helps to develop a song,” Ms. Cohen said. “The songs take the shape of the room, and the sound of the instruments—it’s so natural, it makes the music just grow. You can let the music become what it wants to be.”