The Village Vanguard is a jazz club located at Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village, New York City. The club was opened on February 22, 1935, by Max Gordon. At first, it featured many forms of music, such as folk music and beat poetry, but it switched to an all-jazz format in 1957.
For years prior to 1935, the Vanguard’s proprietor, Max Gordon, strove to run a successful nightclub. His first attempt at a Village Vanguard opened in 1934 on Charles Street and Greenwich Avenue. Gordon intended for the Vanguard to be a forum for poets and artists as well as a site for musical performances. Yet, due to insufficient facilities, Gordon was refused a cabaret license from the police department and was unable to create the club that he originally envisioned. In his autobiography, Gordon writes that “I knew if I was ever to get anywhere in the nightclub business, I’d have to find another place with two johns, two exits, two hundred feet away from a church or synagogue or school, and with the rent under $100 a month.” In 1934, Gordon moved his business and purchased the Golden Triangle, a speakeasy on 178 Seventh Avenue.
The Golden Triangle, first opened its doors in 1935. The Golden Triangle's basement facility structure resembled that of an isosceles triangle. After purchasing the property, Gordon changed the name of the club to the Village Vanguard and that name has remained ever since.
Like its prototype on Charles Street, the Vanguard was initially dedicated to poetry readings and folk music. Frequenters of the club in the thirties and forties would hear poetry read by poets such as Maxwell Bodenheim and Harry Kemp; they would hear folk music ranging from Lead Belly’s southern U.S songs to the Duke of Iron’s Caribbean calypso. Painters would go there to have discussions regarding the Spanish Civil War. Political posters dotted the walls, enhancing the atmosphere of intensity and discourse. The club also had a rich stand-up history, with comedians like Phil Leeds performing there. Yet throughout the thirties and forties, amidst the neo-bohemian culture that flourished in the Village, jam sessions were making their presence known at the Vanguard. “The biggest reason my pals and I went to the Vanguard, though, was because there were jazz jam sessions in the afternoons on Sundays. You could go hear Lester Young, Ben Webster; all the greatest jazz musicians for fifty cents at the door, or something like that.” Even though jazz was not yet the main attraction at the club, the Vanguard was still a haven for the then established small group swing idiom. In the 1930s and 1940s, performers of the standing of Sidney Bechet, Una Mae Carlisle, Art Hodes, and Mary Lou Williams performed at the Vanguard. The wife of Max Gordon, Lorraine Gordon, has commented on the growth of jazz at the club, stating “in time, Max began to book acts, often three a night. Many proved to be high-caliber jazzmen.” In 1940, Roy Eldridge performed at the Vanguard. His virtuosic performance coupled with his dedicated following presented the possibility that jazz sets could be at the top of the bill. As modern jazz developed in the 1940s, small group sets began to dominate the Vanguard scene. The maturation of jazz at the Vanguard can be partially attributed to the growing interest in and identification with the music among college students and artist in Greenwich Village. In 1940, a resident trio was formed that included the pianist Eddie Heywood, along with Zutty Singleton, and Jimmy Hamilton. Mirroring the culture in the Village,the jazz scene at the Vanguard was steadily growing.
By 1957, one commentator writes, “Gordon reversed his policy, putting jazz at the top of the bill and letting the folknicks…and the comics…fill it out. Thus the Vanguard booked Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Jimmy Giuffre, Anita O’Day, Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans (a regular), Stan Getz, Carmen McRae.” The booking of Thelonious Monk was a particularly interesting story that demonstrated the Vanguard’s ability to take a relatively unknown musician and help launch his career. The story of Monk’s introduction to the Vanguard began with the first ever encounter between Max and Lorraine. Max and Lorraine first met each other in the Bluebell Bakery, a “homey little Fire Island joint.” After she walked in and spotted Max (who she knew to be the owner of the Village Vanguard), Lorraine proposed to him that he showcase Thelonious Monk at the club for a week. He agreed and on September 14, 1948, Monk opened for the Vanguard. The reception was not ideal. “[N]obody came. None of the so-called jazz critics. None of the so-called cognoscenti. Zilch.” But Lorraine continued to sponsor Monk as a genius and through her persistence helped him grow into the pillar of jazz he is today. From the 1950s on, the Vanguard was the leading small venue for jazz, launching many celebrated careers and sustaining others that were already aloft. The Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra that eventually became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra played from 1966 to 1990 on Monday nights.
In 1989, Max Gordon died. The day after, Lorraine Gordon closed the Vanguard. The following day, she reopened it and has continued to run the place ever since. She has not made any alterations of any kind, and kept it how it was, how people liked it.
The Vanguard has helped launched many careers and has hosted many recordings that are regarded as masterpieces in its basement, making it now a club of international renown. On 3 November 1957, during some of the first recording sessions at the club, Sonny Rollins, a tenor sax player, recorded three LPs. These recordings were at the forefront of the hard-bop movement. The LPs documented two different saxophone-bass-drums trios. Rollins had shown an interest in smaller ensembles as early as 1955; in Paradox, he exchanged four-measure phrases with drummer Max Roach, with no other instrument taking part. In the Vanguard recordings we hear similar styles in arrangements. In the song "Old Devil Moon", Rollins is accompanied only by a bassist and a drummer. Musically, this song set the standard for the piano-less trio. Following Rollins, recordings continued; there was John Coltrane's and Bill Evans's famed Vanguard titles, both from 1961 (Evans was extensively recorded at the Village Vanguard just three months before his death in 1980). Coltrane’s album was five titles taken from 22 recorded songs over four nights at the Vanguard. There was Art Pepper's Thursday Night at the Village Vanguard in 1977, Tommy Flanagan's Nights at the Vanguard in 1986 and Wynton Marsalis's voluminous seven-disc Live at the Vanguard in 1999. "The words 'Live at the Village Vanguard' do have a direct and positive influence on an album's sales," claims Bruce Lundvall, head of Blue Note Records, a principal jazz label with more than a dozen "Live at the Vanguard" titles in its catalog.