Stepping through the small red door was like passing through the portals into the underworld. Not the Hades of perpetual torture, but some soulful heavenly realm where devilish angels armed with horns, skins, sticks and strings gave voice to the passions, thoughts and feelings forbidden above ground. Back in the day, the ticket price was a vulnerable heart and lots of second-hand smoke. The smoke is gone, but the music that plucks the strings unstrummed in the workaday world above lives on— welcome to The Village Vanguard Jazz Club.
I had stepped through these doors first in my imagination, escorted by the stereo speakers. Such incredible jazz history pressed onto vinyl—Bill Evans Live at the Village Vanguard, John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and other giants who a half-century ago stooped to enter through the same door and work their juju magic. And in my more CD recent collection, Bill Charlap, Fred Hersch, Mary Stallings, Josh Redman and more.
So here I was, walking down those steps into yesterday’s history, today’s pleasure and tomorrow’s promise. Once seated, I looked at the photos on walls, a veritable Who’s Who of jazz history. And more. Max Gordon first opened the club in 1935 and for many years featured musicians as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Burl Ives. It’s a small, intimate place, seating no more than 125 and you can’t help but feel the presence of all the great musicians and magical nights that had happened here in the past 75 years soaked into the walls and hovering in the air. When the musicians on stage strike the first note, they’re playing the next note in a decades-long ongoing composition, with the ancestors listening from their perch in the other world.
And so when Barry Harris, the 83-year old grand master and beloved teacher of jazz piano sat down and plunked the first rich chord of an evening of jazz standards, the magic began anew. In the audience were folks of all ages, including some 10-year old girls in the front row, while Mr. Harris toured us through the glories of a jazz standard repertoire with his trio, connecting each piece with a little story-patter that ended in the next song’s title. Near the end of his set, he told a tale about cloning and invited up his personal clone, a 14-year old piano student of his who now can put “played at the Village Vanguard” on his resume. The young man played well and to see the two standing together so proudly at the end would melt even the hardest heart. Mr. Harris bravely and publicly proclaiming that the show will go on beyond the lifespan of any one musician and that it is our responsibility and pleasure to pass it on to the young folks.
Since I had just come from giving a workshop to some 90 music teachers on the same theme, this touched me even more deeply. My workshop dealt, as it always does, with releasing the group community spirit of our collective musical intelligence before the kids choose their specific path and sit down for the private lesson. This particular group of New York teachers jumped into the games and songs with great gusto and spirit and we spanned the ages from babies to seniors, moved from protest songs to lullabies, played some intriguing music from the Philippines and some swingin’ beginning jazz. At one point I commented, “Sometimes this kind of work is more jazz than jazz!”
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Barry Harris asked the audience for three numbers between 1 and 8, constructed a melody from the answer (4-6-2) that grew in front of our ears into a full-fledged tune with beautiful harmonies, and asked us to sing along. Between the spirit of instant composition and audience involvement, he embodies everything I’m aiming for—enough hard work and discipline to be able to craft such a composition on the spot and enough spontaneity, community spirit and flexibility to include it in a concert.
From the workshop venue to the historic jazz club, the lovely solos of music teachers on glockenspiels to the beautiful re-workings of jazz standards by Mr. Barry Harris and Co., it was a day worth marking on the calendar.