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Book Review: Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life in and Out of Jazz by Lorraine Gordon

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Lorraine Gordon is the owner and operator of the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City. In the annals of jazz, it's one of the most famous institutions. Where so many other iconic clubs have passed into memory (Five Spot, Half Note, the original Birdland), the Vanguard has been a scrappy hanger-on. This is thanks in part to the caliber of music drawn to the club, but mostly it's because Gordon is one tenacious bird with as much love of jazz running through her veins as there is blood, as important to jazz as the club she runs.

Released last October, Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life in and Out of Jazz is Gordon's recollections of growing up in New York, getting into jazz through listening to records and starting a jazz appreciation group with some friends as a child, hanging out in jazz clubs and seeing some of the originators of the genre at work. While these stories are worthwhile, the real juice here is her remembrances of marriages to Alfred Lion, who co-founded legendary jazz label Blue Note in 1939, and Max Gordon, who in 1935 opened the Village Vanguard. Lorraine Gordon was instrumental in both ventures. She was a key figure at Blue Note, doing the books and recruiting key figures in the jazz pantheon, like Thelonious Monk, to the label.

Once the slim, 288-page autobiography reaches these landmarks in Gordon's life, the book takes off. She's honest, vivacious, and spunky with a keen attention to detail. Best of all, though, she doesn't pull her punches. In the chapter titled "The Lady with the Records," Gordon tells a story about running into Tiny Grimes, a guitar player who once recorded for Blue Note, that's as funny as it is brutal.

Some years ago I was in Chicago at a jazz concert and happened to bump into Tiny Grimes, the guitar player. I was crazy about Tiny Grimes's music; we'd recorded him when I was with Alfred. I didn't think he was going to remember me — this was now years later — but I introduced myself. And Time Grimes said to me, “Blue Note Records, they owe me money on royalties."

"They don't owe you a penny," I said. I was so mad. I let him have it! That was not the greeting I expected. First words out of his mouth. Not nice. I thought, Who would know better than I, motherfucker? Since I wrote the checks.

This moment in Alive at the Village Vanguard is key because it firmly establishes that Gordon is no-nonsense. She loves jazz, and she loves being in and around that scene, as the previous 70-plus pages firmly establish. If that world, or someone in it, thinks they can walk over her because she's a woman or "the boss's wife," they have another thing coming.

Gordon has a similar story from her time running the Village Vanguard, a position she's held since Max Gordon's death in 1989. In the chapter "The Mrs. Takes Charge," Gordon writes, "Sonny Rollins also played the Vanguard plenty in the sixties and seventies. You think I could get him back today? Never. Sonny wouldn't consider anything so lowly. I've stopped asking. Let him go play on a bridge."

Never mind that Sonny Rollins is one of the living legends of jazz. Forget that he's as influential to the genre as anyone that's picked up a saxophone. He disrespected Lorraine Gordon, and in Lorraine Gordon's jazz world, that's simply not allowed.

The self-respect she reflects throughout the book is awe-inspiring, especially as it applies to someone involved in the music and entertainment industries. There's no ass-kissing, no concessions being made to satisfy some diva requests, just Lorraine Gordon's rules of how to conduct oneself in polite jazz society. There are no problems as long as you show her the respect she commands and, indeed, demands.

Alive at the Village Vanguard is full of great stories and observations about musicians and jazz, but what's most remarkable about the book is how breezy and conversational it is. On the cover of the book there is an "As Told To" credit under Gordon's name. The person she recounted her life to is Barry Singer, but it could easily have been you, me, or John Doe walking down the street.

She routinely asks questions throughout the book like, "What did I say? Who was he? What did I do? Would he play here again?" At first this seems strange and disorienting. Soon, though, it becomes clear that what you're reading is her re-asking questions being posed to her. You might be reading the book and think, "What did Lorraine think of Max Gordon when she first met him?" And she pose a question like, "What did I think of him?" as if you and she were having a conversation. While this isn't a breakthrough approach to memoir, it does work extraordinarily well here, making the book as accessible and enjoyable to jazz newcomers as it is to die-hard fans.

At the back of the book are two appendices, a chronology of every performance at the Village Vanguard during Lorraine Gordon's time as operator, and a discography of the recordings made of those performances. These add depth to the memoir and serve as a nice punctuation to the wonderful chapters that precede it, an exclamation point to the life recounted so beautifully by one of the most important figures in jazz history.

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  • http://onlinebookclub.org Scott Hughes

    I haven’t read this book yet. Thanks for the review. I’m going to post about it on the Book & Reading Forums.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!