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."