178 7th Avenue South, Greenwich Village, New York is a place of magic. In a tiny basement, where you could cram no more than two hundred people if everyone breathes in, is a speakeasy, The Village Vanguard. It started hosting folk concerts from 1937. By the forties, jazz featured more often and from the 1950s onwards, The Village became the premier jazz venue. All the greats played there. Thelonius Monk’s week long residency helped break him to a wider audience. Bill Evans was a regular. Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra performed so often on Mondays from 1966 to 1990, it morphed into the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
The venue is in the shape of an isosceles triangle with a small angle between the two equal sides. The stage is situated at that point in the triangle. As a consequence, the acoustics are special, the source of the magic. The musicians are touching distance from the audience, even spilling into the front tables if the band has more than a few members. The official capacity is 123. The combination of perfect acoustics and intimacy with audience is inspirational to a jazz musician who thrives on improvisation.
Sonny Rollins was among the first to record there. On Way Out West, he had invented a technique called ‘strolling’. He would solo over a rhythm created by bass and drum alone, no piano. On the 3rd November 1957, he played three sets with two different rhythm sections, showcasing his strolling. He plays with a wit and a playfulness with time that reflected his warm personality. The other four musicians more than support him. Elvin Jones evening performances influenced many a hard bop drummer.
The audience isn’t always appreciative. In 1961, having finally left Miles Davis, John Coltrane revealed his new direction. Controversially, the future he saw included Eric Dolphy. The critics felt the music was “nonsense” and “anti-jazz”, that belonged in the “wood shed”. He didn’t even play his most popular song, My Favorite Things. Four nights in November were captured for posterity, so you can judge for yourself. The Master Takes is my favourite jazz album. I think it’s so good, I commissioned @pencilsqueezer to capture its sound in a painting, the most beautiful painting I own.
There have been more than a hundred albums recorded there. The drapes haven’t been changed for forty years. It’s become a shrine, a place of pilgrimage for any jazz fan. However, it is still going, still hosting concerts, still putting the microphones up to capture a band inspired by its magic.
Which venues are the most to magical to The Afterword?
While you ponder…Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra – All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings At The Village Vanguard has been officially released on CD. In tribute to @duco01, it is my number one historical recording of the year so far, a tremendous record. Here’s a nine minute mini documentary describing it in more detail.