In a basement mere blocks from 14th St Station in New York City, a bustling tradition thrives. Red felt covers the floor, patrons are near shoulder-to-shoulder sitting in their cramped chairs. Eight o’clock in the evening strikes, and four musicians appear on the stage. Music reverberates around the tight quarters.
Here, sitting on Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village, is the legendary jazz club the Village Vanguard. And your hoddler-in-chief paid a visit there on Saturday night.
I finally discovered jazz at the beginning of the pandemic, and resolved once business got up and running again that I would embark on a pilgrimage to one of the most historic jazz venues in the United States. That Saturday night was my second visit to the Vanguard, my second night saturated in the liveliest music venue I have ever encountered.
(Photo Courtesy: National Endowment for the Arts)
On inner walls of the Vanguard are portraits of previous musicians who have performed there: Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Anita O’Day, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans (a regular) among others.
Your hoddler-in-chief was spoiled the first time he visited the Vanguard in December and stumbled upon seven-time Grammy-award winning bass player and former art director of the Newport Jazz Festival, Christian McBride. Never in my life have I ever seen anyone command the mastery of an instrument the way McBride did that night. He played the bass in a way that I did not consider possible.
Lucky indeed was I to be there on the first of several sold out nights with back-to-back sets. James Spader, too, was lucky to get a ticket to watch McBride perform.
(Photo Courtesy: TimeOut)
Live music is always a special experience. I like to think music defies the law of diminishing returns, in that the more senses are engaged with it the better it becomes. And so let’s take saxophonist Dayne Stephens and his quartet on Saturday night.
Four men walked up onto the slightly elevated platform: Stephens, a pianist, a drummer and a bassit. Without introduction they began playing a composition far softer, far more cerebral (and perhaps traditional) than McBridde’s New Jawn Quartet.
The intimacy of the venue is unmatched. I sat no more than a foot away from Stephens, and the worst seat in the house was only slightly further back. The history is unmatched, too. And thank goodness that the club survived the pandemic, unlike other institutions which succumbed to economic burdens.
But the music lives on, and it always will because of the communities that make these institutions the bedrocks of a culture.
Saturday night was merely one page in the history of this venue, and perhaps Stephens’ portrait will be on that wall someday. Until then, hundreds of lovers of the arts and music will continue to take the pilgrimage down to the underbelly of New York City on Seventh Avenue.
Fitzie’s track of the day: Gang Gang, by Christian McBride & Inside Straight
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