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A Toast to Lorraine Gordon, the Formidable Engine Behind the World's Greatest Jazz Club

Joan Powers
Lorraine Gordon, owner of The Village Vanguard, who died on June 9 at 95

The Branford Marsalis Quartet had been rampaging at the Village Vanguard for over an hour — in full burnout mode, practically rattling the pictures on the walls — when its leader swerved unexpectedly into a softer mode. Channeling his best Ben Webster warble on the tenor saxophone, Branford closed the set with a songbook ballad, “Sweet Lorraine.” For those in the room who recognized its gladsome melody, the implicit dedication rang clear.

“That was for Lorraine Gordon,” Marsalis said afterward, erasing any doubt. He chuckled. “She doesn’t like all that other stuff we’ve been playing, so we wanted to do one that she’d like.”

To the best of my recollection — this was more than 13 years ago now — Gordon fired back a response from her customary table near the entrance to the club. “It was beautiful!” she said, the rasp of her voice cutting through the applause. “You should do more like that!” The line was both sincere and a touch ironical: a note of appreciation in the form of a quip.

Gordon, who died on Saturday at 95, was for many years the Vanguard’s essential fixture, as iconic as the red awning stretching over the pave on Seventh Avenue. “Sweet Lorraine” was in some ways a mismatch; her temperament, like her taste in cocktails, typically ran strong and dry.

Brisk in her judgments and firm in her resolve, Gordon was a boss who brooked no argument — not from musicians and certainly not from patrons of the club, especially those who didn’t come correct. The Vanguard is an eccentric room, and Gordon guarded those eccentricities like the rector of a parish.

“Jazz has possibly never had a more dedicated protector,” Christian McBride noted on social media soon after receiving the news. He added: “Trust me, even as she makes her transition, when the clock hits 8:30 p.m., every musician who plays the Vanguard will hear, ‘Get up there!! Let’s go!! What are ya’ waiting for!?!?’”

A no-nonsense enforcer, she would not only monitor the start of an early set; she also kept a watchful eye on the finish, making sure there was time enough to clear the house and usher in everyone lined up outside.

Sometimes she would notice something awry during the show — like a customer trying to take a picture, or heading toward the wrong bathroom — and bark an admonition. On occasion, this would amusingly result in Gordon being shushed in her own club. I once saw her expel a disorderly celebrity, who sputtered indignant protestations all the way out the door and up the stairs. 

These expressions of gruffness were, as McBride suggests, byproducts of Gordon’s fierce commitment to the music. His choice of word, “protector,” feels entirely apt. She was a guardian and defender — of jazz, of jazz musicians, and of the club. Not always in that precise order, surely, but always interlaced. She truly loved the music, practically lived for it. The chance to sit at that table night after night was the ultimate joy, she told me once, making it sounding less like a job than like a calling.

Like most of my fellow critics in New York, I have a good heap of Lorraine stories. Like some, I prided myself on gaining her trust and bantering affection. As soon as I did, I started asking her questions — about Max Gordon, her second husband, who founded the Vanguard; about John Coltrane, who created some of my favorite music there; and about Thelonious Monk, whom she championed at the dawn of his recording career, when she was married to Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records. (She was the one who persuaded Max to put Thelonious on at the Vanguard. “It was empty!” she’d say. “Nobody came! None of the so-called critics.”)

During the years I spent reviewing live music, I would often walk into the Vanguard and get an earful  — about how I missed the most amazing band the other night, or how I should have waited to hear a second set. I loved these conversations, which were unvarnished by niceties but governed by enthusiasms, with a playfully barbed respect. What really stayed with me were the times I wrote a mixed or tough assessment of someone in the club — and Gordon later confided that she agreed. Of course she’d also let me know when she didn’t.

She had her favorites. Paul Motian, obviously. A drummer who’d made history at the club in 1961 — as part of the Bill Evans Trio, playing the matinee that would yield the immortal album Sunday at the Village Vanguard — Motian later became a mainstay and even something like a mascot, in no small part because of his deep friendship with Gordon.

Countless other jazz artists, across several generations, cultivated their own relationships with Lorraine through the club. Guitarist Jim Hall once joked from the Vanguard stage that “I’ve been in arguments with Lorraine Gordon for 80 years.” He was 74 when he said it.

Great pianists were always appreciated. She loved Cecil Taylor as well as Tommy Flanagan, and she adored the French modernist Martial Solal, whose long-awaited debut fell the week after 9/11. (Following his first set, Gordon took the stage, visibly emotional, and sincerely thanked the audience for being there. She added that there would be no cover for anybody who stayed for a second set.)

One night in 2002, I heard the Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet at the Vanguard, and bumped into Gordon during the set break. “Did you hear that piano player?” she asked, eyes flashing. “Ethan Iverson. I think he’s marvelous. I’m going to get him.” It wasn’t long after this that Iverson made his Vanguard debut as a co-leader, with his partners in The Bad Plus. More than a few other bookings proceeded from an epiphany just like this: Lorraine being struck by a sound. 

I wrote about one such moment in 2006, for a feature in The New York Times. Fred Hersch, a longtime Vanguard mainstay, had recently played a night of solo piano there — purely by accident, when he found himself without a bassist on the gig. “Among those enthralled by his performance,” I noted, “was Lorraine Gordon, who has run the Vanguard with brisk (some would say brusque) efficiency since the death of her husband, Max Gordon, the club's founder, in 1989.”

When I next went into the Vanguard, a postcard was waiting for me there.

Expressing her gracious appreciation of the article, Gordon took issue with one word, “brusque.” Puckishly, she added: “Who are the ‘some would say’?? Just wait!!”

Jed Eisenman, the Vanguard’s longtime manager, tells me that she was last there on May 23. This was the second night of an engagement by Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos, a group featuring three tenor saxophonists with history in the club: Mark Turner, Bill McHenry and Chris Cheek. (Klein, the brilliant pianist and composer-arranger, has some history at the Vanguard himself.)

About a month earlier, in mid-April, bassist Linda May Han Oh appeared at the club with the ace ensemble from her recent album Walk Against Wind. I sat next to Lorraine, and we caught up before and after the set, each of us cracking jokes at our own expense.

As Oh passed by on her way to the Vanguard office, Lorraine showered her with praise, which felt genuine and touching. This was the last time I saw Lorraine Gordon, and right now I’m extremely grateful for it.

The club will go on, which is no small thing. Lorraine kept it going after Max died in ’89; now her daughter Deborah Gordon, with Eisenman and others, carries it forward. At the Vanguard on Saturday night, bassist Scott Colley took a moment at the top of his set to note the sad news. “I know she’d be so pissed at me if I said anything about it,” he joked, according to my friend and colleague David R. Adler, who was in the audience.  

Writing on Facebook, Adler reports that Colley “proceeded to play a breathtaking trio set with Mark Turner and Kenny Wollesen, bringing Donny McCaslin in on second tenor for a heartily swinging ‘Sweet Lorraine.’”

Rest in power, Lorraine. Take some satisfaction in knowing that many of us will never be able to walk into the Vanguard without thinking of you. Know, too, that the music will keep bouncing off those walls, assuming new shapes and dimensions that might surprise even you. Just wait!!

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.