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A New Phase For the Phrase "Live at The Village Vanguard," As the Club Joins the Streaming Era

Courtesy of The Village Vanguard

Last Friday, Deborah Gordon set foot in The Village Vanguard for the first time in almost 12 weeks.

Like countless other businesses in New York and beyond, the Vanguard — an iconic basement club established by Deborah’s father, Max Gordon, 85 years ago — had been forced to close in response to the coronavirus. Deborah, who took over the club after the death of her mother, Lorraine Gordon, in 2018, had headed to a weekend house in Pennsylvania, weathering the pandemic from about 80 miles west of West 11th Street.

Over the course of her life, Deborah has never been away from the Vanguard this long; she reckons she’s never come close. “So it was very gratifying to turn the key in the locks and walk down the 15 steps the other day, and come into the place,” she says, speaking by phone from the club this week.

“I just sat out in the room — I’m kind of doing it now, just by myself — and it really just felt like a little pulse going,” she adds. “Like a heartbeat. It feels like the city upstairs is hurt, wounded in some ways, and there’s a little pulse down here in the Vanguard. Waiting, waiting, waiting.”

In one sense, the club will have to wait a while longer: bars and nightclubs belong to the Phase 4 category of reopening, and New York has just entered Phase 1. But in another sense, life is returning to the wedge-shaped room, as The Village Vanguard prepares to stream live performances — starting with a set by the Billy Hart Quartet this Saturday at 7 p.m. EDT (followed by a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee).

This week, a survey conducted by the the National Independent Venue Association concluded that a staggering 90 percent of independent venue owners and promoters would be forced to close permanently by the fall, without substantial government funding. The addition of a lightly monetized livestream is unlikely to shift that calculus, though it counts as an encouraging development.

In any case, the Vanguard joins a handful of other prominent jazz clubs welcoming musicians back onstage, to perform for an audience online. As reported recently in The New York Times, Smalls — another vital basement room, a couple blocks down Seventh Avenue South — began streaming shows on June 1.

“Jazz is a social music and not something that works well through Zoom or online interaction,” Spike Wilner, Smalls’ owner, reflected in an email newsletter that day. “Jazz is about real people feeling each other, communing in a groove to let a higher force work through us.” 

Smalls was an early adopter in the livestream game, as I chronicled in The Times in 2013 (back when “webcast” was the preferred term of art). In its current iteration, the Smalls livestream is free of charge, though donations to the nonprofit SmallsLIVE Foundation are encouraged. This week’s bookings include longtime house favorites like the Johnny O’Neal Trio (Thursday), the Mike LeDonne Trio (Friday) and the Akiko Tsuruga Quartet (Saturday); see smallslive.com for details.

Among the other clubs venturing into this new reality is Keystone Korner Baltimore, which will host its first-ever livestream at 3 p.m. on Saturday, featuring vibraphonists Joe Locke and Warren Wolf. (A ticket for that performance, which will be available for 48 hours, is $10, and available here.)

Each livestream from The Village Vanguard will cost $7 — roughly a fifth of the typical cover charge. (Jed Eisenman, longtime general manager of the club, has recalled that when he first started working there in 1981, admission on Friday and Saturday nights was $7.50.) 

Credit John Rogers / NPR
Billy Hart at The Village Vanguard in 2009.

Billy Hart, who played his first New York gig at the Vanguard in 1960 — as the drummer for singer Shirley Horn, who was booked opposite Miles Davis — sees his livestreams this week as both a sign of change and a bolt of reassurance. “Every time I go there, either to perform or just to listen, there’s a familiarity, like I’m going home,” he says, speaking from his actual home, in Montclair, N.J.

The Billy Hart Quartet, with Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass, coalesced in part on the Vanguard stage, in the early 2000s; it’s one of a number of bands that have become synonymous with the room. (WBGO and NPR Music broadcast one of its shows there in 2009.)

Of course, over the last few months — as live music in a shared physical space has become one of so many things to remember longingly — the Vanguard has stayed in active circulation through its vast catalog of live recordings. In fact, there are two new additions: Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch’s Live at the Village Vanguard - Rough Mix EP, available in June as a benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America, and Gerald Clayton’s Happening: Live at The Village Vanguard, out on Blue Note July 10.

Deborah Gordon suggests that recordings like these will inform perceptions of the Vanguard livestream, which was made possible through the efforts of Mike Larson, one of the club’s more tech-savvy managers. “What are we asking an audience to do?” she says, philosophically. “We’re asking an audience to bring their memories of being in the club… You’re bringing that sense memory — or that wish, because maybe you’ve never been here.”

For his part, Hart will be bringing a sense of alert anticipation. “I’m trying to think about what it’s going to be like,” he says. “But on the other hand, I’m going to be doing this with my guys, so we’ll be doing it together. We’ll be going into this new phase together.”

For more information about artist livestreams, see our Livestream Hub.

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