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NEA Jazz Masters: Tribute to Lorraine Gordon

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Published on Jan 7, 2013

What jazz musician hasn't played at the Village Vanguard in New York City? They are few and far between, as the legendary jazz club has hosted everyone from Mary Lou Williams to Jason Moran. A jazz haven for more than 55 years, the Vanguard is still going strong under the ownership of Lorraine Gordon, maintaining its place in history as what Nat Hentoff once referred to as "the closest we have to the Camelot of jazz rooms."

While the Vanguard is now the longest-running jazz club in New York City, having opened its doors in 1935, it didn't set out to become a jazz mecca. Max Gordon opened the establishment as a music club -- a basement room, triangle in shape, seating 123 people -- usually featuring folk and poetry readings, but from 1957 on the Village Vanguard predominately featured jazz.

Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Lorraine Gordon née Stein became a jazz fan in her teenage years. Her first husband was Alfred Lion, co-founder of the Blue Note record label. Together, they worked tirelessly throughout the 1940s to record legendary jazz artists such as clarinetist Sidney Bechet as well as promising new talent including pianist Thelonious Monk (for whom she was able to get an engagement at the Vanguard in 1948, before her romantic relationship with Max Gordon). The Lions had divorced by the end of the decade.

Lorraine then married Max Gordon and they had two daughters (one of whom, Deborah, now helps run the Vanguard). Lorraine was a regular at her husband's establishments, listening to the music as the club's reputation increased among jazz musicians. In 1957, Sonny Rollins -- in what was one of the first recording sessions at the club -- documented two different trios he was working with on the fiery, three-album set A Night at the Village Vanguard, considered one of his finest records. Soon after, the Vanguard became the place to record a live jazz album, with its exceptional acoustics and intimate space.

During the 1960s, Gordon became a political activist, rallying against nuclear testing and the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, she worked for the Brooklyn Museum but tragedy struck in 1989 when her husband Max passed away. She closed the club for one day, then reopened it the next and took over ownership and management of their beloved Vanguard, one of the best-known jazz clubs in the world.

In her 2006 memoir, Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time, Gordon noted, "What I'm saying is, I didn't arrive at the Village Vanguard from out of the blue. I stuck to what I loved. That was my art. I'm not a musician; I'm not a singer; I'm not a painter; I'm not an actress. I'm none of those things. But throughout my life I followed the course of the music that I loved."

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