Jazz's Golden Triangle
It's still Live at the Village Vanguard
By John Strausbaugh
On one of the triangle-shaped lots created when Seventh Avenue was driven diagonally through Greenwich Village in the 1910s stands a low, sharply-pointed, wedge-shaped building constructed in 1921. In the middle of the building, down a steep and narrow flight of stairs, is a pie slice of a basement that originally housed a speakeasy called the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle had been closed for a couple of years when Max Gordon moved his nightclub into the basement in 1935.
He called it the Village Vanguard, and you can still go hear jazz there tonight.
The Depression was still in full swing in 1935. Prohibition had ended in 1933, killing the speakeasy culture that had made Greenwich Village a destination for
whoopee-making college kids and flappers through the 1920s. The Village, like the rest of the city and country, was a harder, more sober place. In a journal entry for December 1931, Edmund Wilson observed, "People looked whiter, more emaciated than ever... the sky or whatever it was seemed to be shutting the people down into the streets so that they crawled along them more dismally, dumbly, ignobly, than ever... the life, the excitement had partly gone out of the city -- the heart had been taken out of it..."
By 1935 Roosevelt's New Deal programs had lifted the country up from the Depression's lowest point. But people still needed a drink as much as ever, and places to take a date, if on a nickel-and-dime budget. Village bars and clubs were still destinations.
Max Gordon's family had emigrated from Eastern Europe to Oregon in 1908. His father sold produce from a horse cart, and made enough to put Max through college, where he majored in literature. On graduating in 1926 he headed for Greenwich Village, worked odd jobs, and spent a lot of time in the all-night Stewart's Cafeteria at the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue on Sheridan Square, nursing a nickel coffee and making plans. With a friend named Ann, who waitressed at a place called Paul's Rendezvous on Wooster Street, he made the rounds of Village clubs in the early 1930s. He recalled in his 1980 memoir Live at the Village Vanguard that they hit
...Romany Marie's, the Gypsy Tavern, the Black Cat. Ann hated all of them. Romany Marie was a snob; the two sisters in peasant costumes who ran the Gypsy Tavern were phony; the Black Cat was dark and full of menace. Then there was the Alimony Jail on West Fourth Street. Its high-backed booths were designed for necking and fornication...
Together he and Ann opened the tiny, threadbare Village Fair on Sullivan Street in 1932. Prohibition still had a year to run, so patrons brown-bagged their liquor and the club sold setups. If your bottle ran out, Gordon wrote, "There was always a guy in a doorway hanging outside Village joints who could get you one." You placed your order with him and went back inside. Your waitress informed you when he was back, and you stepped outside to complete the deal. "The legal niceties were thus observed. The sale was made outside the premises and the joint was in the clear." A Village Fair waitress who let an undercover cop pay inside doomed the place.
Gordon tried again, opening the first Village Vanguard in a basement on Charles Street in 1934, then moving it the following year to the basement on Seventh Avenue where it remains to this day.
Poets were the main entertainment at first. Gordon couldn't afford to pay them; they performed for whatever change the patrons tossed at their feet. Poet Eli Siegel, later founder of the Aesthetic Realism movement, was his emcee in the early years, but the crowd really came to see three ghosts of the Village Past -- Maxwell Bodenheim, Harry Kemp, and Joe Gould -- who hung out there because Gordon tolerated them and his patrons were easy marks for a few free drinks. Gordon describes how Siegel would call Gould out of the crowd with the cry, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Harvard terrier and boulevardier, Joseph Ferdinand Gould!" Gould would shuffle up to the spotlight and do his shtick, while Bodenheim, tall and imperious, would stalk the shadows at the back, "point his finger, and shout, 'Eli Siegel! I hate you, Eli Siegel. You rat!'" Gordon continues:
Eli would wait for Bodenheim to shape up so he could call on him to recite. But it was no use. Bodenheim, swirling crazily, eyes glazed, arms outstretched, would suddenly stop and point his finger at a frightened girl who had refused him a dance during intermission. "Rat!" he'd shout at her.
A teenage comedy and singing team called the Revuers got their start at the Vanguard in the late 30s airing "beefs" about life in New York City. In one sketch, they beefed about the Sixth Avenue El being dismantled and the steel sold to Japan; the sketch ended with Japanese bombs labeled "Made in N.Y." dropping on California. The Rainbow Room bought the Revuers away from Gordon. When one Revuer, Judy Holliday, was invited to Hollywood, she insisted the rest of the troupe appear in her first movie, which was, appropriately, the 1944 Technicolor musical Greenwich Village. Holliday et al. appear for a few seconds as extras. Holliday went on to be an Oscar-winning star, and Revuers Betty Comden and Adolph Green would write Broadway and film hits like On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and Wonderful Town, the stage adaptation of the classic Village story My Sister Eileen.
Professor Irwin Corey, "The World's Foremost Authority," got his start as a nightclub comedian at the Vanguard in the 1940s. He was born in Brooklyn in 1914, and later placed by his struggling parents, with all five brothers and sisters, in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. In the late 1930s, he performed in a Borscht Belt musical revue called Pots and Pans, on Broadway in the long-running comedy revue New Faces (Mel Brooks, Eartha Kitt, Imogen Coca, and Paul Lynde were later New Faces alumni), and in the ILGWU's hit musical Pins and Needles, which ran from 1937 to 1940 with numbers like "Sing Me a Song With Social Significance" performed by an interracial cast. He perfected his signature comedy routine at the Vanguard, the Copacabana, and on radio with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. A small man with messed-up hair, in a too-long frock coat and crooked string tie, the Professor gave mock lectures on everything from Shakespeare to religion to "sex: its origin and application," reducing it all to surreal, extemporaneous gobbledygook that was a parody of the obfuscations and doublespeak of scholars, experts, and Authority in general. Like most everyone in the Village at the time his politics were leftist, which got him blacklisted in the Red Scare after World War Two. He survived that and went on to be one of Johnny Carson's regular guests on The Tonight Show, run for president on the Playboy ticket in 1960, and perform on Broadway and in movies, including Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
In 1943, Gordon and his partner Herb Jacobi opened a second club, a very different club in a very different neighborhood: The Blue Angel, on East 55th St. At the time, and for the rest of the 20th century, "uptown" and "downtown" weren't just geographical terms in Manhattan, they described two distinct cultures. Uptown meant money, power, breeding, class, chic, high society. Downtown was hip, arty, scruffy, bohemian. Fourteenth Street was the accepted boundary line. Uptowners who ventured below Fourteenth Street were slumming, and as Ronald Sukenick explained a few decades later, "Village people might go Uptown but it was a kind of slumming in reverse." Gordon writes, "Everything above Fourteenth Street was another world."
The Blue Angel was appropriately chic and swank. "Black patent leather walls in the bar, tufted grey velour walls with pink rosettes in the main room, banquettes of pink leather, a bright red carpet, black marbletop tables." Opening night the entertainment was "Mme. Claude Alphand, the wife of the French ambassador, an amateur chanteuse who preferred singing in a nightclub to living in the embassy in Washington; an Ecuadorian baritone who sang strictly Spanish; Brenda Fraser, an arch British comedienne; and Sylvia Marlowe on a harpsichord, playing Bach and boogie."
Over the years Gordon and Jacobi experimented with swapping acts between clubs, a kind of cultural exchange program across the great divide of Fourteenth Street. The Vanguard sent acts like Barbra Streisand, Pearl Bailey, Corey and Alan Arkin, then a young folksinger, uptown. The Blue Angel sent Orson Bean, Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce (who bombed at the Angel and carped that the decor looked like the inside of a coffin) to the Vanguard. The Blue Angel would close in 1963, as the golden era of lavish nightclubs faded and a new generation of rock clubs and discotheques was coming on.
In 1948 Gordon met his future wife Lorraine. She'd grown up a jazz fanatic in Newark, and was married at the time to the German-born Alfred Lion, who'd fled the Nazis. With another German escapee, Frank Wolff, Lion founded Blue Note Records. It was Lorraine who talked Gordon into booking his first jazz act at the Vanguard, the Blue Note recording artist Thelonious Monk. The pianist was unknown in the Village, the bebop he'd helped pioneer in Harlem a few years earlier still new and alien. "And nobody came," Lorraine recalled in her 2006 memoirs. "None of the so-called jazz critics. None of the so-called cognoscenti. Zilch... And Max kept crying, 'What did you talk me into? You trying to ruin my business? We're dying with this guy.'"
Lorraine left Lion and married Gordon, but it still took her a while to convince him to book more progressive jazz acts. He felt more comfortable booking blues and folk. In the early 1950s Harry Belafonte was a partner in a tiny hamburger stand called The Sage on Seventh Avenue near Sheridan Square. The Sage was right down the street from the Vanguard, where Belafonte heard Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Josh White, who inspired his interest in folk music. He made pilgrimages down to the Lomax collection at the Library of Congress in D.C. and studied up, building a repertoire. His agent convinced a reluctant Max Gordon to let him debut the act at the Vanguard -- a two-song tryout. He went over well, and launched his folksinging career there with a three-month engagement, followed by a run uptown at the Blue Angel. He soon took advantage of his Caribbean roots by adding calypso and mento songs to his repertoire, releasing the great single "Matilda" in 1953 and the smash hit LP Calypso in 1956.
With Lorraine patiently goading Max, the Vanguard was exclusively a jazz club by the late 1950s. A list of jazz stars who performed there, often very early in their careers or as newcomers to New York, would start with Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus, and go on at great length. In 2009 Streisand, who'd first sung there as an ungainly bohemian teen from Brooklyn (when Miles Davis had refused to back her, growling, "I don't play for no broads"), gave a rare live performance at the club. Max Gordon had died by then, back in 1989, but Lorraine was still there, still running the club -- still, as she titled her memoirs, Alive at the Village Vanguard.
Published April 2nd, 2016
John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.