Why Everyone Wants To Record 'Live At The Village Vanguard'
When it comes to live jazz, there are sacred places: Preservation Hall in New Orleans, Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, Ronnie Scott's in London. These are legendary venues for artists and fans. But nothing is quite like a certain triangular basement in New York City: The Village Vanguard.
Bassist Christian McBride, host of NPR's Jazz Night In America, recorded there for his latest album. He's added his name to more than 100 albums recorded Live At The Village Vanguard.
"It's not a very glamorous place," McBride tells All Things Considered host Audie Cornish. "I'll put it this way: The drapes in that club haven't been changed in probably 40 years. I say that in the most loving way."
Decor aside, the club — with its capacity of 123 — has seen recordings led by Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett, Joe Henderson and Cannonball Adderley, among many other greats.
"As a jazz musician, it hits you. [John] Coltrane walked down these steps. Miles Davis walked down these steps. Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans, all of these legends walked down these stairs. I think any musician, when they record a live record there at the Vanguard — it really is all about the legacy."
When Coltrane recorded at the Vanguard in 1961, he was starting a new chapter in his career with a new lineup to his working band. McBride says it's hard not to think about "Chasin' The Trane" — or any number of fantastic live recordings — when walking down those stairs.
"You get a true sense of what that artist was feeling at that particular moment — mistakes, warts and all," McBride says. "I love hearing those things."
McBride also highlighted the Bill Evans Trio's performance, as heard on Sunday At The Village Vanguard, as one of his favorites ever made at the club. Among the many storylines was that it was the final recording session for the influential bassist Scott LaFaro, who died 10 days after the performance.
"Bill Evans brought a certain sense of quietude and crystalline beauty to jazz at a certain time where combos were really — they still sort of had a big-band feel to them, like a compact big band," McBride says. "Whereas the way that Bill Evans played the piano, it was fragile."
That history makes it a rite of passage to play the Village Vanguard, especially as a bandleader. McBride says it's akin to being welcomed to a family, or being "sanctioned." That has to do in part with the club's booking policy.
"The Vanguard still handpicks what talent plays there because they like you," he says. "So when you play there, you certainly get a sense of validation."
McBride has been playing that room in various capacities since 1990. But even he admits that, for his first time recording there as a bandleader, he felt the pressure.
"All of a sudden, when those microphones went up, I had this sense of, 'We'd better bring it harder than we've brought it anywhere else before,'" he says. "'This is going down as a document at the world's most legendary jazz club. We gotta come with it, and come with it hard.'"
NPR Music and WBGO recorded live performances monthly at the Village Vanguard for several years. Browse the archive online.
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