by Phil Schaap
Jazz was not front and center at the Village Vanguard during its first quarter-century. But during the zenith of the music’s popularity known as the Swing Era, Jazz did become a fixture in the world’s most famous basement. The Village Vanguard was born at the dawn of that Swing Era, in February 1935, during the same week that one of its early stars, Roy Eldridge, made his first recording.
But on Opening Night at the Vanguard a poet, Eli Siegel, of “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana” fame, was the MC, and poets were the initial headliners. There was music at first, made largely by artists on the periphery of Jazz, but the supporting cast – a lone pianist was most typical at first – were Jazz musicians. Their names are not documented, but the cast of stellar, even definitive Jazz piano players who begin appearing at the Village Vanguard by the end of the 1930s suggests that founder Max Gordon enjoyed and encourage their presence.
Take for example Eddie Heywood (Jr.) who was a Vanguard regular by 1940. Heywood would become Billie Holiday’s Music Director, have a monster hit with “Begin The Beguine”, and compose major additions to the American Popular Songbook such as “Canadian Sunset” and “Soft Summer Breeze”.
The featuring of quality solo Jazz piano acknowledged, the first blockbusters for Jazz at the Village Vanguard were the Monday night and Sunday matinee jam sessions. Nowadays, it needs to be explained that jam sessions were private, mostly afterhours affairs until the Swing Era. The Vanguard was remarkably early in bringing the jam session to the general public. Harry Lim, a Javanese Jazz enthusiast displaced by the Japanese as World War II approached, launched the jam sessions at the Village Vanguard in 1939. This is when Roy Eldridge and his then disciple, Dizzy Gillespie, became frequent Vanguard performers.
The cream of Jazz musician elites played these jam sessions. By the end of 1940, the early Jazz broadcaster and journalist, Ralph Berton, became involved. Berton was able to get many of them on the air, and through those productions, a few of the actual Village Vanguard jam session line-ups are known. They are all from Sunday matinees. (The Vanguard never used the now common moniker of “brunch”). Besides the two listed below, a third from January 5, 1941, is assumed to exist or to have existed.
December 29, 1940:
Les Brown; Teddy Bunn; Rod Cless; Shad Collins; Coleman Hawkins; J. C. Higginbotham; Art Hodes; Pete Johnson; Max Kaminsky; Marty Marsala; Sammy Price; Joe Sullivan, Harold “Doc” West; and Lester Young.
January 12, 1941:
Dolly Jones (Armenra); Tom Candell; Eddie Dougherty; Stan Facey; Lou Fromm; J. C. Higginbotham; Marlowe Morris; Frankie Newton; Flip Phillips; Alan Warner; Harold “Doc” West; and Lester Young.
By 1940, the Village Vanguard now employed a house trio that consisted of future Ellington star Jimmy Hamilton, primarily on clarinet; Zutty Singleton, previously the drummer on Louis Armstrong’s historic Hot Five recordings; and the aforementioned Eddie Heywood on piano. This impressive Vanguard house trio matches the instrumentation of the Benny Goodman Trio and, for that matter, early Jelly Roll Morton recordings.
But it was a different type of trio, which would be featured at the Vanguard from no later than 1943, that delivered the next Jazz breakthrough to gain pivotal and early exposure at the Village Vanguard: piano-led trios that included electric guitar and acoustic string bass.
Again, something needs to be pointed out to the contemporary audience: the longtime configuration of a piano-led trio that uses bass and drums was not the original instrumentation. Back then, it was piano, electric guitar, and string bass. Art Tatum used these instruments in his trio, and please notice the still famous King Cole Trio. Why, even Lennie Tristano (!) followed this norm. Be it known that the Village Vanguard featured the very artist who designed this once-celebrated ensemble concept and showcased him in his pioneering Clarence Profit Trio.
There were even such trios led by electric guitarists. Leonard Ware, who had recorded with Sidney Bechet and was featured at the first From Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, secured long runs at the Vanguard for his Leonard Ware Trio.
Some of the terrific pianists who played the Vanguard in the middle 1940s led trios using the now standard alignment of piano, bass, and drums. Herman Chittison, who had Tatumesque chops, led one such trio. Hank Duncan has a lesser reputation, but he was a quality cat in the Harlem Stride School and had a piano-led trio at the Village Vanguard. Duncan worked at the Savoy Ballroom with Sidney Bechet and recorded with him, too. Hank Duncan was even capable of challenging Fats Waller, and it’s recorded.
There was another unusual trio led by a pianist, the Art Hodes Trio. This unit of Max Kaminsky, trumpet, Freddie Moore, drums, and leader Hodes made noteworthy records for Blue Note, but they were a working group and were featured at the Village Vanguard.
Max Gordon, who would name Bill Evans as his best friend from all the musicians who worked the Vanguard, clearly was, and always was, a pronounced judge of Jazz piano talent.
By the mid-1940s, Jazz players had become key attractions and were given significant billing at the Vanguard. During this development, vocalist Maxine Sullivan was a star and Bobby Hackett was recorded there live on August 27, 1947. Then, in 1948, Max’s future bride, Lorraine, then publicist for Blue Note Records, guided Max to booking Thelonious Monk. And while Thelonious Monk and Jazz at the Village Vanguard would not find full-time fame until 1957, the tradition, a new tradition of post Swing Era styles, was already in place.
February 27, 2021