As long-time General Manager of the Village Vanguard, Jed has helped Max Gordon, Lorraine Gordon, and Deborah Gordon do anything from cleaning the kitchen to booking artists.
This interview was conducted over two widely-spaced sessions in late summer 2012 and late spring 2013. Vanguard regular Cedar Walton comes up in the interview: with Walton’s passing last week, it only seems even more pressing to listen to the old guard, hear their stories, and — most importantly — go see them live whenever possible.
Ethan Iverson: You’re from New Jersey?
Jed Eisenman: Teaneck. Although I wasn’t really aware of it, Teaneck was a real hotbed of musicians when I was growing up. It was a pioneer in integration in the United States in the sixties so a lot of black performers like McCoy Tyner, Thad Jones, Clyde McPhater, and Ben E. King felt comfortable moving there. Later Rufus Reid and Ray Drummond.
I graduated in high school 1979 and first came to the Village Vanguard in 1980.
EI: Straight out of high school?
JE: Well, I went to college at Bard, where I met a couple of guys who were big jazz fans and they knew of the Vanguard. So as soon as I went down to the city I looked for it because of all clubs that had classic live records, the Vanguard seemed to be the only that was left, with the possible exception of the Village Gate.
EI: Do you remember some of the shows you would see?
JE: The first show I think I saw was Elvin. It was a quintet. He had two saxophones; Ari Brown and Andrew White, Marvin Horne on guitar and Chip Jackson on bass. We sat all the way in front and we were blown away, of course. Not by just the music but by the visceral presence of Elvin himself. He was very loud and sweating profusely and grunting in a way that I never heard up close like that. Really guttural and powerful. In no way a comment on the music, it was almost an independent strain of sound.
EI: What were the set times?
JE: In the early eighties, the set times were 10:00, 11:30 and 1:00. None too punctual. So think 10:20, 11:50 and 1:30. Granted, we would not do a full hour for the third show but by the time they would come off it would be 2:15. That would be for three, five or maybe eight people in the club.
EI: That’s what I’ve heard, that guys like Elvin would often play to sparse audiences.
JE: Not just in the 80’s. I’ve heard the same kind of stuff from the 60’s where Coleman Hawkins played to five people at the Vanguard. After Homecoming, Dexter came in and it wasn’t crowded. Monk played to very sparsely attended houses.
There is a famous story from Mickey the late, great old bartender. When he first started working at the club he was a waiter. He was all the way up near the piano when Monk was playing with a quartet. I think Paul Jeffery was on tenor. They play the head and Paul starts to play his solo and Monk gets up to do his dance that he was so well known for, that dervish-like thing he would do on stage. Mickey was serving two people right at that little table by the piano but most of the club is empty.
Monk turns to Mickey and says, “Will you look at all the invisible motherfuckers in this place.” Mickey told me that it took him twenty years to figure out that Monk just was not talking about how empty it was but also alluding to all of the ghost and non-visible spirits that were there. It was a double entendre.
EI: Who else was playing at the Vanguard in the 80’s?
JE: It was the most incredible list of people if you were into post-bop and bop-oriented music of that time. Zoot Sims was a favorite. Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson, Johnny Griffin, Dexter, Mose Allison. It was a great time for that kind of stuff.
EI: Of course Max Gordon was still alive.
JE: He was and he was there a lot. He took a great interest in what he booked. He seemed to feel that it was more important that he was personally satisfied with the quality of the music than any concern about how busy it was.
EI: Did they have two or three week bookings or was it pretty much a week engagement?
JE: It was pretty much a week at a time when I was there. There was a time much earlier than that where guys would stay for two weeks, a month, even six weeks. When I started it was mostly a week. We started doing the two week engagements again in the mid 90’s.
I worked there for about a year and a half starting in the spring of 1981. Then Max let me go. He said, “You got to go back to school. You are too smart for this kind of stuff.” I was only a dishwasher and just cleaning the place. I took his advice and I went back to school. In 1984 I came back to the Vanguard in the spring to help fill in. I was part time at first, but I just did not leave and I have been there ever since.
EI: I would love to talk to you about some of the musicians you worked with that are not with us any longer. Dexter Gordon comes to mind.
JE: He was a very powerful presence as well as an incredible musician. He was so charismatic. He seemed to take a great shine to me immediately. The first time I met him, we were hanging out in the dressing room and it was quite late after he had finished playing. We were listening to a tape of some Count Basie circa 1938 -1939. He was going at length about how Lester Young was so great and he loved him so much but the guy who had really unjustly eluded historical note was Herschel Evans. Dexter was really extolling Herschel’s virtues.
I spoke up at a certain point. Reagan had just taken over and a lot of us down there felt dyspeptic about all that. So I said to Dexter, “Aren’t we incredibly fortunate that our leaders in this great country of ours grant us this great privilege, to be able to convocate at this hour and enjoy this really special music.”
Dexter looked at this guy who worked there and he said “Where did you get this guy?”
The guy said, “Oh yeah, we selected him very carefully.” (Laughs)
I knew I had a friend right away. We seemed to be kindred spirits and it made me feel very special. As a kid, I didn’t know people like that. I always felt like the odd man out in most conversations so to be treated like that was very noteworthy.
EI: Dexter seemed to play the Vanguard quite a bit.
JE: He did. We would have him four or five times a year. Max was not afraid to have people more often that we gave them now. Even if we did not have them for weeks on end, they would be back all of the time.
EI: So if Max really dug you, you would be there four times a year.
JE: Absolutely. Certain people seemed to have certain slots. Dexter did New Years for quite a long time. Elvin was on Thanksgiving. There was kind of a regularity to it.
EI: Are you willing to talk about the drug culture with these cats?
JE: That’s the kind of thing that can offend.
Max got so pissed when Anita O’Day wrote her book, High Times, Hard Times. She goes into some detail about how she was a junkie. And who was her dealer for quite some time? The manager of the Vanguard!
I’ll tell you a funny story about her. At some point Mel Lewis decided that he and Bob Brookmeyer should do a tribute to the great Bill Holman and Stan Kenton. So Bob is on it, and Mel is on it and Anita O’Day. They decide to have a rehearsal at the Vanguard. It’s pretty early, maybe around 11 AM. I think Brookmeyer had just cleaned up, so he was up at the crack of dawn. Poor Anita. She shows up looking like a piece of lava after the explosion of Krakatoa. She’s in bad shape.
She comes to me [In a gruff voice]: “Hi, honey, you gotta cigarette?” I give her a cigarette and she smokes it down.
“Listen, can I get a pop or something?”
I say, “No problem, what do you want?”
She says, “Gin, four fingers.”
So I give her four fingers and she says, “Don’t be a cheapskate.” I guess she wanted five fingers. Then she says, “You got any weed?”
I said, “All I got is this roach.” It was really an empty piece of paper with two grains of grass in it.
I tried to light it. I can’t light it. I hand it to her and she can’t get a hit off of it. She takes my lighter and she lights this thing into a small blazing ember and she puts it up to her mouth and inhales the entire thing on fire. She makes a sound like Mercedes McCambridge doing the devil in The Exorcist. She coughs and she swallows the burning roach and she says, “Thanks! I needed that. I feel much better now.”
EI: Getting back to Dexter, I wish there were more recordings of Dexter introducing the songs.
JE: He loved to do his intros. He had a way with that. I remember he would introduce “Easy Living” [Whispering Adagissimo]: “Lady Day said to me once. She said, Dex… it would be so easy… “Easy Living” .. with you.”
The way he would introduce the cats, too. He had this wonderful drummer, Eddie Gladden. Who he called, “The Man from Glad,” or, “A fellow who has never been known to sadden, Eddie Gladden.” Even better he had a bunch of guys in the band from Newark. He would like to say, “And now another young man from Nerk.” He liked to pronounced Newark as “Nerk.” Dexter was wonderful.
The last time I ever saw him, he had gotten into some stardom. He did the movie Round Midnight and nominated for an Oscar. He broke through to the larger popular culture for a little bit. Jimmy Breslin, the wonderful New York columnist had a short lived TV show. It was on WABC locally. He interviewed Dexter for the show.
They did the interview at the Vanguard and the interview was in the early afternoon.
Dexter was a little sleepy and the interview was over and I made some coffee. He sat down at the bar and lit a cigarette and I put on one of both of ours’ favorite records, Charlie Parker plays Cole Porter. We’re listening and talking and hanging out.
One of the Assistant Directors comes over and says he needs to Dexter, “Can we do some shots upstairs under the canopy decks just to finish out the shoot. Whenever you’re ready.”
Dexter ignores the guy entirely. About ten minutes later, we are still enjoying hanging out and having a smoke and a coffee. The guy comes back and says, “Listen Dexter, I don’t mean to be a drag but we are on a little bit of schedule here and we would really like to knock his shot out. I don’t mean to push you but are you ready?”
Dexter gives the guy a look of utter contempt. He says, “Yeah, I am ready: if you want me to walk on Bird.” The guy slinks away.
The record finishes and I say “Great to see you, don’t be a stranger.”
We part at the door and he gives me his trademark DG handshake, like he is touching the pads on the saxophone.
EI: He’s wiggling his fingers?
JE: Yeah, that’s right. Like he is touching the pads of the lower part of the horn.
Then, the last thing he ever said to me was, “Who are you? Who are you really?” That was our parting moment.
EI: I wish I could have seen a good set of Dexter.
JE: Yeah it was very powerful, I must say. When he played a ballad…You know how rock music can make you feel stuff physically when the bass is real loud and the drums are seriously crunching and the guitar is really popping?
Dexter had that essential visceral quality in his playing. I remember particularly when he would play “Don’t Explain,” it would just kill you. It would just make you feel like choking. It had sadness and recognition.
He was a very lonely person I might add.
EI: You like the movie?
JE: Yeah. It was wildly flawed but his performance was marvelous. I was also enamored with the young girl who played the French guy’s daughter. I don’t remember the name of the actress but the character was “Berangere.”
But, yes, I enjoyed the movie very much. However it was a mess. I think Tavernier payed attention to too many voices.
EI: At least we have some of Dexter on film.
JE: Great stuff. There is also some great video from the Montmartre.
He was special. Special indeed, but he was not alone. Tommy Flanagan was great.
He had a quieter kind of charisma.
EI: Tell me again about listening to Erroll Garner with Flanagan.
JE: He was a big fan. We would wait until the last show is over and wait until the people had leave. We would put on some Garner and have something to drink. Tommy was like a child with his joyous reaction to these recordings. Every time that Garner would play something that was dizzying and impossible, he would laugh with such a sense of release and fascination and wonder.
Shirley Horn also loved to hang out and listen to music. She was something. She liked Miles. She had a big crush on Miles and of course she really knew him. He had gotten her into the Vanguard, initial as an opening act for him in 1963.
Anything I put on of Davis, she said: “That man, he has such class. That’s elegance defined.” She could not get enough of Miles Davis. By the way I think her piano playing was underrated. Even though they say how great it was, they should have said it more.
EI: I know Billy Hart shares your feeling about that.
JE: Yes, he does. He was on that initial gig at the Vanguard with her opposite Miles with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Anthony Williams.
That reminds me: Miles was once playing a brunch at the Vanguard, which didn’t have any food. The afternoon shows were sometimes skipped by the leader. The cover was not very high and the sidemen were usually pretty good. So Miles misses this one afternoon gig.
So this guy goes up to Max and says, “Max I’m a little disappointed. I came here to see Miles Davis but I didn’t see him.”
Max says “Well, who did you hear?”
He says “Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.”
Max said “Well how much did you pay?”
The guy replies, “It was a dollar fifty to get in.”
Max then says, “I’ll make you a deal. Here is three dollars. The first dollar fifty is a refund, the second dollar fifty is to make sure you never come back. Take good care of yourself.”
EI: You wouldn’t have seen Mingus at the club?
JE: No, I actually missed three guys that were so prevalent at the club. Those being Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans and Roland Kirk. They all kind of fell out, just before I arrived.
Mingus was a very colorful guy. He and Max had a lot of storied love/hate kind of battles. Once he got very upset at Max and he actually took one of the front doors and he tossed it down the stairs in Max’s direction. You can imagine that Max laid off booking Mingus for a minute.
Cut to a few years later; he was talking to his dear friend, Bradley Cunningham. He was the owner of the late, great and lamented Bradley’s and formerly the 55 as well.
Max says, “Bradley, I have an opening in a few weeks. Can you think of anybody or have any suggestions?”
Bradley thinks about it and he says, “Well, you haven’t had Charlie Mingus in a while have you?”
Max thinks about it, taps his cigar and says, “Why, Brad, do you think it’s time to redecorate?”
EI: You didn’t see Mingus, Rahsaan, or Bill Evans, but you did see so many greats not with us any more. Let’s talk about some tenor players. Let’s talk about Harold Ashby.
JE: Harold was a throwback, even a longtime ago. He had been with Ellington and he had the chair that Ben Webster had occupied. He played with a big breathy, heart on your sleeve kind of sound. He was in the tradition of Ben and he was marvelous. In those days Lorraine was open to the more older kind of material. She liked Harold as well and he was a fascinating guy. He was so from the old school and he was standoffish in a way. He was an ornery and unique persona, just an amazing man.
I don’t think he felt entirely comfortable at the Vanguard. The way most people look at the Vanguard is that it’s such an old fashioned place but I think it was a little too new-fangled for Harold.
Once I offered him a Coke or a soft drink and the way he said “No!” it was as if he thought I was going to give him a Coke, say it was free, and then on the night he was to be paid I was going to say, “You were supposed to get this amount and the Coke was the same amount as the pay … so get out of the door!!!”
Another time he thought I had the air conditioner up to high. So before he went on he said, “Let me ask you a question.”
“Feel my horn.”
I said, “What?”
“I said, touch my horn!”
So I touch the horn and tell him it is a little cold and he said, “That’s what I’m talkin’ bout. Turn down that air conditioning!”
Then there was the great Buddy Tate. Poor Buddy. We engaged him on a late December week, between Christmas and New Year’s. Wonderful time we had hanging out. He told us about Buck Clayton, Billie Holiday and Count Basie and Benny Goodman. He was having a good time and so were we.
He got a little happy and over-served there at the end. We did our utmost to take his keys away cause we felt that for him to drive back to his home in Valley Stream, Long Island was not a good idea. He resisted us and resisted us, hours went by…He finally drove home and about two blocks from his house he an accident. He survived, thank god, but he was laid up enough that we had to get Frank Wess to come in and do New Year’s instead.
EI: One of the great Joe Henderson records was recorded at the Vanguard.
JE: State of the Tenor. That was a hell of a gig. Joe was a very enigmatic figure. He really was. He seemed chronically and permanently distracted. This was his leitmotif.
Joe was in another world, in the sense that he didn’t seem connected to what was going on…or only connected in a very temporary fashion. If you asked him something, he was utterly polite but it seemed like a Eureka! moment. For example, we started at 10 PM but with people like Joe you never knew when you would start. It’s almost 11PM and we have not even done the first show. I go up to him very politely and quietly, and say, “Joe, Joe, I see you talking here and you’re working with your reeds there in the water.. do you think we should proceed with the first show relatively soon?”
His eyes lit up. A total Eureka! moment. “Right, Right, Solid, Absolutely, Good Idea.”
He was marvelous. He was a real jazz persona. He had vonce.
EI: How about Pharoah Sanders, I know he played there quite a bit.
JE: Oh yes. A very sensitive person as well. He’s an extreme artist in his temperament but a wonderful person and very heartfelt. To me, from a tonal standpoint, I don’t think I ever heard anyone at the Vanguard who embodied Trane as much. Not so much what he was playing but how it sounded. When he played the blues and when he had that band with John Hicks, Art Davis and Idris Muhammad… that was really memorable, really fantastic. I love Pharoah Sanders.
EI: I have a little bit of a story about that. In the fall of 1991, 18 years old and green, I walked down the stairs and tried to get into the Vanguard to see Pharoah Sanders. It was sold out. It was especially sold out for those wanting a student discount…
JE: Yeah, of course!
EI: They closed the door on me and my college buddies but the sound of those cats, Pharoah and his band throwing down was incredibly exciting…almost especially because we couldn’t get in! A classic moment.
JE: I have to tell you, today’s jazz is great and surprising. It’s really unknown to me how it will continue to develop… but it is so rare that I get that prickly feeling. That hair standing up on the back of your neck sensation. Almost like an out of body thing. Pharaoh could do that to you.
EI: You must have seen a fair amount of George Coleman and Johnny Griffin.
JE: Both just inextricable from the history of the Vanguard in the seventies and eighties. Coleman was the “go to” guy. He was in the neighborhood and Max used to call him anytime he needed somebody. Not because he wasn’t good but because he was good. He had this marvelous rhythm section in those days… The great Harold Mabern and the marvelous Jamil Nassir and if Idris Muhammad couldn’t make it, he’d get Billy Higgins.
What would they do? They would come in and they would swing. It would swing hard.
They’d play so much music and they had a big following; a lot of locals. That was representative of the Vanguard in those days. It wasn’t so much of a tourist attraction. New Yorkers knew George Coleman.
Johnny Griffin was simply one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. The “Little Giant” was a bad motherfucker. There was no question about it. He was off the hook. He could be irascible, unpleasant and down right nasty but he was a genius beyond any kind of comparison. In my mind, in terms of the modern jazz revolution as far as the tenor players who interpreted the message Charlie Parker, I would list Johnny Griffin at the level of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon. He was one of the most fearsome and intimidating improvisers I have ever encountered. He had a metallic sound. It was brilliant. It had a sheen flying off it, like a great shine. He could improvise at the very fastest pace. No tempo too great, then he could turn around and play a ballad that would make you cry, and not for a short while: for a long while. He was a superior artist of the very first order.
EI: Ronnie Mathews was in that band…
JE: Very often and he would have Ray Drummond and Kenny Washington. Guys would change here and there but that was the quartet when I started. Griffin was a motherfucker. He would do this thing in Chicago with Joe Henderson at the Jazz Showcase. They had the same birthday so they would do a two tenor battle for many years in the seventies and the eighties. I’d like to do a quick shout-out to our opposite numbers in Chicago, by the way, Joe Segal and his son Wayne present jazz in the midwest they way it should be done.
EI: My standing joke is that Lorraine Gordon and Joe Segal should get married, or go on a date at least.
JE: Anyway, back to Griffin: Griffin was married a bunch of times and he had a bunch of girlfriends. He was a womanizing cat. He was really quite good looking. I think he looked like the black Bert Lahr.
One time he was opening on a Tuesday night. I’m afraid he had too many cocktails before the first set. Which is certainly not a standard thing these days! but in those days there was a bit more of it. He gets up to the microphone and he is pretty clearly intoxicated. He’s looking at the audience and it was pretty full and he says, really drawn out. “New …York …City ….”
Seconds go by while people are waiting for the second part of it. Then he goes, “Tough… Muthafucking … Titty” [laughter]
He was a little on the salty side, I would say.
EI: What about another tenor player who I think only played the Vanguard a few times but I know you were at the gig: Warne Marsh.
JE: No, Warne played the Vanguard more than that. He and Sal Mosca had a quartet and I heard them at least ten times. We had a name for their fans. We called them “The Martians,” that’s how strange they were.
I loved Warne and he was so great. There was an interesting question about swing; did his music swing or not? I don’t know. I thought his playing was very swinging. He didn’t want a swinging rhythm section though. Sal didn’t swing hard. He played these elaborate long lines of Tristano-like stuff. Then they would have this rhythm section that was pretty generic.
I remember one particular thing where the drummer Skip Scott was lamenting that he didn’t think he played very well. Warne as a very sweet man and he was trying to pump him up and encourage him. Warne said something to him that I think most drummers would not be too happy to hear but in the context of this particular music, I guess it was a compliment. Skip said, “I was totally fucking up.”
Warne said, “No man, you were killing it, you sounded just like a fucking metronome.”
I think they were looking for something very solid and particular, continuous and unwavering: Creativity be damned.
Warne was great but they did not do any business. It was a very typical example of the ways that Max was glad to book things that didn’t make money but had artistic value. I think that is at the root of why the Vanguard is so highly regarded.
EI: I’m sure that’s true. Since we seemed to have gotten there, let’s talk about some drummers. I know you have some Philly Joe Jones stories.
JE: He was such a charismatic man. I remember helping him down the stairs with his trap case one afternoon. It was so unbelievably heavy. I said to him, “Mr. Jones..”
“I told you to stop calling me that! It’s Philly or Joe or Philly Joe.”
I then said, “Joe, why is this trap case heavier than anybody else’s?”
He said, “Oh, because there are pieces of drummers I didn’t dig that I stuck in there to even out the weight.”
He was a really unusual person. I remember he came to the Vanguard and Johnny Griffin was playing and Kenny Washington was a young drummer playing Johnny’s material. Philly shows up and he had a few drinks before he got there and he was not up to the level of playing anything fast. So he asked Kenny if he could sit in. Kenny was a young guy but lionhearted that he is, says, “Sir. I love you but this is probably not the best night.”
Joe is not hearing it so he was like, “Fuck you man, what’s your problem.”
Griff catches wind of it and says, “Philly I love you. You’re my brother but you are too high tonight to be fucking around with this band.”
I forget what bebop tune Griffin calls but it’s fast and it’s relentless and Philly Joe makes a fool of himself. It was sad. So he exits.
About a week or two later Kenny Washington has a gig at the Jazz Forum. I forget who was in the band but I got there early. Philly Joe had got there in advance of Kenny Washington and he’s waiting. He’s dressed up and he’s ready. Kenny knows what’s going to happen. He understands it all. So Kenny plays one tune and then Philly sits in.
Halfway through the second tune that Philly sits in on, Kenny waves goodbye to Philly. As he walks out the door he motions to him like, “Those are my drums, but you can keep them. We’ll talk.” Philly doesn’t even really acknowledge him he’s just keeping the time.
The Jazz Forum was Mark Morganelli’s place on Broadway. He had a couple of different lofts. This one was by Bond Street on the fifth or sixth floor. You get out of an elevator and you walked into a space that was about 5,000 square feet. He really had it nice at a certain point, but of course he would sit in all the time. He ran a nice place and I heard a lot of good jazz there. Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw and Buhaina.
I hung with Buhaina there in the dressing room. I thought I was in on some crazy scene. He started to put a wrap around his arm like he was gonna inject something. Sure enough, out comes something to shoot yourself up with. Boom, he smashes it into his arm and hits it. I thought he was getting high, but I found out later it was diabetes and he was just shooting his insulin! This is before they have the fancy things that they use now.
EI: Did Blakey play the Vanguard?
JE: No, he was very regular at Sweet Basil. Basil’s was his regular haunt at that time. Max didn’t hold it against him but didn’t want to pay the money that Basil was coming up with in those days. They were a big hit. They had all of the Young Lions. When Wynton and Branford came along, that really sent them off the chart.
EI: How about Elvin at the Vanguard?
JE: He played there regularly. All the time. He played the Thanksgiving booking. Max and he were close friends and he was emblematic of the club in those days. The tie to Coltrane and he was young and still playing great. His band mates were not always the landmark guys like Shorter or Jimmy Garrison or McCoy or whatever but he clearly was one of the top acts in those days.
EI: I got to see him a few times, it was profound.
JE: It took you back to a time when jazz was so exciting and so sexy and so powerful.
EI: He had a live or die quality that was magical. The bands, quite frankly, in my opinion, were sometimes not entirely worthy…
JE: Well, you’re saying that and I’d rather that you did than I do, but that’s right.
Elvin was sui generis. Just him, there, doing his thing made you feel a certain way. It’s like watching Laurence Olivier. Imagine seeing him in the theatre, live.
There is a charisma, there is a power, there is an aura. He had that. He really had that.
So does McCoy.
The night I hung with McCoy, his big band played there in 1984-85. One night everyone left. All the trumpets and the saxophones and trombones and the dishwasher.
Everyone split. Just me and McCoy. I said to McCoy, “Do you feel like hanging out for a minute?”
And he said “I do.”
“Would you like to listen to Grant Green and drink some champagne?”
And he said “I would.”
We listened to Idle Moments, The Latin Bit and Matador. It was great. McCoy was very relaxed and he was enjoying the ambiance of the empty Vanguard. Loving listening to the music in the back there. It was kind of faint but audible.
He told me about his brother Jarvis who was a very well known former President of the American Communist Party and great American Liberal of the 20th century. We talked about Coltrane and Jimmy and Elvin. How he replaced Steve Khun. It was such a fun night.
EI: What about Billy Higgins?
JE: He was a very sweet and simple presence. He was so positive and so loving. I think he had embraced Islam to a great extent. He was a vegetarian and he was very into health. He was always smiling. They called him Smiling Billy Higgins and it was not an ironic or inaccurate monikers. He really was a joyous and childlike presence. His playing always embodied that wonderment. He seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously at all times. I don’t think I ever met anyone else who lived more in that moment. If you could make an existential man, then there he was.
EI: And Ed Blackwell?
JE: Oh, he was a crafty guy. Funny guy with a scatological presence and a real N’awlins Man. He was full of voodoo, with jive and genius and rattle tattle.
He’s one of the most underrated percussive geniuses of the 20th Century. I can’t say enough about him. I loved him personally. I loved his sound. He was unique. There was no one like him. He was absolutely remarkable in every way and entirely underrated.
And that’s the stuff I don’t like about him! [laughter]
He was a wonderful man and I didn’t understand why he liked me but I felt great appreciation for it. I was so amazed in the beginning of my association with people like him and how they seemed to take to me. They made me feel like I must be special in some way. I’m still on some level reluctant to accept it but I keep it in a special place.
Blackwell was a dear friend and one of the greatest drummers I’ve ever known.
EI: I heard that towards the end of his life he was in a lot of pain while playing?
JE: I guess so, but he didn’t show it. He was one of those cats who was a true professional. He never let you see him sweat. If you watch videos of Blackwell on YouTube, the amount of physical movement is pretty tiny. He sits there almost Buddah-like. That’s who reminded me of the most in terms of a visual. He sat there like an ancient sage or a sacred tree stump. He had a quality of steadiness and stability. He had a huge aura. A lot of people who have big auras, they go in a radiant way. His was much more vertical. He had a column of light above his head. I’m not going to say that this is exactly scientific but that was my perception of it.
He blew the roof off the joint, in a quiet way. He had that New Orleans beat, he embodied it. It was not loud. He never played loud. His cymbals were a component of his entire drumset. He never switched from drums to cymbals. It was a comprehensive approach to percussion. It was very powerful. Mildly scary and entirely ancient. The beat and the rhythm…I want to say “rattle tattle” for some reason. I know Kenny Washington likes, “Spang-a-Lang” but that’s more of a bebop thing. Blackwell had a lot of shit that he could coalesce in his playing.
EI: A fair amount of the Blackwell we have on video was filmed at the Vanguard, particularly that Mal Waldron band.
JE: Those Waldron bands were the greatest. I really loved the one with Charlie Rouse and Woody Shaw.
EI: What was Mal Waldron like?
JE: Very quiet and dark. Not in a negative way. Just dark in a natural way. He loved to play the bottom of the piano. He rarely ventured above Middle C. He smoked a lot of Moore cigarettes. Menthol 120’s. He had an ashtray and he would keep filling it up.
He was fantastic.You ever hear this record he made that was live at the Vanguard, Seagulls of Kristiansund? It’s heavy. The solo Rouse plays on it sounds like an elegy for a whole country or society or something.
EI: You must have known Rouse?
JE: Oh, I loved him probably more than anyone we talked about so far. Charlie was someone who I was probably a little obsessed with. I always felt his tenor playing in Monk’s quartet was the most tuned in Monk’s overall way of playing. A friend of mine agreed with this and we were really Rouse groupies. He was the nicest man ever and he was my friend. We had a lot of nice times.
I got him in the Vanguard with Sphere. I convinced Max to do that. They had an agent and I was on the other end of the phone when Max said, “Gee, they’re asking for a lot of dough.” I told Max to give it a shot. I was like an in-house agent to them in a way that I hope I was able to help other bands.
It was a great time listening to Kenny and Buster and Ben. All great friends.
Ben Riley, what a great guy. Ben tells a great story how he was working with Sonny Rollins and Monk. Sonny told Ben that if you play in his band that he should not engage in any extra curricular activities, vis–à–vis getting high and all. That this is not something that he thinks helps our music.
Sonny is at the Vanguard one night. Monk calls Ben up and invites Ben down to the Vanguard to see Sonny. They hook up and when they get there the set is over. They make their way through his full house. They go past the door, back past the bar and around by the coat room and towards that stair to the balcony.
Sonny used to use that closet at the back of the stage as a dressing room, which we call informally the “Sonny Rollins dressing room.”
So they make their way through this phalanx of people and Monk knocks on the door.
Sonny is in there alone and he was smoking a little something. When he opens the door a huge cloud blows out. Thelonious and Sonny smack each others hands, then Ben and Sonny make eye contact. Ben is looking at Sonny like, “I thought you said we was supposed to be cool.” Sonny reassures Ben, saying, “Ben, that was only weed. Nothing you should be taking too seriously.” Ben said he is still thinking about that one 30 years later. [laughter]
Honestly, The Bridge, that is some of my favorite Sonny ever. The Live at the Vanguard record also is worth revisiting. I heard Sonny with Ted Panken a couple of years ago when he did that special gig at Carnegie with Roy Haynes and Christian McBride. Ted said to Sonny that he is so famously hypercritical of his own work, but is there any recording he would recommend? Sonny said, “Well, Live at the Village Vanguard is not terrible.”
That was the second record to be recorded at the Vanguard. There is a rare Stan Getz record that is half studio and half at the Vanguard. It is right before Sonny’s record but Sonny’s record puts the Vanguard on the map. A lot of the early Vanguard recordings are incredibly important and great. There’s Cannonball with Yusef, Trane of course, Bill Evans, Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance, Kenny Burrell with Roy Haynes and Richard Davis.
EI: I don’t think Stan Getz played at the Vanguard that much.
JE: No. I think if he played there at all, it was in the 50’s and 60’s. By the time Getz got to be Getz, he was very expensive. The Vanguard always seemed to get guys who weren’t worried about the bread. Max and subsequently Lorraine were very concerned about making it affordable. Making sure they did not have to overcharge.
EI: It only seats a few people.
JE: We are the smallest of the name places.
Part of the Vanguard’s allure is that there is a desire not to succumb to touristy type thinking, even if we get lots of people from other lands who visit us…and God Bless them!
But we have to keep it like the way we think it should be.
EI: It hasn’t changed that much since I started going to the club in 1991. It’s gotten a little earlier.
JE: New York has gotten earlier and earlier! When we went to 8:30 and 10:30 this year, it helped business, especially the second show on weeknights.
EI: Were you around when Keith Jarrett played the Vanguard?
JE: Once in the 80’s, with Jack and Gary. I’ve heard him a lot. He wasn’t very personable but certainly very incredible. He’s someone who has had a very potent history with the Vanguard, I think mostly positive.
EI: He recorded two live records there.
JE: Fort Yawuh…
EI: …and Nude Ants.
JE: Right. There are some cool pictures of him in the club. Looking very 70’s and young and all that.
EI: On Fort Yawuh, there is a percussionist who Charlie Haden says was not a professional musician. He was just a guy who was down for the hang. On the night of the recording he just showed up with his bells and percussion.
JE: That was kind of typical of the Vanguard in those days. Anything could happen.
EI: I know there are some great stories of Chick and Herbie playing at the Vanguard.
JE: Chick with Vitous and Haynes, that gig was incredible. Chick was very cranky. He was not very happy to be there at all. All the amenities and lack thereof were on his nerves. Let’s face it, he certainly was within his rights to find the place uncomfortable. The air conditioning was breaking and it was one of those times where the physical plant was making noise.
I remember one specific moment when Woody Shaw was standing in the back of the club near the men’s room. Chick was not looking too happy on his way back to hit the head. Woody says to him as if he was some sort of journalist or reporter, “So Chick, how does it feel to be back at the Vanguard?” Chick shook his head woefully and said, “Man, you think they could at least clean the fucking men’s room.” He was not feeling it. He was not feeling it at all.
Herbie’s last time at the club was incredible. I think it was ’85 when he did the reunion trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The music was great and it was packed every single show. Herbie was playing at a very strong level. Really Hancock/Genius/iconic. Musicians were trying to sneak in every which a way. There was no room for anybody.
EI: You told me that you sat up close for one set.
JE: It was absolutely incredible. You had to get up close because the amplified sound in the back was not great. Herbie was not that loud. Both Ron and Tony were significantly voluminous. It was almost like a battle between the two of them, from back at the bar…and pantomime from Hancock. When I sat up front, the sound was great but you had to listen to it acoustic to get the balance to hear what was going on.
EI: They had a special way of playing the beat together.
JE: They were the most fluid, the most muscular, the most transformative, the most communicative. That’s one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time. I don’t think here is much debate about that.
EI: You brought up Woody Shaw.
JE: What an enigmatic guy. He was something. He was a great trailblazing innovator. I didn’t get how heavy he was at the time. But, a very tortured soul. A disconsolate individual. He was profoundly unhappy. He felt very under-appreciated. I guess that was fair. Perhaps if he had lived he would be more aware of it now cause he had some fame in the 80’s. He didn’t think enough and I guess it wasn’t.
At that time, the stuff he was doing was harmonically over my head, at least to my amateur ears. It sounded arch and a little over-complicated. I guess I have grown a little bit as a listener because now I can hear it better. It has been explained to me, where he belongs in the continuum of trumpet players. So that helped but it initially was a little bit over my head at the time.
EI: I agree that there is something a little insider-y about his music. You have to sort of have to know a lot to appreciate it.
JE: Yeah, it sort of like reading something by James Joyce. You need a lot of reference points before you start. He was smart but in those days, I would have preferred to hear Freddie Hubbard. Freddie was still playing. He was just about to fall apart.
One of the last times I heard Freddie sound great was when he made one of these bizarre videos for some guy. I think his name was Gary Delfiner at Video Artist International.
Delfiner did a number of recordings down at he club. The one that sticks out in my mind was one he made with Freddie Hubbard with none other than Cedar Walton, Ron Carter and Lenny White. He put up a blue curtain in front of the red one cause he said “That red doesn’t look good on video.” He also had a neon sign just like the one over the canopy, that said “Vanguard,” that he put in front of the curtain. He felt otherwise nobody would know it was at the Vanguard. I said, “Of course they won’t, once you’ve put that blue curtain there.”
The quality of Freddie’s playing was massive. Freddie and I was hanging in the back. He was in the men’s room. He was in front of the mirror and getting his weave together. He was doing a little one on one, talking to himself, reving himself up.
Now it was in between sets. He was taking a break and he was asking me, “What did you think of that?” This was one of the first times when I thought that this was so crazy. Why would Freddie Hubbard care what I thought about what he just played? Like I had any kind of legitimate credibility. It’s like walking up to a blind person and saying, “How did that look?” I was legitimized by his question and I told him that, “You were killing, you sounded great. You sounded like Freddie Hubbard.”
EI: When he was on, he was almost untouchable.
JE: To me the guys that stand out the most from that particular moment of jazz trumpet were, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and the much less heralded and quite wonderful Blue Mitchell. Richard Blue Mitchell. Bad cat. Great writer and he had something unique with his sound and his attack. He left a lot of space. Freddie and Lee played a lot more notes than he did. Blue Mitchell had a marvelous sort of sadness and nostalgia.
EI: On the Freddie Hubbard video, Cedar Walton was on piano.
JE: Cedar Walton is one of the most consistent musicians that I have been exposed to. I have heard him play at the Vanguard so many times and a lot of times he’ll play the same tunes. Have I ever heard him sound anything less than superb? I have not.
Is there anyone who is more tidy and fastidious and organized in their musical presentation? I don’t think so. I’m also very fond of him personally. He is witty, urbane, elegant with exactly the correct degree of nasty. He is a marvelous fellow. A hail fellow well met, in my opinion.
EI: I got to see him with Billy Higgins. Higgins and Cedar together had such a groove.
JE: That’s it! Sadly Sam Jones died way too young. I’d like to give it up to that trio. They are not as heralded as some of the trios always mentioned but that trio was a motherfucker too. They had it. Nothing to take away from David Williams — who has done much more than yeoman’s work all these years — but Sam Jones was a genius. He died way too young and he was a lovely man. He was a great bandleader in his own right. He used to have this little big band that played at the Vanguard in the 70’s and into the early 80’s with none other than one of my favorite trumpet players, Tom Harrell.
That was one of the first times I heard Tom outside of the big band. When I heard him with Sam Jones that made me know that he was actually not only great but he was the cat that — in all likelihood — follows Freddie Hubbard, in that trumpet lineage of the history of jazz as seen through the prism of its great instrumental soloist.
Tom Harrell is so expressive and so personal. He will also come to the Vanguard with two sets of new music every time. That’s pretty rare. I must say the Bad Plus is one example of a group that tries to be very energetic and determined in this regard. You guys will always have a bunch of new tunes and that’s impressive cause a lot of great cats will come in and play the same set for a decade or more.
No names or initials but Lou Donaldson does come to mind. [laughter]
I love you Papa!
EI: Say something about Lou Donaldson.
JE: Lou Donaldson is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and one of the greatest entertainers. He is sui generis, he’s unique. There’s no one like him anymore. There were people like him at one time but his bona fides , as far as jazz history goes, is unrivaled. He was in the first edition of the Jazz Messengers and he played opposite of a young trumpeter named Clifford Brown. In terms of Soul Jazz, Papa Lou is the Man. He established the genre. He discovered Grant Green. Papa Lou is a bad cat.
EI: I myself have had a few interactions with Lou and that wouldn’t have happened without the Vanguard.
JE: It’s a good thing. There is a wonderful story where he meets Greg Osby years ago as a much younger man. Papa Lou kind of skeptically says, “Osby, I hear you from St Louis.”
Osby says, “That’s right, sir. I am from St Louis, Missouri.”
Papa Lou then shakes his head and says, “You sure don’t play a lot of blues for somebody to be from St Louis.” [laughter]
Anyway, cut to the other night at the Vanguard, Osby is coming to the end of his set and I hear this funky bluesy tune that I recognize: Greg is closing the set on none other than Papa Lou’s “Alligator Boogaloo.” So I call Lou on the telephone and left a message … “Hey Lou, it’s Jed at the Vanguard. I just want to let you know that Osby is playing your tune ‘Alligator Boogaloo’ and you either got a royalty check or a lawsuit on your hands.”
EI: That’s great. Just to see Lou’s interaction with the wait staff can teach you something about the blues…
JE: She’s not there any more so I feel comfortable telling this story. Most of his interactions were generally nice but this one time…It’s time to start the show, it’s late and he trying to get through. There’s a waitress trying to take his order and she is blocking his way in the aisle. I’m trying to lower the ceiling lights and bring up the spotlights and get the show going. We’re waiting and waiting and she’s taking the order. I’m behind the bar and he is a few tables away and I say, “Are you going?”
He says so everyone else in the place can hear “Yeah I’m going but this fat ass waitress is in my way. I can’t get around her.”
This girl had to go into therapy. He could be a little salty.
EI: We need people like that around.
JE: I love him very dearly and he has not only provided me with many years of tremendous entertainment but significant friendship and loyal collaboration. I value him highly. Honestly, I feel ever more compelled to present people Lou and Jimmy Cobb and Jimmy Heath and Barry Harris and Kenny Barron. Those kind of guys are not only the backbone of what jazz has been about but what it continues to be about.
EI: I’ll go even further; to see one of these musicians at the Vanguard has a special resonance. You can see them in a concert hall — but to see them at the Vanguard …
JE: That’s right. Babe Ruth played in a lot of ballparks but it wasn’t like seeing him at Yankee Stadium. Somebody coined the term right after Yankee Stadium was built as the House that Ruth Built.” Tommy Flanagan used to sometimes say in his opening announcement at the Vanguard, very lovingly referring to the Vanguard as the “House that Max Built.”
JE: Well it’s true. The Vanguard is not the most comfortable club. It does not have the biggest dressing room or the nicest bathrooms. It does not have the best drinks or the best sight lines or any of that stuff…It’s just the best.
Max said so wonderfully, “It’s a good joint, that people like to come to…Thank God.”
I hope in some small way that we still have some things that are worthy if not commercially magnificent.
EI: There is no doubt that Vanguard books stuff that deserves to be heard.
JE: I must say that I don’t sense any diminution in people’s interest in playing there. That certainly does encourage me, if not for the future of jazz but the future of the Vanguard.
EI: We must talk about the Vanguard Big Band.
JE: Well, the Monday Night Band, they are the greatest. There’s no one like them. I thought they had no chance of survival. Once Thad left, this was a great blow to the band in the early days I was there. Mel carried on heroically.
EI: Why did Thad leave?
JE: It’s very complicated. I think to a great extent he had a girlfriend in Europe and he had business opportunity there that inclined him to consider an easier and more lucrative life in Europe. He sadly died very young so who knows if he and Mel would have gotten back together. There was some talk of it but it didn’t happen.
EI: Mel was one of the great characters. Everyone I know who worked with Mel has stories.
JE: Mel was amazing and he was very much a guy who, once the band started playing their in the sixties, he became a real Vanguard fixture. In a final analysis was an icon of the club. He was one who embodied it. He was a real living example of why the saying, “White guys couldn’t swing” wasn’t true. Mel was one of the swingingest drummers of all time. He also was a very savvy listener so his playing whether in a small group, big band or medium sized ensemble, was always unbelievably finely attuned in my estimation to what was going on around him. He really was an avatar of percussion. He was underrated. They talk about Max Roach, they talk about Philly and Elvin.
They even talk about guys who are a little less known like Ben Riley or Ed Blackwell but I think they should talk about not only someone like Mel — this is gonna come out of left field — but they should also mention the great Shelly Manne. I think is somewhat forgotten at this point.
EI: Shelly could really play.
JE: Shelly was a motherfucker. Shelly was not only a fantastic player. This guy had a fantastic club of his own. How about that?
I wonder… I know Ellington and Basie has their own places, but I suspect that the Mannehole was the best jazz musician-owned place of all time. The records from there are pretty swinging.
EI: Thinking of the great drummers and the club, I feel like we are getting to Paul Motian.
JE: Paul was the driving force of the place for about ten years. From 2001 to 2011, he was the artist-in-residence who not only worked there eight to ten weeks out of the year, but he helped me and Lorraine figure out how to go with the music and who to hire. He was a real part of the human fabric of the establishment.
His laugh, I will always hear in my head until I can’t hear any laughter any more. It was kind of like Max actually.
EI: I remember going there: He’d have two basses, Masabumi Kikuchi and a saxophonist and I’d think to myself, “I’m being treated to some of the most avant-garde music anywhere in the world.”
JE: It was great to be able to foist that level of boldness and genius and cutting edge on people under the banner of Paul Motian, because we could get away with it. We can’t do that anymore. I’m looking now for an avenue that would allow me to punish people that way, as they should be punished. We miss that. We miss him and his bold and brilliant music and we miss most of all how it made us appear like we knew what we were doing.
Our association with him, if it created any suspicion on anyone’s part, gave us absolutely, undiluted joy. If anyone thought we were guilty of nepotism when it came to Paul Motian; I’ll hope they’ll engrave that on the Vanguard’s tombstone. “This club always favored Paul Motian.” I hope they put that on there. He was like God, only better. [laughter] We loved him.
EI: What other musicians in the last twenty years come to mind as especially important to the club now?
JE: Well there’s Bill Frisell. Seriously, there is no person more singularly responsible for still making the Vanguard look like it’s cool than Bill Frisell. Bill Frisell changed guitar for not only jazz but in popular music. He’s the humblest person I have ever met… he’s out of his mind. I don’t know what else to say about him other than that I was very lucky to be confused by his music early on. I still revel in my said confusion.
He’s an exciting cat. He’s restless. He’s unique. He changed the landscape of my booking. I didn’t think we could get away with presenting Bill when he first played there. Max hired him and I thought, “This is gonna flop.” The bebop people were not all that pleased. They still don’t think Bill is coming out of Wes Montgomery. On the other hand I think a significant portion of the music listening public has come to understand what this guy is about.
EI: I just had a really nice experience maybe two months ago. I had some friends in from out of town. I took my friends to the Vanguard and Bill was there with viola and drums.
JE: I love that trio. Beautiful Dreamers with Eyvind and Royston. Magical.
EI: I take these non-musicians and they have this experience that is abstract yet very accessible.
Thanks for talking about all of these musicians. Of course there are so many we did not talk about that we should have. Apologies to anyone who feels left out.
To close, maybe we should look at the big picture. As someone who has been in the club since the early eighties, what is your perspective about the music, The Vanguard, the future of jazz and all those kind of vague journalistic bullshit questions that you probably don’t even want to talk about?
JE: It’s hard to know where you’re standing at any given moment: of what is happening and where it will go: but I am hopeful.
It seems to me that there are a lot of people that play great now. They are stretching the boundaries of jazz and also respecting the parameters and the history of the music as well. So much is attached to where we are all going; How’s the planet? How’s our politics? How’s the country? How is not only the nation but the nation state? How is not just the body but the body politic?
We’ll see about a lot of stuff but musically the Vanguard is strong. It seems to me that we have great stuff almost every week. It goes back and forth between the history of the music and honoring that and what is going on now and where it should be going. We don’t take a lot of ideological position on that by the way. We’re mostly trying to figure out what’s cool and what belongs and what works. It’s a continuing experiment with presentation but we feel like things are going pretty good for us. We’re guardedly optimistic for the future of jazz.
EI: What do you miss most from the old days?
JE: The atmosphere was crazier. It was a lot more fun. It was like New York in those days. It was a lot more noirish. It was later. It was more of a party kind of atmosphere. More unpredictable. The things that are great for the real estate industry in New York have hurt the art scene and the culture scene and the night scene and the jazz scene. There were more characters around. I am a student of history and literature so I like eccentricity in people and scenes. I think the fact that New York is more homogeneous now is a little bit of a letdown to those of us who remember the city when it was a little bit more rough and tumble.
EI: And what has been positive in recent years?
JE: I think we have better people now working at the club. Not the musicians but the staff. I think the place is better run. You get your drink a little faster. It’s a little bit more polite. The hours are more prompt. I think the hours now respond to the customers wanting it to be a little earlier. I think the place is generally a little cleaner. It’s better run. At least I hope so…
I remember this wonderful pencil cartoon that I found of Max in some back drawer of the club. I ended up putting it in a small frame and giving it to Deborah.
It showed his face. It was well drawn and he’s wearing a suit. For some reason there is a clock behind him that was at five minutes to twelve. In the balloon that was describing what he was saying it said … “So we make a few dollars less. So what. Just be polite to everybody.”
I hope we are being polite to everybody.