Sometimes the house band gets to be the main act. On Seventh Avenue in the West Village, under a fluorescent row of storefronts hawking palmistry and erotic toys, modern jazz is still the thing. And for a week in February, the regular Monday-night performers rule jazz’s most legendary basement with rumpled majesty.
During the Village Vanguard’s “Week of Mondays,” the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is taking center stage in homage to one of the city’s most stubborn traditions.
Tonight is a special Monday—not just because it’s Sunday, but also because it’s the first recording session for an unprecedented live album. The sixteen musicians have shuffled in early, to prepare as much as befits a gaggle of professional improvisers. The band members—many of whom were just kids in 1966, when Orchestra founders Thad Jones and Mel Lewis lofted their inaugural notes into the Vanguard’s musky air—are somehow packed into three rows on a stage that is a snug fit for a quintet.
Trombonist John Mosca, a thin man with a thick moustache, the band’s director and senior member at age fifty-seven, tells the guys that as the mics are picking up every note tonight, they should be tight around the solos, even in the soft spaces of an arrangement where they might ordinarily relax and “go to the beach.” Hunkered behind a VJO banner under a cap of ginger-colored scruff, saxophonist Rich Perry jokes that usually when there’s some slack time during a song, “I make phone calls.”
Between the tables and the knee-high stage, more direction from one of the guys on the production team, standing face-to-face before the seated horn players: “The key is, step in slowly, step out slowly.”
And slowly, they start stepping in. The staff throws the door open to the usual cast of outsiders and insiders—natives and tourists, scholarly purists and dreadlocked adulterers, every configuration of man, woman, and child. They give the money to the door guy, a tattooed young man with a somber five o’clock shadow: $35, cash only, one drink included. The seating guy—a veteran staffer who tends the bar the rest of the week and designs handbags during the day—weaves the guests through the aisles and wedges them into butting wooden chairs.
I’m the coat-check girl, sharing a tiny booth with retired music stands and withered cables. It’s well hidden in the corridor leading to the ladies’ room, so I go out to work the floor. Success in persuading people to whisk off their top layers is a complex function of coat puffiness, audience density, and availability of pocket change for the tip.
Each night, on two rows of globular metal hooks, I hang a sociological map of New York: Upper East Side fur and velour; grungy windbreakers; space-age Japanese expat bubble jackets; corporate trench coats; black of all shades and textures; the occasional guitar or trumpet, or maybe just a fedora, wrested gently from the owner with a guarantee of safe keeping.
A waitress who’s been picking up tips here longer than I’ve been alive flashes her eyes behind sunglasses just a shade dimmer than the club itself. She twirls around the guests trying clumsily to make themselves small, around the little white tables packed like aspirin into a space with a legal occupancy of a little over 120.
The lights go down around nine o’clock, and the band enters from the kitchen and ascends the stage single-file. Reenacting the storied procession of Thad and all the other greats, they pass Coltrane, Mingus, and other immortals, who gaze vigilantly from the angled black walls.
Then they start making music, and they hit all the senses at once. A trumpet tumbles out furiously from one corner, and the Steinway, squeezed onto the opposite edge of the stage, cascades ecstatically. The sax solo’s supple cadence tickles the tips of the other reeds.
Mosca chats up the crowd between songs. Seizing an anachronistically square microphone head, he says he’s heard that radio is the next big thing. He notes that the arrangement they just played, “Mean What You Say,” is a product of musical forensics: The notes that Thad wrote down long ago were lost, and tonight’s pianist Michael Weiss later transcribed the song by ear.
The band is soon swaggering through the “St. Louis Blues.” The lolling, somber wails of the ’bones twine the charmed levity of the other timbres. The tempo swings up momentarily and dips into a sighing refrain.
As the set rolls through a few more numbers, the Orchestra swirls like smoke in the heady darkness, flirting with notes of Côtes du Rhône and damp cement.
Outside, the city is hard, but inside it feels easy. Everything is in time at the Vanguard, punctuated with trumpet squeals and undulating bass strings. Each solo glows with a dreamy incandescence, filling gaps between closed eyelids and wine-stained lips—and slumps faithfully back into sweet, viscous syncopation.
This incarnation of the Jones–Lewis Orchestra has produced a slew of albums over the years, but this is the first one recorded live in the club. Tonight, the kitchen behind the bar, which serves as an office, rehearsal space, and VIP lounge, is also a makeshift studio. The production team has laid out a mixing console on a wooden tabletop. On a shelf above, a stack of recording gadgets distills the band into strips of pulsating light, creating multiple tracks to be mixed and matched later in the studio for the album.
Co-producer Thomas Bellino is squeezed in the back with two engineers, listening to the band filter through the board. Against the backdrop of a grubby countertop and empty soda bottles, his silver hair, matching suit, and black-rimmed glasses frame the retro picture.
Bellino’s label, Planet Arts, moonlights as a civic institution. (His other projects include developing music education programs for city public schools, presenting jazz festivals, and coordinating musical exchanges among artists from around the world.) But recording the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra may be the work that’s closest to the Bronx native’s heart. For years he’s been hounding them to do a live album to enshrine the band’s sound in its native habitat, which, despite its cult status, can feel a bit endangered these days.
The live jazz record encapsulates a creative moment—a daguerreotype of a genre born of spontaneity. “The goal is to capture the room,” says sound engineer Gary Chester, who will help mix the upcoming album. He bounces studiously between the back of the audience and the kitchen, taking notes on what the instruments are doing. He’s worked with the Orchestra in the past on studio productions, but recording live and recording in the studio are “totally different animals,” from the engineer’s perspective. In the studio, he explains, “you get more chances”—unlimited takes and the technical wizardry to fashion the perfect sound. “Live, you play better. But you don’t get any [second] chances.”
But even the most ephemeral musical moment lingers a little longer than usual in this place.
Around midnight, the second set is winding down and the coat room is sparsely populated. The late set is almost always a more casual affair, the downward half of the trajectory of a night out. (Vanguard regulars recall that the city had more stamina a generation ago, when the club would often stretch a night over three sets.)
At this time of night, the space is repossessed by the faithful—old friends, family and students of the band members, strewn loosely around the tables. There’s a sanctity to the way couples lean into each other, against the ebbing chords.
The band erupts in wiggling eyebrows and grins and cheers as a trombone solo screams and winces through a composition called “Kids Are Pretty People” (unless they’re yours, according to Mosca).
The last number, a reprise of “Mean What You Say,” ends in a graceful exhalation, unwinding the energy that has been balling up all night. A chunk of that kinetic tension has been spun onto the tapes: The two sets provided enough raw material for a double-disc album.
But inevitably, some of the music’s force eludes capture. Some of the sound remains in the club; it is crystallized in the amber stage light, worn scarlet curtain folds, and sheet music creases. Other bits are stolen away by the departed listeners: the tones and shades that, like Thad’s arrangement, survive through the aural mind’s imperfect immortality, to be played back again in reverent fragments.
After the last note is played, the audience fans out to the rest of the city, and the club wells up with the jovial murmur of staff and friends. The willowy figure of trumpeter Scott Wendholt, his face softened after a night of frenzied puffing, traipses along the low balcony leading off the stage. It was a good second set, he remarks, a smaller turnout but no less intense.
“You could tell everyone was here to listen.”
(Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard will be released this July.)
Michelle Chen is a writer born and raised in downtown Manhattan.