Lorraine Gordon, a pillar of jazz as the indomitable owner of The Village Vanguard, died June 9, 2018, in New York City at the age of 95. Her longevity as an advocate for the music she loved matched the longevity of her club itself, the oldest jazz room in New York; a living landmark at 83 years and counting.
Lorraine was a formidable woman, as outspoken as she was passionate. Her base of operations was a desk in the Vanguard’s long-dormant kitchen, a kitchen that served up camaraderie rather than food, where musicians hung out between sets and the ghosts of Bill Evans, John Coltrane and so many other jazz greats lingered. She was both host and boss to the musicians but she was also their most devoted listener, seated sentry-like at her two-top table by the door, just outside the kitchen, night after night, set after set, watching over everything.
She was born Lorraine Stein in Newark, New Jersey on October 15, 1922. Her mother was a homemaker, her father, in Lorraine’s estimation, “a sharpie, who I loved but he was just no good.” Jazz found her as a young teenager. Her older brother, Phillip (who died in 2009), hipped her to it; Lorraine listened to his 78-records and to WNYC radio and what she heard became her world.
With teenaged friends, Lorraine founded the Hot Club of Newark. She made her first pilgrimage to the Village Vanguard with them in 1940 for a Sunday matinee. Shortly thereafter, she met Alfred Lion at Jimmy Ryan’s, a jazz club on 52nd Street. Lion’s obsession with jazz matched Lorraine’s. A recent émigré from Germany, he had started his own jazz record label, Blue Note. Lorraine knew Blue Note’s records and loved them. In a very short time she and Lion were married and working side-by-side. Together they would build Blue Note into the most influential jazz record label of its time.
Their greatest discovery was Thelonious Monk, jazz’s supreme iconoclast, whom Lorraine championed to the point of fanaticism. “Thelonious Monk became my personal mission,” she later maintained. “I was really fighting everyone. Monk didn’t faze me. I just knew the man was great.”
One of the people Lorraine introduced Monk and his music to was the Village Vanguard’s owner Max Gordon, persuading Gordon to give the pianist a gig in September 1948. The gig was a flop but the couple sparked and less than two years later, after divorcing Lion, Lorraine and Gordon were married.
The marriage would last 40 years and produce two children, Rebecca and Deborah—who has now assumed her mother’s mantle running the Village Vanguard. Lorraine assigned herself the role of mother full-time while her husband oversaw both the Vanguard—the 123-seat, subterranean establishment with impeded sightlines and impeccable acoustics that he had opened at 178 Seventh Avenue South in 1935—and The Blue Angel, his newer upper-Eastside supper club, which was quickly becoming the chicest cabaret in the city.
Lorraine could not possibly remain a homemaker solely. In 1961 she took up a central role in Women’s Strike for Peace, a feminist, anti-nuclear organization that, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, morphed into a very militant anti-war protest group. In May 1965, Lorraine actually smuggled herself and another Strike member into North Vietnam (via Russia and China) to meet with like-minded North Vietnamese women about stopping the war. She could not even tell her husband or her children where she’d been.
In April 1989, with very little warning, Max Gordon died and, as if on cue, Lorraine discovered her calling. She closed the club the night of his death, reopened the next day and ran it for the rest of her life. She loved jazz even more ferociously than her husband had. Under her skillful, willful hand, the Village Vanguard thrived.
Barry Singer co-wrote Lorraine Gordon’s memoir with her, Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life in and Out of Jazz Time, which won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing.