Seventh Avenue South (the extension of Seventh Avenue below Eleventh Street) is a funny, crooked street. It was actually created specifically to provide a “cut and cover” connecting corridor for the West Side IRT subway (today’s 1, 2, 3, and 9 lines) between the southern end of Seventh Avenue and the northern end of Varick Street. (Some excellent background info is available here.)
When the street was built in 1917, buildings in its way were demolished, or cut right through. If you look at all carefully, you can see evidence of Seventh Avenue South’s disruption to the buildings around it. To this day, many buildings that face the street are of odd triangular shapes, and some of them are even “shaved” at their corners. Since the street proceeds on a diagonal, it intersects with streets that run perpendicular to each other, creating awkward intersections all along its route. Most businesses that open on Seventh Avenue South don’t stay open for very long, and I attribute this to the street’s challenge to simple navigation by pedestrians.
One notable exception to the perennial business failures on the street is the Village Vanguard, one of Jazz’s most important landmarks, which first opened at its present location in 1935, 18 years after Seventh Avenue South was created. The basement location and odd triangular shape forced on it by Seventh Avenue South have, for whatever reason, created an atmosphere that seems to nurture Jazz music and the audience’s appreciation of hearing and seeing it performed live.
My wife Lauren took me there for my birthday last week to hear Bill Charlap, a superlative Jazz pianist, and his trio colleagues, Peter and Kenny Washington, on bass and drums respectively (no relation). The music was great, but hearing it at the Vanguard made it even better. Looking at photos of Jazz greats adorning the walls (including a great one of Charlap playing mid-note with his ear to the piano) while the music’s playing, and knowing that they all played there, is just a great experience.
The Internet is actually a wonderful way to discover the prominence and continuity that is the Village Vanguard. Try doing a Google search on “Live at the Village Vanguard” and you’ll see how many Jazz artists have performed and recorded there. (By the way, Joe Lovano’s “Quartets Live at the Village Vanguard” album is terrific.) If you click through the search results, you might come across this album cover of “John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard Again!” which was recorded in 1966 (the year I was born):
The clothes may be dated, but I can tell you that the outside of the club looks exactly the same today as it does in that photo. There’s nothing more exciting than visiting places that persist in this way, as ongoing businesses. I think it provides the closest possible thing there is to time travel.
If you’ve never been to the Vanguard, you should go (even if you don’t live in New York). It may have been there for 70 years, but I worry that New York’s real estate market hyperdrive could one day spell the venue’s demise. Make sure you experience its history before it becomes history, or else hope for a crash in the real estate market.