The Greenwich Village jazz scene fights to stay alive

The village of Vanguard has seen and survived every war, flood, fire, economic downturn and fallout from the 9/11 attacks, but the current forced closure of concert halls may well be the thing that breaks the camel’s back, according to owner Deborah Gordon.

Her father, Max Gordon, opened the small club in 1935 for poets and artists, but it became a major jazz center in the 1950s, eventually welcoming the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to its stage. Since then, it has become a staple of the Greenwich Village jazz scene under the direction of Gordon’s wife Lorraine and daughter Deborah.

Known for its intimate atmosphere, the venue allows musicians and audiences to come together, with only 123 seats in the entire space.

This much-loved club, like other music venues in New York, has been empty since mid-March, with no end in sight. Deborah Gordon and her fellow venue owners are waiting for the government to give the go-ahead to reopen, or at the very least provide financial assistance. For now, they’re all surviving on donations and small ticket sales for live shows, but if things stay as they are, closure could be imminent.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of closing for a month, let alone where we are, let alone the fact that there’s no foreseeable end to this,” Gordon tells us. “It’s a kind of limbo we’re all in. It’s a cold comfort to be able to say we’re all in the same boat.”

Vanguard Village had to turn to online shows to maintain some sort of revenue stream and stay connected to its community. It was a necessary adaptation that didn’t give the space the return it had hoped for.

In order to broadcast live shows and charge $10 per ticket, the club had to invest in extensive video and sound equipment.

“We took a deep breath and realized that COVID-19 isn’t like our boss said – it’s not going away – so we talked about a pivot from a club where people come to what now looks like a studio,” says Gordon. “It’s a busy frontier… it’s a bumpy creek and much more difficult than we’d imagined. I think it was a mistake to think we’d open the floodgates and people would come, but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re finding that it’s very difficult to find your audience, to keep it and to expand it. It’s a completely different world.

According to the National Independent Venue Association, Pollstar estimates that $9 billion will be lost in ticket sales alone, not including catering revenues, if these spaces remain closed until 2020. And of NIVA’s 2,800 members (independent venues nationwide), including The Village Vanguard, 90% say they will be forced to close permanently in a few months without federal funding.

More than 70 New York City venues have joined the NIVA, including jazz venues like The Village Vanguard, Joe’s Pub, Birdland, Blue Note, Cafe Wha?, Arthur’s Tavern and other Village clubs like Groove, City Winery, Terra Blues and The Bitter End.

NIVA, which was created by venue owners and musicians during the pandemic shutdown, is pushing the federal government to provide long-term assistance to closed venues, relief through tax credits and continued unemployment insurance benefits. (Specifically, it supports the RESTART Act, the Save Our Stages Act and the Entertainment New Credit Opportunity for Relief & Economic Sustainability Act). Through, two million emails have been sent to lawmakers asking for federal help.

“Our businesses were the very first to close and will be the very last to reopen – if we’re lucky enough to exist because of them,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, spokesperson for NIVA. “We have no income, huge overheads and no idea when we’ll be able to reopen. If they invest in us now, we can be part of the economic revival that will happen when the country reopens.”

Fix Schaefer, who owns three concert halls in Washington, said she’d seen family businesses go through all sorts of difficult situations, but found a way to stay afloat and recalibrate. This time, however, it’s a situation akin to eminent domain, where “the government has taken our business but is leaving us high and dry,” she said.

“There’s simply no way, no business sense, no creativity or determination to allow us to last forever with the rents being imposed on us with no income and no meaningful help,” she added. “While the PPP program was well-intentioned and has helped many industries, it won’t save ours.”

jazz in washington square park
Photo : Shutterstock
A potentially huge loss for New York culture

The closure of Greenwich Village jazz clubs, in particular, would be a major cultural loss for New York City. According to Andrew Berman, executive director of the Society for the Historic Preservation of Greenwich Village, the neighborhood’s history is tied to jazz because it was the only place

A potentially huge loss for New York culture

The closure of Greenwich Village’s jazz clubs, in particular, would be a major cultural loss for New York City. According to Andrew Berman, executive director of the Society for the Historic Preservation of Greenwich Village, the neighborhood’s history is tied to jazz because it was the only place in New York with integrated clubs – the first being the Cafe Society on Sheridan Square, where Bayard Rustin, who would organize the 1963 March on Washington, was first exposed to radical politics, and where Billie Holiday launched her anti-lynching lament, “Strange Fruit”.

“Since the mid-19th century, Greenwich Village has been the artistic capital of New York, and so musicians and anyone looking to push the boundaries of society gravitated to the neighborhood,” said Berman. “For much of the 19th century, it was also home to New York’s largest African-American community. So the roots of jazz are deeply embedded in the neighborhood. We are very concerned about the effect of the pandemic on all our performance venues, cultural institutions and indoor public gathering spaces, especially jazz clubs.”

That’s why GVSHP is promoting legislation that would allow small businesses like jazz clubs to receive a reduction in their rent during COVID-19 by providing state and federal funds to pay a significant portion of the rent, while requiring commercial landlords and tenants to cover the shortfall.

“It’s terrifying to think what our neighborhoods could look and be like if the pace of business closures like this continues unabated,” notes Berman.

An unbreakable stage

Jazz musician Daniel Bennett Group, who has been playing Greenwich Village clubs for years, says his clubs were packed before the pandemic hit, and most venues featured several bands each night. Tourists from all over the world came to the Village to listen to music at Smalls, Mezzrow, Blue Note, Village Vanguard, 55 Bar, and Zinc Bar among others.

The Greenwich Village jazz scene also nurtured new talent from around the world.

“Music students from New York University and The New School can actively tap into the Greenwich Village jazz scene,” said Bennett. “I played my first gigs in Greenwich Village at Café Vivaldi and Sidewalk Cafe many years ago. I always feel at home when I perform in the Village. It’s a great place for young people – you can walk a few blocks and listen to new music in dozens of jazz clubs.”

Daniel Bennett
Photo: Courtesy of Gretchen Bird
During the closure, the Daniel Bennett Group (a quartet consisting of saxophone, clarinet, flute and oboe) played open-air concerts at the Canary Club and Tomi Jazz almost every week, and sees Greenwich Village jazz clubs keep it going with daily livestreams and open-air concerts, which New Yorkers enjoyed this summer.

According to the New York Times, the SmallsLIVE Foundation received a $25,000 donation from Billy Joel to continue streaming to the Smalls and Mezzrow clubs, helping musicians keep playing.

The clubs’ owner, Spike Wilner, said in a recent newsletter that an average of about 20,000 viewers watch each show worldwide.

“I’ve said it before, but jazz is like a tenacious weed that refuses to die, that can grow in any crack in the sidewalk and rise strongly[ly] to the sun,” he wrote. “Here’s our music popping up wherever it can be played – in cafes, parks, tents. Jazz will live, and so will our community. I pointed out to my hard-working general manager, Carlos Abadie, that the community and the scene are still intact, but they just need a home to live in. Jazz will live, and so will the little ones.”

Bennett also declared that New Yorkers won’t let the scene die and that it’s “unbreakable”.

“Jazz clubs are mobilized as the city continues to rebound,” he declared. “We have a deep-rooted history that will see us through the pandemic. We have unlimited talent and creative energy. The Greenwich Village jazz scene has stood the test of time. This virus will die, but our cultural renaissance is just beginning!”

As for The Village Vanguard, Gordon urges people to vote to keep some hope alive.

“Once hope is lost, what do we have? We have to keep hope alive if we’re going to get through this… I think we will.”

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