Sunday, June 10, 2018

Lorraine Gordon

I eagerly greet hurricanes on the infrequent occasions when they manage to reach New York. You're supposed to stay indoors, I know, but I always go outside to sniff the air, which I know will carry the evocative scent of the Caribbean. Lesser weather systems arrive from that zone, as well, but only a hurricane - a tightly-wound and highly self-contained system - preserves that essence.

With similar trepidation, and in similarly low doses, I enjoyed Lorraine Gordon, legendary proprietress of the legendary Village Vanguard. Lorraine would freely acknowledge that she was a brassy lady, a character, a loudmouth, a real ball buster. If those terms seem antiquated, well, so was she. When I knew her, a bit, in her 50s and 60s, she seemed like a character straight from an Ernst Lubitsch film. You could smell the 1940s on her. Not a sad, moldering vestige, but the living sizzle of the era. As a tightly-wound and highly self-contained system of her own, Lorraine preserved that essence.

I played at the Vanguard a number of times in the late 1980s with Illinois Jacquet (here's an anecdote about one such night), and Lorraine would always chase me around the club with scissors, trying to tame my "crazy haircut". Maybe she had a point (here I was in a relatively groomed got way bigger):

Not long after, I found myself running to Spain a few times per year to play gigs under my own name; high pressure engagements in well-known venues. On one such tour, students of mine asked me to make an appearance with their semi-professional dixieland band way the hell out of town, in the boonies, playing for farmers. We'd begin at 10am, and I'd be playing the night before until 3, so the 8am pickup would be a crusher (they'd offered more pay than I could possibly refuse). There was no time to shower or shave (at that age, it could be chalked up to bohemianism), I was deathly hungover, and I didn't bother to warm up. When the music started I simply slammed horn to face and proceeded to phone it in. It was more than good enough for the circumstance, but I was far from my best.

In my boredom, I scanned the crowd - from the stage crowded with a motley crew of well-meaning but really-not-even-close-to-competent musicians - taking in the non-comprehending stares of Catalan villagers who'd never heard a note of jazz in their lives. There were a few dozen of them standing outdoors in the morning heat, plus - wait, what? - Lorraine Gordon. Who I later learned had a brother who lived in this village. This stupid village. Because of course he did, and of course she happened to be visiting at that moment, and of course I'd just taken perhaps the worst solo of my life on some humiliatingly cornball washboard-and-spoons Dixieland anthem, looking like a wino.

Lorraine either didn't recognize me (I'd cut my hair by then) or politely pretended not to. I'm still not sure which. Not that I, in my abject mortification, let myself get anywhere near her. I looked nowhere but down at the floor for the subsequent two hours, and I never ever "phoned it in" again. Ever. A lot of what I write in this Slog about commitment stems from that Catalan Mortification (Mortificació Catalana), a pivotal event that haunted me for years.

Lorraine took this story with her to the grave yesterday, at age 95, and, finally detached enough to fully own that ghastly experience, I thank her for being party to a life-altering moment. I'm also thankful for her less-than-nimble athletic skills (in spite of her sensible shoes). She never managed to shear a solitary lock. I thank her for the visceral whiff of 1945 that I never experienced from any other human being, and I tip my hat to the tight-woundedness that preserved it. And, not incidentally, I thank her for doing as much as anyone in the past half century to preserve the heart and soul of a great art form.

For more on Lorraine, check out Ted Panken's terrific interview here. Definitely also read this link, starting from "On a frigid afternoon in January" (and you can stop when it moves on to other topics), wherein Ted magically evokes the evocative flavor pouring out of Lorraine!

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