Is this the state of live jazz?

I was delighted to take three good friends to hear the great Tom Harrell last night at New York City’s Village Vanguard. As the night wore on, however, I was less than thrilled and began questioning the class of one of the city’s iconic jazz venues.

I have enjoyed the great recordings of Tom and have played his music for a long time but have never heard him play live. So yes, seeing Tom’s stage presence for the first time was somewhat jarring. Having been diagnosed a schizophrenic in 1967 after the first of several nervous breakdowns, Tom stands upright on the stage, his head drooped down toward the floor, eyes hidden by his long blond bangs. Eyes closed with his trumpet dangling arm’s length straight down his side in his clasped hands, he looks as if he`s asleep on his feet. Apparently the drug he takes in order to cope has serious side effects including muscular weakness and tremors leaving him with a lethargic appearance.

It’s absolutely amazing that a man with these unimaginable physical and psychological challenges has produced a body of work that has propelled him to become one of the all-time great jazz musicians.

Early on in the set last night, the sound system was breaking up the amplification of the band, most noticeably in Tom’s mic. It wasn’t just his mic however, since the rhythm section sound would often crackle through the sound system without the horns playing. This lasted unabated throughout the entire set. At one point in a ballad between Tom and David Virelleson, the piano player, Tom slowly shuffled over to the Tenor mic hoping for some sound clarity. Unfortunately, the problem persisted in that mic as well.

Am I making too big a deal of this? After all, stuff happens with technology, right? But this is the Village Vanguard and this is Tom Harrell, struggling to perform on stage. If nothing else, turn off the system and let them play acoustically. Maybe take a minute between tunes to attempt a cable replacement. Do something but please don’t let his playing be distracted for the entire set by a short circuit that constantly produces jarring static. I don’t believe this would be acceptable for an entire performance of Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall! It shouldn’t here.

Entering the club, I put my jacket and briefcase in the unattended coat room and in the full light of the Vanguard’s early evening I could see what I was doing. But after the set with the lights still dim, I was relegated to fumbling in the pitch dark to find my possessions and hope they were still where I left them in the coat room.

The entire experience culminated in my impression that the Village Vanguard no longer cares – about the artist or the customer. They were happy to sell us drinks and take our money, but from this marketer’s perspective, the brand sucked. I was embarrassed for the art form as my friends experienced live jazz for the first time inside this iconic club.

I pray that the audio problems are remedied for Tom’s performance tonight and for the rest of his stint, and that there will be someone in that coat room cheerfully exchanging customer’s possessions for claim checks.

I sincerely hope that I was not the only one reacting this way to the circumstances of last night. Please tell me that this isn’t considered an acceptable part of the 2016 live jazz experience. It’s become easy for musicians to complain about the lack of popular support for our music, but I don’t see sloppy circumstances like last night at the Village Vanguard attracting greater audiences to our beloved art form.



  1. Steve Rubin on April 1, 2016 at 10:01 pm

    Respectfully, your experience may be either singular in nature or at the very least, in the minority.
    I’ve been going to the Vanguard for over 40 years. I have no recollection of any technical issues at all.

    The charm of The Village Vanguard is it’s classic authenticity. It is in my view the best place to hear jazz. Moreover it’s always felt like the very best environment.
    Of course they care about the quality of music and their audience. And sure, it’s likely in the 75 years of being in business, they’ll be a problem here and there. 75 years. That says a little something, particularly these days with respect to jazz, NYC and contemporary culture.

    Rather then attack the place in an article, wouldn’t your issue and complaint work out best if you simply wrote them a letter or chosen another time to ask to speak to management?

  2. Michael Lake on April 1, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    I have already written them and will let you know their response.

    I understand you feeling that I’m attacking the place. Yes, I was blunt and direct. My main point, however was that just because you’re a jazz club doesn’t mean it’s okay to not pay attention, okay to not work smarter to solve a problem, okay not to be able to prevent a problem from lasting an entire set, and okay not to care about your club’s amenities.

    I see this in other jazz clubs: bad sound, blenders going, literally a broom closet for a green room, etc. We deserve better and Tom Harrell deserves great sound so that we can hear the playing of this musical genius.

    • Steve on April 2, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      Hi Michael, Nice to see your follow up post. My main point was that in the course of so many years of presenting amazing artists from Coltrane to present, it’s rare that there’s a problem. And more importantly, without actually knowing them personally, why assume they were / are indifferent?
      Perhaps my use of the word “attack” was too strong.
      In general, the beauty of social media and the net gives us a broad audience. Maybe the benefit of doubt on the positive goes a long way.

      SO in that spirit I respect your opinion and appreciate the follow up. All the best. Did you live in Warwick for a while ?

  3. David Bennett on April 23, 2016 at 6:53 am

    Sounds like the Vanguard has stayed the same since I moved to NYC in 1979. (Back in Phoenix now).

    Its amazing how their priorities have produced the long living, artistic venue that has been and is the VV.

    “The brand sucked?”

    So your first visit you thought what?

    It’s probably a lot of inexperienced people who have no respect for what’s important about jazz/live performance in NYC running the show.

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