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.