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Lorraine Gordon, Keeper of a Shrine to Jazz

Lorraine Gordon is the keeper of a shrine to jazz — New York's historic Village Vanguard. Recently, Gordon published a set of memoirs, the recollections of a woman who was married to two famous men of jazz. The book recalls a life lived beyond society's expectations — a colorful swirl of music, politics and family.

Now, at age 84, Gordon is the driving force behind a still-vital Vanguard, and the formidable guardian of its fabled legacy. The Vanguard is the most revered venue in jazz. John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk are among the many legends who have played the small, wedge-shaped room.

"The room really responds to some artists more than others," Gordon says. "The walls start to shake a little when there's no business and the room says forget it, the vibes aren't right. I listen to the room. The room tells me a lot."

Gordon's personal history with jazz goes back to 1930's Newark, N.J., when she was Lorraine Stein.

"That's the oddest part," she said, "because I grew up in a very middle-class family who never played a record. I don't remember any music in my house except for the records I played."

Some of those discs were on the emerging Blue Note label, a small outfit run by German emigre Alfred Lion. Lorraine eventually met Lion and the two were married in 1942, with Gordon soon making her own contributions to Blue Note's early successes. She'd listen to session playbacks, deciding which of the tunes would make it to vinyl, and the resulting albums helped establish Blue Note as a premiere label for the best in jazz.

The Lions occupied a small flat in Greenwich Village, the hub of bohemian life in New York. Back then, Gordon says, the Vanguard was a haven for poets. They read their works aloud and audiences tossed money onstage in appreciation. When Sunday afternoon jazz was added to the Vanguard's entertainments, Lorraine and Alfred became regulars.

Still, it was after her time with Lion that the Vanguard became a permanent part of Lorraine's life. After eight years, she and Alfred met with both marital and business problems. There was a painful transition.

Then, in 1950, Lorraine married Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard. They had two daughters, and Lorraine became a mother with a taste for politics. She joined Women Strike for Peace, a group of anti-nuclear moms, and she opposed the Vietnam War, traveling to Moscow and to North Vietnam.

Jazz returned to center stage in Lorraine's life in 1989, when Max Gordon died. At age 70 Lorraine found herself the owner of the Vanguard, by then a jazz institution.

"The night he died, I closed the club," she remembers. "Max never asked me to run the club, he asked nobody to run it ... I closed it for one night, and the next night I opened it."

Gordon's memoir is called Alive at the Village Vanguard. Barry Singer, its co-author said of Gordon, "If you look at her life, the arch of it, it's almost like destiny that this is what she would wind up doing, because she was perfect at it."

Relying on her instincts and her love for jazz, Gordon taught herself the nightclub business, saying, "I have good ears. That's my gift — that I know when something is good, and I want it to play here."

So Gordon books artists that appeal to her personal tastes — including saxophonist Joe Lovano, who says Gordon takes a decisive role in running the club.

"I've seen her throw people out, and not care if people come in or not. She's got a strong energy, and when she's there, her presence is felt by everyone."

The people who know Gordon describe her as plainspoken, opinionated, and "one of a kind."

"Even the musicians say she kind of scares them with her intensity and her frank way of speaking," says Barry Singer. "I've always suspected there was a warm person underneath. The more I've gotten to know her the more I understand how sensitive she is."

The Village Vanguard is booked nearly to the end of the year. So, Lorraine Gordon will stay at her desk, backstage, paying bills, answering the phone, and doing whatever it takes to keep the place going. Still, when the lights go down, she's once again that teenage fan from Newark, lost in jazz, her first love.

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Corrected: June 18, 2008 at 9:00 PM PDT
We originally reported that Lorraine Gordon was 70 years old when her husband died in 1989. In fact, she was 67.
Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and co-host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.