Wow, on my last night in New York City I did something I’ve meant to do for some time but never quite got round to, mainly because I’ve never quite known where to start, wanting to take in some proper NY jazz, but not wanting to do it in some aneasthetised tourist spot, paying an arm and a leg for the pleasure. Once or twice I’ve nearly gone to some heavily advertised jazz club, but never felt it was the right option. On Friday, having gone for a couple of drinks in the Village after work, I set off back towards my hotel at about eight o’clock, intent on giving up my last night for some well deserved rest – an early night.
Walking back towards where I thought the subway station was, I passed under a delapidated red awning. Glancing up I read the venue’s name. ‘The Village Vanguard’. It was a name I vaguely recognised, but I thought nothing more of it and kept walking. I must have walked another couple of hundred yards before I realised I was headed in the wrong direction. I turned around and retraced my steps. This time, as I passed the venue, I glanced absent-mindedly towards the doorway, and a sign stopped me in my tracks. Hand written in marker pen on a piece of white paper: Lou Donaldson.
I’m a long way from being a jazz specialist, but I know that name well. Donaldson is one of jazz’s greatest alto saxophonists. A student of Charlie Parker’s, his soulful, populist Blue Note jazz puts him up amongst the absolute masters of his art, even if fashion moved away from him (the good humoured octagenarian cheerfully derides ‘fusion and con-fusion’ from the stage). The opportunity to see him live, in exactly the sort of small, run-down, bohemian venue I always imagined hearing jazz was obviously too good to miss.
I opened the doors and went in, clambering down the stairway to a small, bustling room, carpeted in red with photos of jazz heroes covering the walls. Tickets were $30. I held out three notes and smiled excitedly at the guy on the door.
“Do you have a ticket?”, he asked. I shook my head. He shook his head. Damn.
But not all hope was lost; if I headed up to the awning, he explained, there was a reserve queue. If I waited there, they’d let me in in an hour if the place wasn’t full. Ugh. I headed upstairs. There were already eight or nine people stood at the awning. I weighed up my options, and stretched my fingers experimentally in the cold Manhatten air. It might be a long wait. I decided to stick it out.
About 40 minutes later, starving, very cold and desperate for the loo, I began feeling a bit negative about things – not least because a steady stream of people, clutching tickets, were heading through the door. The reserve queue was up to about 15 people. Suddenly, a man – broad shouldered and shaven-headed – veered towards me. I stepped back, hoping to avoid an exchange. He said something about a ticket. I wasn’t sure if I heard right. Happily, he repeated it.
“You want a free ticket buddy?”, he asked.
As the guy placed a ticket in my hand, explaining that someone he’d been supposed to be bringing had dropped out, I grinned and thanked him. To my right, someone said – in a tone of voice which suggested they weren’t entirely pleased for me – “you got lucky”.
I certainly did. Five minutes later I was sat downstairs watching Lou Donaldson and his band take to the strange. Donaldson is relatively frail, as one might expect of his advanced years, but his playing is just magnificent, and his range, tone and power is completely undiminished. He’s also a born entertainer, whipping the crowd up with jokes and anecdotes, every inch the performer. He brought a physical, crowd-pleasing quality to jazz which I don’t think I knew existed – this wasn’t cerebral, although it was undoubtedly complex. This paradox is, I think, what I get out of jazz. Compared to many of his peers, Donaldson is conservative by nature – he even has a pop at Miles Davis for ‘stopping playing jazz’ at one point, but it’s truly remarkable that within his populist boundaries he still creates sounds so dazzlingly inventive and unorthadox. On several occasions his playing reduced the audience to open-mouthed expressions of wonder. The applause he received after each solo was as warm as it was awed.
At the best moments, I think I captured something of the experience of jazz which I was craving – something rich, physical, incredibly harmonious and welcoming. Thank god I was given that ticket. On a few occasions I glanced over to the bar, where I spotted my benefactor. Of every person in the club, he seemed the most enthusiastic; dancing ecstatically on his bar stool and hollaring his approval. THANKS.
Here’s the last three or four minutes or so of Donaldson’s set – a nice rich recording too; my Zoom H1 always picks up brass instruments really well.