In and Of Greenwich Village
by Victoria Kussman
The sun is just peeking its head over the treetops, their tinged leaves evoking an auric filigree, when the first side of Thelonious Monk’s Monk Dreams comes crashing to a close. Stretching audibly, I stand up, lift the needle from the record, and switch off my turntable, allowing myself a moment of silence. I then flip the disc over and press the power button again; the needle drops into the opening groove of Side Two like a gentle rain. As “Bolivar Blues”—my favorite song on Monk Dreams—permeates the room, I close my eyes and let Monk take me up the blues scale, subservient once more to his jazz-making might.
Two years later and I’m strolling through Greenwich Village, Skullcandy headphones piping Miles Davis’ “So What” into my ears. I’m about to attend a show at the Blue Note, one of the most popular jazz clubs in the area, for the second time this month. A smile creeps onto my face as I spy the venue’s giant awning: shaped like a grand piano with the lid open, it seems to cry out, “Welcome home, Victoria!” That’s what the Blue Note is—what it and the Village always will be: home. I remove my headphones and step inside the club.
After seeing fifteen Blue Note shows, I’ve become a bit too interested, perhaps, in the history of jazz in Greenwich Village, so I present it here in detail. The narrative begins in 1644—long before the genre originated in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century—when the families of eleven African-American men initially settled the Village. The men had arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626 to work as indentured servants, and finally the Dutch were willing to grant them their freedom. One condition of their emancipation was that the men must move to New Amsterdam’s outskirts, a swampy area that would later become the Village.
By the nineteenth century, Greenwich Village was home to a thriving black community. During the 1820s, an African-American theater company ran the Grove Theater, which stood at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer streets, and black musicians played in theaters extending along Houston street. In 1863, working-class whites set the black housing on fire; over one thousand individuals either died or sustained injuries, hindering the prosperity of African-American society in the Village. Once the Civil War ended, black people from the South flocked to Greenwich Village to create new lives for themselves, but the area was no longer the nucleus of African-American life in New York.
Also in the nineteenth century—in 1831, to be exact—New York University opened in Greenwich Village. With Albert Gallatin elected as its first president, the school aimed to admit young men on the basis of merit, not social class or birthright. NYU quickly grew into one of the largest universities in the United States. By the end of the century, its campus was so overcrowded that the school was forced to move its undergraduate operations to University Heights in the Bronx.
Interestingly, the arrival of jazz in New York City coincided with the eventual reemergence of an NYU undergraduate presence, Washington Square College, in Greenwich Village. In 1915, only a year after Washington Square College was founded, cornetist Freddie Keppard brought genuine New Orleans Jazz to New York’s Winter Garden. The music was not well-received, however, with the New York Clipper writing off Keppard and his band as a comedic spectacle, as opposed to talented, hardworking artists. All-white group The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, also from New Orleans, fared much better: in 1917, the Victor label recorded the band at its New York studio; the tracks that resulted—the first jazz records ever—immediately became hits.
It was in the 1920s that jazz truly made a home for itself in New York City. The first jazz style native to the region was stride, a lively piano music developed in Harlem by artists like Thomas “Fats” Waller and James P. Johnson. Evidently inspired by stride, but also unwilling to lose drummer Sonny Greer (who had recently been invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City), Duke Ellington moved from Washington, D.C. to Harlem in 1923. Many other jazz musicians soon followed in his footsteps.
With the arrival of the 1930s came the growth of jazz specifically in Greenwich Village. In 1938, Jewish immigrant Barney Josephson established Café Society, the first racially integrated nightclub in the United States, in order to showcase African-American talent. Although the venue only survived until 1948, Café Society—which featured such illustrious performers as Billie Holiday, Count Blasie, Lena Horne, and Big Bill Broonzy—was instrumental in spreading interest in jazz from Upper Manhattan and Midtown to the Village.
Another notable jazz venue in Greenwich Village during the early to mid-twentieth century was the Village Vanguard, which was opened by promoter Max Gordon in 1935. Originally, the Vanguard was dedicated to readings by poets like Harry Kemp, as well as folk music by artists like Lead Belly. There were, however, jazz jam sessions at the club on Sunday afternoons, resulting in the Vanguard becoming a haven for the genre. Gradually, Gordon realized that his audiences were more interested in hearing jazz, whose popularity was steadily growing among the college students—of whom many were attending NYU—and artists in Greenwich Village. By the mid-1940s, jazz music was dominating the scene at the Vanguard; and by the late-1950s, the club had 1) successfully launched the careers of such legendary performers as Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, and 2) switched to a jazz-only format.
Over the next few decades, other music scenes came and went in Greenwich Village, including folk and Velvet Underground-style rock, but in the end, nothing could shake jazz’s presence in the area. Today, old clubs like the Vanguard and the 55 Bar, as well as newer venues like the Blue Note, Smalls Jazz Club, and Mezzrow Jazz Club (established in 1981, 1993, and 2014, respectively), are popular among both tourists and locals, including a number of NYU students and faculty. In fact, NYU’s interest in jazz goes beyond concert-going, with the Steinhardt School offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs in Jazz Studies.
In a sense, I check off all the aforementioned boxes. I’ve only lived in New York for a few months, so I still feel like a tourist much of time, but I know Greenwich Village and its jazz venues far too well to not also count myself as a local. I frequently see jazz shows at clubs both retro and modern, but I take music classes within Steinhardt, too (although none of them fall under the umbrella of Jazz Studies, admittedly). In me beats the heart of the Village, and in the Village beats the heart of me: what keeps us connected—person and place—is that smooth, sweet jazz that graces even the smallest of venues and always finds a way of spilling into the streets.