Francis Wolff/Blue Note Records
One of the greatest jazz albums ever made was recorded 60 years ago today. It’s A Night at the Village Vanguard, a live date by saxophonist Sonny Rollins, featuring a muscular backdrop of bass and drums. It’s not a carefully plotted concept album, nor a manifesto, but a document with the slangy nonchalance of a conversation overheard on the street, extemporaneous and unburdened. It’s a slice of musical vérité that captures a true master of the form on a good day, in a generous and jocular mood.
At 87, Rollins is an acknowledged eminence in American culture: Earlier this year his archives were acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, and there’s a serious effort afoot to rename the Williamsburg Bridge in his honor.
He’s also legendarily self-effacing, the harshest critic and most reluctant listener of his own past work. By his estimation, he hasn’t heard A Night at the Village Vanguardsince shortly after it was released. But, when I asked him to talk about the album and the circumstances around its creation, he readily obliged.
“The Vanguard was sort of the premier room at that time,” he recalls, speaking by phone from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. “A lot of guys played there, and they all seemed to express the music without any sort of impediment. I felt particularly comfortable.”
In the original liner notes to the LP, released on Blue Note Records in 1958, Leonard Feather notes that it “constitutes a double premiere.” He’s referring to A Night at the Village Vanguard being both the first live documentation of Rollins as a bandleader and the first album recorded the Village Vanguard, a wedge-shaped basement room regarded, then and now, as “one of New York’s foremost havens of contemporary jazz.”