People will tell you that New York City has always been the place. And if they happen to mention 1961, who can argue?
That was the year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees, Bob Dylan blew into Greenwich Village from Minnesota, and a venerable jazz club hosted two of the most remarkable live performances ever pressed on vinyl.
Everybody knew about the Yankees and Maris' assault on Babe Ruth's cherished record. Nobody had heard of Dylan, but that would quickly change once he set up shop at Gerde's Folk City in the Village. The jazz scene? Do names like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins mean anything?
They didn't mean anything to a country boy in 1961. Not until many years later was there appreciation for artists like Coltrane, Davis, Duke Ellington and Bill Evans, and recognition of standards like "Take the A Train," "Moon Indigo" and "Take Five." Jazz comes to many of us late, but thank heavens it comes.
I only knew of the Village Vanguard -- a faraway and almost mythical place -- from the albums I'd heard, and two of the great ones were recorded in that fabled room within a five-month stretch of '61. Follow this timeline:
April 11: Bob Dylan plays his first gig at Gerdy's.
June 25: Bill Evans records his classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard.
Sept. 29: Robert Shelton 'discovers' Dylan in a New York Times review.
Oct. 1: Roger Maris eclipses the Babe's record at Yankee Stadium.
Nov. 1-5: John Coltrane records Live at the Village Vanguard.
And sometime in early October the Yankees won three straight in Cincinnati to bring another World Series championship home to the Bronx. Certainly there was much more happening in NYC during that period, both good and bad, but how's that for a tick-tock of historic events?
Forty-nine years later Gerdy's and the old Yankee Stadium are long gone, but the Village Vanguard remains one of the city's favorite jazz venues. It recently celebrated its 75th anniversary in the same basement at 178 7th Avenue South. First-time visitors at last Saturday's late show would have seen the remarkable drummer Al Foster and his quartet in rare form and concluded, quite correctly, that the old joint hasn't lost any steam. Here's what Davis once said about Foster, whom he hired on the spot after seeing him for the first time:
"He knocked me out 'cause he had such a groove, and he would just clay it right in there. That was the kind of thing I was looking for. Al could set it up for everybody else to play off and keep the groove going forever, for what I wanted in a drummer - Al Foster had it all."
He still does. So, too, does the cozy basement club where cool cats swing and legends grow larger.