Manhattan is empty during the last week of August, and the kind of emptiness it achieves is like that of the mind during meditation—a temporary, unnatural purity. On a Tuesday evening in late August of 2001 I was wandering around Greenwich Village and ended up at the Village Vanguard. After sixty-some years of business the illustrious little jazz haunt hasn't changed; it remains one of the inexplicable constants of the Manhattan landscape. Its midtown cousin, Birdland (named for the bebop saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker), closed down decades ago and was replaced by a strip joint, Flash Dancers, which has been in business longer than Birdland was; a theme nightclub near Times Square now uses the Birdland name. There's still a Cotton Club in Harlem, but not in the original location, and now it's a seedy disco. The Vanguard has somehow survived in its primordial basement and has retained all the bohemian eccentricities that have always helped make it cool: the fence-post marquee, with performers' names handwritten vertically; the treacherously angled stairwell; no food served; no credit cards accepted. Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard's owner and the widow of the club's founder, is a Medici of the jazz world, a patron and king-maker. Among jazz fans and musicians the Village Vanguard is clearly a paragon of the music's own kind of purity—one that's neither temporary nor unnatural.
I walked in on a set in progress and took the next-to-last seat on the burgundy-leather banquette that runs along the east wall. The end table, Lorraine Gordon's, was vacant, indicating that Gordon was probably in the kitchen, where she does the books and where musicians congregate between sets. (Although foodless, the Vanguard has one of the most venerable kitchens in New York.) A small combo was running through the bebop classic "Blue 'n' Boogie" at a duly vertiginous speed. There was no mistaking the bandleader: Charles McPherson, an alto saxophonist who was a protégé of the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus. McPherson is a venturesome musician who upends the jazz repertoire on the bandstand, and he composes pieces built on surprise, as Mingus did. Although he is a superior talent, he's not a top jazz attraction, which is why he was scheduled for the last week in August. For his second tune after my arrival McPherson, in homage to his mentor, played Mingus's homage to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." The performance was languid, and my eyes drifted, settling eventually on the trumpet player, because he was turned away from the audience and even from the rest of the band, staring at the floor. Although I couldn't place him, he looked vaguely familiar, like an older version of Wynton Marsalis.