These past several months, the Village Vanguard (among other struggling venues in New York) has been performing concerts to an empty house—empty, that is, aside from the camera crews piping sight and sound to our living room routers. As in so many other dimensions of our Covid-inflected lives, the computer screen has become our best substitute for an increasingly distant “real world.” Packing dozens of chattering night-owls into a tiny Seventh Avenue basement now seems epidemiologically horrifying, so at least for the time being it looks like I’ll be meeting the Vanguard drink minimum with whatever I find in my fridge.
Even if we’d gladly trade this and that (and that and that) to get back to our Vanguards and Mezzrows, there have been, I’ll admit, a couple perks to the Zoomified jazz experience. Aside from the ease of taking these historic, bemasked screengrabs—I still find them spellbinding—the empty house lets those final chords and cymbal crashes linger, never drowned out by eager applause. And the cameras, attentive to each instrument, sometimes give otherwise-impossible glimpses of the musicianship on stage. Overhead shots of Bill Charlap’s fingers, for example, or close-ups of Rudy Royston brushing a snare drum.
Still there’s the unshakeable awkwardness and even sadness of playing to an audience of wall hangings and stacked chairs. Sometimes that comes across through poignant set lists—you’ll likely hear something like Fred Hersch’s “Wichita Lineman” or Bill Charlap’s “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Technologically and even musically, I think, these Vanguard live streams capture so much of our nation’s pandemic psychology. They’re absolutely worth your weekend evenings.