Sixty Years Ago, Herbie Mann Gave Us a Soundtrack to the Vibrancy of Greenwich Village and the legendary Village Gate
Live at the Village Gate
You can practically smell the cigarette smoke wafting through the air. A haze stretches across the room illuminating a sense of mystery to a brisk late autumn night in the city. Pulsating chatter accentuates a reverberating coolness. Cool, daddio! Can you dig it? Women adorned in close-fitted dresses stained with soft blues, muted reds, or exotic jade. Take a drag off that Virginia Slim, the band’s about to take the stage. Polished shoes and weekend suits make the man; both sexes searching for enlightenment within a society of metropolitan hustle and bustle. Bourbons and whiskey sours, the club’s popular libation for its time, flows freely. A guy over there sips on a martini. The woman at the other table nurses a sloe gin fizz. Despite the busy streets that are swallowed by the nearby skyscrapers of Manhattan, the room inside Greenwich Village’s The Village Gate is charged with a burning creativity. At least for the moment, we escape.
You see, the year is 1961 and Herbie Mann is performing at the now defunct yet legendary jazz club. The third big hitter by Mann for Atlantic Records, Herbie Mann at the Village Gate became one of his greatest archival achievements as well as a New York cultural and aural preservation of its time.
The Beat Generation’s fire was burning bright in the Village as the progressive ideas of jazz fueled youth culture’s momentum until transforming into the revolutionary moment of the rock and roll hippy movement. What came out of Beat creativity was a coolness that stretched throughout the consciousness of urban dialectics and eventually permeated art, film, and various other forms of media before dying out. Although not directly, Mann was not exempt from this influence and his album feels like an unintentional product of the movement despite his yearning to better connect with jazz globalization.
Mann was caught in the middle, fueling a slow burn between the Beat scene’s social-political stance and the hippie movement’s youthful ember disguised, at the time, as the Village’s folk scene. Bob Dylan’s arrival in 1961 was the placeholder that helped change everything.
The Village Gate was still in its infancy while Mann was already a seasoned jazz flautist. Willis Conover paints a stranger picture of Mann’s musical personality on the back cover. Earlier that year, Mann travelled to South America to perform in Rio de Janeiro. What resulted was a dynamic that provided more spontaneity and receptiveness to his performance of jazz sambas and bossa nova. Mann could read an audience and play off of these organic responses. He soaked up the relaxed party atmosphere and morphed this freedom into the sleekness that we hear playing over a more restrained New York City audience.
There is a conventionality to the set’s song choice. This may have initially played against jazz’s philosophy at the time as respectable publications like Downbeat criticized the album for not pushing the envelope. When you have influencers like John Coltrane and Sun Ra pushing the art beyond its limits, the magazine’s analysis makes sense. Looking back, Mann’s choices result in the longevity of the album’s polarizing effect between jazz experimentation and preservation. Three songs that became the psyche of Mann’s popularity as a composer, this album landed at number 30 on the Billboard 200.
“Comin’ Home Baby” is considered his signature song. A jazz hit in Mann’s vocabulary. Out of the gate, he presents his flute soloing with hip flair. Adding Ben Tucker as a secondary bassist to the song brings a unique depth that burns into an expressive solo by Tucker. The pulse of Rudy Collins’s beat keeps cadence with the soft vibrancy of the night. The audience may be reserved, but it is Mann who has set the mood, and it’s one of the more laid back moments in live jazz.
The transition into “Summertime” feels flawless but the song choice does little to progress the musical conversation. Again an easy choice for Mann to make, Summertime” expresses itself more like a memory than an ideology. All the dynamics of this music feels like a relic even for the time.
The connection between musicians and voyeurs comes with “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The musician’s catcalls and the audience’s verbal acknowledgement is the response you hope for. Taken from Porgy & Bess, Mann exploits the emotions of the song, stripping away its ego and wistfully speeding up the tempo to exploit the song’s revolutionary jabs against religion and social context. The band lures the audience with the attraction of Beat ideology through Middle Eastern mysticism. Mann’s exoticism comes into the forefront when Ray Mantilla and Chief Bey’s percussion techniques take front and center. Like a travelogue, it is here that you feel the latin freshness Mann was so eager to share first hand. The audience’s reception is erratic in behavior, letting their guard down to vocally engage in the true element of the art until it reaches a roaring applause. The people transformed themselves from elegant coolness to something that borderlines a hootenanny, and that moment is well deserved.
Mann could have gone in any direction at this point of his career, but the album’s fanfare resided in the popular selection of material. This is why At the Village Gate has stood the test of time. AllMusic considered the album more as a summation. I can see it as something more; the album is a bridge between the morality of the 1950s and the experimentation of the 1960s. Mann went on to work with such greats like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Baden Powell. At the Village Gate is a measurement of Mann’s talent. If you have not, sit back, close your eyes, and become a part of Mann’s greatest musical achievement. You will dig it, daddio!