All the regulars at the Village Vanguard know the rules: no photography, no texting, no talking or unnecessary noise during a performance. Operating in the same location since 1935 and virtually unchanged over those years, the Vanguard is the closest thing to a holy space in the world of jazz. The prestige of being booked at the club is tantamount to sanctification, and the experience of seeing musicians play there has a quality of bearing witness. There’s quiet and stillness and an air of reverence in the room, no matter who’s onstage—or so there had been at the dozens of shows I’ve attended at the Vanguard until this fall, when I saw Cécile McLorin Salvant.
A full month before the event, I started to notice that something extraordinary was in the works. As soon as I got the announcement that Salvant would be playing a week of duo shows at the Vanguard, accompanied by the pianist Sullivan Fortner—two sets a night for six nights—I logged on to the club’s website to make a reservation, only to find that all 12 shows were sold out. News of this sort would be the opposite of news for Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, but it’s rare for even the biggest stars in jazz, the bigness of their stardom being a relative matter. I e-mailed the club manager, asking if there was standing-room space available, and was told my only option would be to arrive early and get in line with the people hoping for cancellations. I did just that and waited on the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue for nearly an hour—and then everyone on the line was sent away. There were no cancellations for this show.
Two nights later, after going through the same routine twice more, I finally got in through the door and squished my way into a seat in the grossly, thrillingly overpacked space. The crowd was a mix of smartly put-together millennials and jazz bigwigs. I spotted Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap, two pianists who have also headlined the Vanguard this year, a few feet from the stage. Off to one side of them, there was the jazz singer Catherine Russell, and not far behind her was a table full of musicians from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It was like a summons had gone out to assemble people certified as cool.
I had seen Salvant perform once before, a year and a half earlier, in a one-off night with Fred Hersch in his annual “Duo Invitation Series” at the Jazz Standard, another New York club. Salvant was 26 at the time; she was celebrated for having won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Vocals Competition and had already released three albums—including one, WomanChild, for which she’d earned her first Grammy nomination. I found her impressive overall but a bit tentative onstage, and I thought she sounded too much like Billie Holiday. She sat on a stool, nearly motionless, for most of that show, and closed her eyes or looked down at the floor much of the time she was singing. For the ballads that dominated the set, Salvant’s minimalism came across as internalism—rumination appropriate to the material. I walked away thinking of her as a promising young heir to the Holiday tradition.
What I experienced at the Village Vanguard in October was something more than the fulfillment of that promise: I saw Salvant transcend the conventions of multiple traditions in jazz singing, including Holiday’s, without abandoning the tenets of emotional maturity, deep musicality, and rhythmic drive that distinguish jazz. Onstage at the Vanguard, as well as on her latest album, Dreams and Daggers, Salvant made a kind of jazz that honors the history of the music while speaking with ringing, stinging cogency to a 21st-century audience.