Our Black Music Sunday tour of famous jazz clubs started with the Cotton Club before heading to the Village Vanguard. Our next stop is to the world-famous New York City club that took its name from one of the founders of be-bop jazz, saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was nicknamed “Yardbird,” often shortened to “Bird.” I’m speaking of course about Birdland, which has been called "the jazz corner of the world."
Birdland has had three locations over the years. It first opened on Dec. 15, 1949, on Broadway, a block away from 52nd Street, where a famous cluster of jazz clubs was known as “The Street.” That first club had a 16-year run and garnered worldwide fame, but closed due to bankruptcy in 1965. After a hiatus of 20 years, a new Birdland under new ownership opened uptown in 1985, also on Broadway, but at 105th Street. In 1996, the club moved back to midtown on West 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, where it thrives to this day—though the COVID-19 pandemic almost wiped it out.
Join me in celebrating the club’s history, and the musicians who made it all happen.
I could fill this entire story with just the music of and stories about Bird, but I won’t, because in 2020, a whole year was spent celebrating the centennial of his birth, which I wrote about in November of that year.
This 2013 tweet from historian Michael Beschloss shows the bright lights of the 52nd Street scene as captured by famed jazz photographer William Gottlieb.
That scene ultimately declined and died, and Birdland rose up in its place.
In 2018, Elyse Martin told the story for Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association.
Though there have been many famous New York City jazz clubs, Birdland reigned supreme from 1949 to 1965. Admittedly, at its inception, it didn’t have much competition. As Leo T. Sullivan, a Toronto-based jazz saxophonist, recounts in his new book Birdland, The Jazz Corner of the World: An Illustrated Tribute, 1949–1965 (Schiffer Books, 2018), “There weren’t any true jazz clubs to be found.” The great jazz clubs of the 1930s and ’40s had mostly gone out of business, and as Sullivan writes, “The 52nd Street scene, which was once considered the main drag of the jazz world,” featured “girlie shows with bizarre variety acts, such as ‘Camille’s Six Foot Sex—the King Size Glamour Girl.’”
It was promoter Monte Kay who decided that New York needed a Midtown club open to all jazz enthusiasts. Those who didn’t drink or those under the drinking age would have their own section to the right of the bar and be able to listen to the music for the price of admission. For the others, there was a well-stocked bar, and for the musicians, there would once again be a dedicated space in Midtown to both practice and play jazz.
Kay and disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torrin decided to name the nightclub after jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, nicknamed “Yardbird” or simply “Bird,” who, as Sullivan writes, “had become the symbol of everything modern in jazz” in the late 1940s. Bird had no part in founding the club but appears to have approved of the name, as he became a regular performer there. Though brothers Irving and Morris Levy ended up taking over the club from Kay (Torrin remained, to help run and broadcast the live shows), the name proved an apt choice. Within its first 10 years, it had attracted 2 million visitors and become so popular a cultural symbol that Jack Kerouac portrayed the club in On the Road. As Sullivan phrases it, Birdland became “the one place that every jazz musician had to play.”
Though there is no recording of Birdland’s opening night, you can get a feel for what it sounded like thanks to this June 30, 1950 live recording of Bird himself.
Find the track list here.
In 1952, Birdland would get its own theme song, “Lullaby of Birdland.” Jazz Standards gives the details.
In his autobiography, Lullaby Of Birdland: The Autobiography Of George Shearing, Shearing says that there was nothing special about the small club which seated a maximum of 175 when packed. But it became famous because of the live broadcasts which originated there. In 1952 Levy decided to have station WJZ in New York broadcast a disc jockey program from there, and he asked Shearing to record a theme song for the show. But Shearing didn’t like the song that Levy gave him, so he offered to write one especially for the show. Levy finally agreed with the stipulation that he be given publishing rights while Shearing retain composer rights.
For weeks Shearing tried to come up with something but to no avail. Suddenly one night in the middle of dinner he jumped up, went to the piano and wrote the whole thing in about ten minutes. The pianist explains, “Actually quite a lot of my compositions have come this way--very slow going for a week or so, and the finished piece comes together very rapidly, but as I say to those who criticize this method of working, it’s not that I dash something off in ten minutes, it’s ten minutes plus umpteen years in the business.” Shearing recorded his instrumental for the radio show and ultimately adopted it as the theme song for his quintet.
Somewhat later George David Weiss added lyrics to the tune, and Sarah Vaughan recorded it in December, 1954, for Mercury with trumpeter Clifford Brown. It was one of her biggest hits and became a standard in her repertoire. In 1956 a Parisian vocal group called the Blue Stars took the song to the charts where it rose to #16. In 1962 Bill Haley and His Comets recorded a version of the tune which they called, “Lullaby of Birdland Twist.”
Shearing has said that his favorite version of “Lullaby of Birdland” is pianist Errol Garner’s; he states in his autobiography that “when I heard Erroll Garner's recording of the tune, it quickly became my very favorite recording. I wonder why I didn't write it that way.”
Here’s Miss Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan’s 1954 hit version.
Birdland quickly became a go-to place for celebrities to be seen, with regulars like Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Ezzard Charles, seated by Frank Sinatra, was a world famous boxing champion, while DJ “Symphony Sid” Torin would get his own jazz tribute written by Lester Young, and sung by King Pleasure.
NBC Radio had a program called Stars in Jazz, broadcast live from Birdland. Here’s Count Basie, recorded live on Jan. 1, 1953.
Jazz and Birdland played a role in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Jazz critic Leonard Feather produced and hosted a series of propaganda programs for The Voice of America, called Jazz Club USA, which were not broadcast here in the U.S. In this episode, Feather’s introduction speaks of “the anti-democratic forces who have tried to suppress jazz in the Iron Curtain countries.” We then hear Count Basie’s band; at 29:53, he interviews Ella Fitzgerald.
One of my favorite live albums from Birdland is 1954’s A Night at Birdland, from Art Blakey. Master of Ceremonies Pee Wee Marquette’s introduction is a reminder that he was quite a character.
As noted by the Dangerous Minds blog:
Pee Wee was the 3 foot 9 inch announcer and MC at Birdland, the famous NYC nightclub, and can be heard on the intros to countless classic live Jazz records from the 50s and 60s.
Pee Wee would pretty much make life miserable for Jazz acts at Birdland unless they paid him a “tip.” Thus, Horace Silver was “Whore Ass Silber” until Silver relented and paid ($5 in the later years, which was a lot for that time).
The diminutive, but cantankerous, Pee Wee would elbow a non-payer in the groin, blow cigar smoke in their faces, and do even less pleasant things (like telling Bobby Hutcherson to “pack your stuff and get on out of here, we don’t need you”). For this and other reasons he was dubbed by his “pal” Lester “Prez” Young as “half a motherfucker.”
As for Blakey, he was something of a mentor.
As Michael G. Nastos, writes for AllMusic:
When Art Blakey founded the Jazz Messengers, his initial goal was to not only make his mark on the hard bop scene, but to always bring younger players into the fold, nurture them, and send them out as leaders in their own right. Pianist Horace Silver, trumpeter Clifford Brown, and saxophonist Lou Donaldson were somewhat established, but skyrocketed into stardom after this band switched personnel. Perhaps the most acclaimed combo of Blakey's next to the latter-period bands with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, the pre-Messengers quintet heard on this first volume of live club dates at Birdland in New York City provides solid evidence to the assertion that this ensemble was a one of a kind group the likes of which was not heard until the mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet.
But enough reading about the album! Take a listen to A Night at Birdland.
Joe Williams, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, brought his particular brand of relaxed bluesy cool to the Big Apple’s Birdland in 1961. I grew up listening to his music at home because my dad grew up with Williams. Have a listen.
Birdland was even captured in the art work of Romare Bearden. It was one of six pieces in his Jazz Series, described here by Elizabeth Coulter, associate curator of education at the Rollins Museum of Art.
Bearden’s 1979 lithograph Bopping at Birdland (Stomp Time), from the Jazz Series, however, offers a look into city life and exemplifies his expressive technique seen in most of his paintings. Bearden’s varied brushwork creates movement in the scene, with fluid, overlapping marks and undefined forms. His use of color helps lead the viewer’s eye throughout the scene from the vibrant blocks of red, blue, and green in the background to the bright yellow saxophone in the foreground. The musicians occupy half the space in the composition, and the cropped figure in the front gives the effect that the viewer is on stage with the performers. His use of light enhances the viewer’s vantage point. The silhouetted, indistinct audience in shadow of the stage light contrasts the musicians in bright light rendered with more clarity. All these formal elements of the scene work together to generate the vibrant atmosphere of Birdland.
Take a look.
Let’s fast forward musically to the 1977, when Weather Report’s tribute to the club, simply titled “Birdland,” was at the top of the charts.
More on the song from YouTuber Jazzman 2696, who uploaded it:
"Birdland" is a jazz instrumental composition by keyboardist Joe Zawinul that debuted on the Weather Report album Heavy Weather in 1977. A jazz-fusion piece, it achieved unusual commercial success and became a jazz standard, entering the repertoire of many groups and bands, including Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson's big band, and The Manhattan Transfer, who recorded a vocalese take on the tune with lyrics by Jon Hendricks. An uptempo version (with a slight rap introduction) appears on Quincy Jones' 1989 album Back on the Block, with vocals by Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. The original version is easily recognized by an artificial harmonic intro played by bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Any regular Black Music Sunday reader knows that I’m a vocalese fanatic, and a superfan of Jon Hendricks as a vocalist and lyricist. Hendricks wrote these lyrics for “Birdland” in 1979, and The Manhattan Transfer knocked it out of the park.
Hendricks’ lyrics are like a who’s who of musicians who played the club: Bird, Max Roach, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, and Miles Davis all get a mention.
5,000 light years from Birdland
But I'm still preachin' the rhythm
Long-gone, uptight years from Birdland
An' I'm still teachin' it with 'em
Years from the land of the Bird
An' I am still feelin' the spirit
5,000 light years from Birdland
But I know people can hear it
Bird named it, Bird made it, Bird heard it, then played it
It happened down in Birdland
In the middle of that hub
I remember one jazz club
Where we went to pat feet
Down on fifty-secon' street
Everybody heard that word
That they named it after Bird
Where the rhythm swooped and swirled
The jazz corner of the world
An' the cats they gigged in there
Were beyond compare
Birdland - I'm singin' Birdland
Birdland - Ol' swingin' Birdland
More recently, disaster struck Birdland and other clubs across the nation as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods. Adam Gopnik wrote about it for The New Yorker in March 2021.
Birdland owner Gianni Valenti talks bluntly about the economic challenges the club faced.
Valenti recalled, forlornly, closing night at the club last March. “On that Sunday night, I had the Chico O’Farrill orchestra playing. We got the announcement: all businesses closed by 8 P.M. Monday. I have two complete bars stocked, and two kitchens stocked, and sixty-two employees, and bookings all through ’21. I figured I’ll take this time; I figured it would only be a couple of weeks—a month, tops. . . . I’ll redo the club. And it goes on. But by April , we needed to come up with some kind of relief, because we thought we’d be open in July. We’re still paying insurance, utilities, payroll—I must admit that my landlord has been understanding and coöperative in today’s climate. And I’m aware of that. . . . But I have to tell you, from April to this January, I paid everything out of my own savings. Fifty thousand a month, for nine months, and I depleted it. I tried reopening in December—when the governor gave us twenty-five per cent. I invested in filtration and partitions. It ran me in total another eighteen thousand—and he closed us up in ten days. That’s when I went to the landlord and said I thought I’d have income coming in, I thought we’d get through this together; maybe we’re not going to have live indoor music until after Labor Day. The first relief package came out—but for a club like ours it was seventy-five per-cent payroll and twenty-five per cent to keep your business going. . . . After the money was used up, my staff all went back on unemployment. But we still have to pay the nut. So, I wanted to say to the governor, wouldn’t it be wise to support us while we’re open?”
The exodus of staff and musicians led a number of Birdland fans and veterans, including the impresarios Jim Caruso and Susie Mosher, to come together to organize a benefit. “I said to Susie and Jim, I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do—I’m pretty much strapped out. I’m not one to go out and beg for money.’” They enlisted the aid of the experienced and altruistic production team of Tom D’Angora, Michael D’Angora, and Tim Guinee. Soon, what became a series of benefit performances with pop stars such as Sting and Leslie Odom, Jr.—not to mention regulars like Stacey Kent, her husband, Jim Tomlinson, and the bassist Ron Carter—created a reservoir of support. “We put a goal up of two hundred and fifty thousand, and raised four hundred thousand. Brought me to tears to see the outpouring of the arts community for Birdland and live music.”
In January 2021, an amazing nearly four-hour concert to “Save Birdland” was opened by former President Bill Clinton. Phil O'Brien covered it for the W42ST blog.
The Save Birdland Benefit Concert got underway this evening with an introduction from President Bill Clinton.“There is a light at the end of this tunnel. What a tragedy it would be to lose one of our great venues now when the end of the long nightmare is within reach,” he appealed. “I know all of us want places like Birdland to be a partof our lives for the rest of our lives.”
President Clinton emphasized the role the club has played for up-and-coming artists. “Ever since Birdland’s namesake, Charlie Parker, headlined its opening in 1949, it’s been one of the most important jazz clubs in the world, giving a stage to establish legends and up-and-comers alike,” he said. “I think Parker would have liked that. He was a young man in 1949.”
Clinton said the pandemic had taken a huge toll on small businesses, and especially on venues that rely on an audience to hear live music or see a play. He continued: “The desire to experience great art in person is a big reason why so many of us have taken this pandemic so seriously. So that we can, once again, safely enjoy the things we loved — the things that connect us to our common humanity and make life more beautiful.”
Have a listen.
Find a full lineup here.
And so Birdland was saved, and the club is still going today. My thanks to everyone who came together to rescue a part of our living music history.
Join me in the comments for lots more music, live from Birdland.