1949, in the tradition of Owney Madden and his Cotton Club, Morris Levy and five partners opened “Birdland, Jazz Corner of the World” on Broadway just north of 52nd street. Named after headliner, alto-saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, it was considered downtown to Harlemites. In the biography “Bird Lives,” when Parker first saw the club, he remarked: “It’s out’a sight. Do I get to play in here?” A couple of years later, he was found running naked through Los Angeles.
Next door to Swing Street, the venue was large, seating 500 with additional space for an orchestra and a bullpen for underage patrons who sipped ginger ale. For many aspiring musicians, seeing jazz at Birdland was a coming of age event.
In its first five years 1,400,000 paid the $1.50 admission to Birdland ($.75 in the pen). Pianist George Shearing’s iconic “Lullaby of Birdland” was written in the club’s honor. (Lyrics by George David Weiss were added later.) Greats like Art Blakey, Count Basie, and John Coltrane recorded there. Miles Davis was assaulted by cops just outside. He was headlining. Everyone who was anyone in jazz played the club in the ‘50s, drawing celebrities who became regulars. Up to three sets an evening sometimes carried an audience of night owls till dawn. The club was referred to in books, plays, and films.
Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, and, a year after Birdland opened, Bird, all lost their Cabaret Cards for drug use. Alcohol proliferated. By 1965, music was changing. The place went bankrupt; its shell became a rock n’ roll outpost.
Gianni (John) Valenti created the next incarnation of Birdland at 105th and Broadway in 1985. Known for superior acoustics, it again attracted the best in the genre, including several who’d graced the earlier stage. Valenti, however, always had a peripheral eye closer to the clubs roots. Eleven years later, he moved it to its current location at 315 West 44th Street. Musicians and audience followed.
Extending his vision, the impresario then built Birdland Theater, one floor below, in order to showcase entertainment that mightn’t fit jazz parameters. Sightlines and acoustics were paramount. Pleasant, efficient staff at the front door checked us in, upstairs or down where a hostess sat clientele. With 150 seats upstairs and 100 below, two separate menus, and five shows every day starting at 5:30pm, the club was BUSY.
March 16, 2020, like other go-to venues in New York, Birdland shut its doors. Assuming a far more temporary hiatus, Valente took the opportunity to refurbish with new carpeting, new drapes, and new painting. After investing $18,000 in a new air filtration system, table partitions, shields, masks, sanitation stations, etc. the club was allowed to reopen in December, only to be closed ten days later. One can only imagine the bungy-jump jerk experienced by owner and employees.
Last year, Jim Caruso and Ryan Paternite produced the “Radio Free Birdland” virtual concert series, celebrating jazz, Broadway and cabaret talent. Caruso hopes to resume at a later date. Meanwhile, performers have banded together to offer a marathon fundraising concert to add to already generous donations so that the iconic club can once again rise from ashes.
Sunday January 24 at 7 p.m.: Save Birdland: A Celebration of Music, History and Community will stream for free at 7pm EST (midnight GMT) on Sunday, January 24, on the website SaveBirdland and will remain viewable for one week afterward.
The lineup so far includes Wynton Marsalis, Elvis Costello, Chita Rivera, Leslie Odom, Jr., Mandy Patinkin, Jeff Daniels, Clive Davis, Matthew Broderick, Ken Burns, Peter Cincotti, Giancarlo Esposito, Melissa Leo, Norm Lewis, Manhattan Transfer, Bebe Neuwirth, John Pizzarelli, Martha Plimpton, Randy Rainbow, Mercedes Ruehl, Catherine Russell, Billy Stritch and Veronica Swift. It promises to be extraordinary.
“For as long as I can remember, Birdland has been a mecca for Jazz musicians everywhere. When I started playing in NYC and got to actually work there, it was all I had dreamed of, and more. It is class personified. Birdland is hands down the greatest room to play in the city and one of the best in the world! It has all the splendor of the glorious past while also having a finger on the pulse of the future of jazz!” Danny Bacher
“The moment you step inside those doors you’re in another world. It’s a world that’s steeped in a rich history that is palpable and humbling. It’s mind-blowing to think about the absolute legends that have graced that stage. I’ll be forever grateful to Gianni for what he’s given me and so many performers and musicians. His commitment to Birdland, to the art itself, and to promoting great talent is unparalleled and something to be lauded. He, and the incredible staff of Birdland, are what make the venue so special. I, certainly, cannot wait until it reopens.” Carole J. Bufford
When you’ve been to a show at Birdland you’ve had an authentic and unique New York experience. Superb music, food, service and that history! … who could ask for anything more?!” Jeff Harnar
“Birdland has been my NYC concert home for almost 17 years. It’s been a cultural touchstone for over 71 years. I can’t begin to count the hours spent listening, laughing, being transported by the music, and simply basking in the glory of friends, legends, icons, & newly discovered talents working there onstage and off. I absolutely love all the peeps there and cannot begin to imagine my life without them and this magical room.” Natalie Douglas
GoFundMe Campaign launched by Michael D’Angora also, bless him, instrumental in helping save The West Bank Cafe:
Opening Photo Courtesy of Birdland