Ever since most of Chicago’s top musicians moved to New York in the mid-to-late 1920s, New York City has been the Jazz Mecca. Nearly every major jazz style of the past seventy years has been initiated in the Big Apple.
It was Charlie Parker, familiarly known to his fans and fellow musicians as “Bird,” a contraction of Yardbird, his formal nickname, who was the dynamic creative personality and genius of the alto saxophone who served as the inspiration for Birdland.
The Early Days of Jazz in NYC
When the original Birdland opened sixty years ago in December of 1949, Charlie Parker was the headliner and the club was located on Broadway, a block west of the 52nd Street scene, which was a hotbed of jazz in the 1930s and 40s.
Miraculously, just as the scene on 52nd Street caved in, Birdland was born and quickly came to prominence. For the next fifteen years, the club’s survival formula was built upon memorable double and triple bills, commencing at 9 p.m. and sometimes lasting ’til dawn.
In addition to Bird, many jazz legends were regulars at the club. Count Basie and his smokin’ big band made Birdland their New York headquarters, eventually recording George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” live at the club. John Coltrane’s classic Quartet regularly appeared at the club in the early 1960s, recording “Live at Birdland.” And the famous DJ, Symphony Sid Torin made a name for himself broadcasting live from the club to radio listeners up and down the eastern seaboard.
In its first five years of existence, 1,400,000 paid the $1.50 admission to make their way either right to the cabaret section or left to the intense listening bullpen to hear Birdland’s attractions and sample its atmosphere. Given the artists on the bill, that comes as no surprise. Birdland’s booking history reads like a who’s who of jazz: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Stan Getz, Lester Young, Erroll Garner, and many, many others.
Considering the excitement that Birdland generated on a daily basis, it’s no surprise that the club attracted its share of celebrities. Regulars to the nightly festivities included such household names as Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Joe Louis, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson.
As Allan Morrison, the long-time editor of Ebony once put it, “Birdland was both a cultural vantage point and a barometer of trends where all the big names in jazz performed.”
But as a new popular music, Rock & Roll emerged, Birdland’s fortunes declined in the 60’s and its doors were closed on Broadway and 52nd in 1965. After many 5 am nights, the club needed to take a nap.
The Uptown Reawakening
Birdland awoke uptown in 1986 at 2745 Broadway, on the corner 105th Street where it was well renowned for its great acoustics and unique setup. In ten years, more than 2,000 emerging artists performed at the club. On many occasions, artists who performed at the original club on 52nd street graced the stage of the second version of Birdland as well.
Still, there was something missing. “After ten successful years uptown, I felt the mystique of Birdland returning to midtown – it would be the natural continuation of the legendary jazz corner of the world,” said Birdland owner John Valenti.
Now, half a century later, the Birdland banner has been reborn in midtown and called, “close to perfection for serious fans and musicians,” by The New York Times. After a decade of neighborhood success on the Upper West Side, John decided to move the club back to Midtown. The new Birdland offers top-flight jazz in a world class setting, good sight lines and acoustics, elbow room, and an award-winning menu featuring American cuisine with a Cajun flair.
Modern Jazz in Manhattan
Since the reemergence of the club, midtown Manhattan has been treated to some of the best jazz on the planet, including memorable sets by such musicians as Oscar Peterson, Pat Metheny, Diana Krall, Roy Haynes, Michel Legrand, Dave Brubeck, Pat Martino, Tony Williams, Hank Jones, Michel Petrucciani, Maynard Ferguson, Freddie Hubbard, Marian McPartland, John Pizzarelli, Kurt Elling, Joe Lovano, McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Jon Hendricks, George Shearing, James Moody, Yellowjackets, John Scofield, Phoebe Snow, Dave Holland, and Tito Puente, as well as the big bands of Chico O’Farrill, Duke Ellington, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Maria Schneider. In addition, Birdland is home to such popular musical events as the Umbria Jazz Festival in NYC and the Annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival. The club has established itself as an essential part of New York jazz history.