By Margie Goldsmith, Forbes
Welcome to Birdland, the jazz corner of the world,” said Kurt Elling as he swung into Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” The performance was taking place in the upstairs Birdland Theatre where every wall was covered with framed photographs of jazz musicians and every seat in the house was taken — no wonder; this Grammy-Award winning singer/songwriter, dressed sharply in a brown suit, has been called the standout male jazz vocalist of our time. He turned every song, including “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” into a jazzy ballad as he sang in his rich baritone voice and scatted across four octaves. At the end of the set, the audience, a combination of New Yorkers (many of them Birdland regulars) and tourists stood screaming for more.
Birdland is an essential part of New York jazz history. In December 1949, the club opened on Broadway, a block west of 52nd Street, the hotbed of jazz in the 1930s and 40s. Charlie Parker, the inspiration for Birdland was an alto saxophone genius known to his fans as “Bird.” Parker brought in many emerging artists including Miles Davis and Roy Haynes and opened the stage to all the young, new upcoming artists. For the next fifteen years, Birdland was the mecca of jazz, offering double and triple bills, sometimes lasting until dawn.
Parker wasn’t the only jazz legend regular at Birdland. Count Basie and his Big Band made Birdland their New York headquarters and recorded George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” live. John Coltrane, whose classic Quartet appeared regularly in the early 1960s, recorded “Live at Birdland.” DJ Symphony Sid Torin chose Birdland to broadcast to radio listeners up and down the eastern seaboard.
The booking history of the original Birdland 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 others. But in 1955, Charlie Parker died, early Rock n’ Roll became popular and the English Invasion of the 60s emerged. Jazz more or less disappeared in America and Birdland was forced to close its doors.
Then, in 1985, by chance, Gianni Valenti, a restauranteur was introduced to Doris Parker, Charlie Parker’s widow, who happened to be dining in his on Upper West side restaurant that day. Over time, the two became friends and Parker encouraged Valenti to re-open Charlie’s club. Valenti had never been a musician, but his father had been an alto sax player, and when Parker said she’d help secure the Birdland name and the rights, Valenti was ready.
The new Birdland opened in 1986 at Broadway and 105th Street, and for the next ten years, more than 2,000 emerging artists, including those from the original club, performed there. After ten successful years uptown, Valenti wanted to return the club to midtown. “It would be the natural continuation of the legendary jazz corner of the world,” says Valenti. “I felt because jazz was so important worldwide, Birdland had to be right in midtown because we get such a tremendous influx of visitors.”
Fifty years later, Birdland has returned to midtown, a classic jazz institution offering top-flight music on two levels with a full dinner menu, bars, and multiple shows throughout the week. Both levels are a throw-back to the clubs of the 50s, and the only thing missing in ambience is a smoke-filled room. The ground level, the Birdland Jazz Club, seats 175 people and features mostly traditional straight-ahead jazz artists with bigger ensembles. “We love the big bands,” says Valenti.” They are part of what Birdland originally did with Duke Ellington and Count Basie and all the great big bands of that era. Our bands include the bigger configurations of quintets, sextets, octets, and bigger sounds.”
Birdland features some of the greatest jazz acts in the world, including the Django Reinhardt Allstars who honor the great Gypsy guitarist’s hot jazz style and add their own interpretations, arrangements and original compositions into the high energy mix. Or, it could be the 88-year old Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother who is a pianist, composer, and vocalist with a pitch-perfect feel for jazz standards, love ballads and pop tunes. Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re listening to brother Nat.
It might be David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, an early-swing band who entertain as much as they swing. Or perhaps the Grammy award-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra founded by pianist, composer and director Arturo O’Farrill with 18 accomplished solo musicians creatively interpreting the Latin jazz greats. “I want it to be very eclectic,” says Valenti. “I think music has evolved in a way that we need to be a little bit more open-minded and not just pigeonhole ourselves to the straight-ahead bebop years of the ’50s and the ’60s.“
Birdland is also home to the resident Birdland Big Band, a 16-piece band playing a high-octave original mix of jazz funk, Brazilian, Latin and world music every Friday night at 5:30 (and for two headlining weeks during the year). A week after I saw Kurt Elling, I returned to Birdland to hear the great Birdland Big Band, composed of the finest New York jazz musicians. My only regret was that only one of the 16 musicians was a woman, and I certainly hope that changes soon, even though DIVA, an all-woman orchestra, has set down high energy charts at Birdland.
The Birdland Big Band played standards as well as a few of the band members’ original compositions such as “Blues for Kaepernick,” written in honor of the courageous football player and “Go,” another original number and one of my favorites of the set. Birdland is also extremely supportive of young musicians. At one point, the band leader invited a college music student visiting from Texas, to perform with them. The kid was given a huge solo and the audience showered him with support. “The most important part of my life is helping these young artists,” says Valenti.
When the Big Band finished, I was Jonesing for more music so I headed downstairs to the Birdland Theatre, a smaller room which seats only 110 people and presents mainly trios, quartets and singers. On any given night you can hear Karrin Allyson, five-time Grammy nominated jazz vocalist, pianist, and songwriter sing from The Great American Songbook, blues, pop, be-bop, Brazilian, and French chansons. You might hear bass master, David Finck, who has recorded award-winning music with Rod Stewart, Natalie Cole, and Elton John. Tuesday night is THE LINEUP with Susie Mosher, an improvised anything-goes variety show featuring entertainers from Broadway, cabaret, music and comedy.
The Birdland Theater music offerings are like a pack of charms in every color and variety, from jazz to blues to country to comedy. The night I was there, Clint Holmes & Billy Stitch performed “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” a tribute to the great Nat King Cole. Holmes and Stitch often perform in Las Vegas, but this is a much more intimate and swankier space. I was in the front row, so close I could see the shine on their shoes. Their voices blended together so beautifully that they could have been related— a jazz version of the Everly Brothers. I was mesmerized.
At the end of the show, I went upstairs to leave, but the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, celebrating its 85th Anniversary this year, was performing. How could I bow out on such a great band?
Founded by Count Basie in 1935, this band survived long past the Big Band era and Basie’s death in 1984. It continues today as a ‘ghost band’ of 18 musicians playing Count Basie’s unmistakable style of Kansas City swing. We all screamed, hoping for an encore, and I clapped till my hands were raw.
It would have been easy to stay for a fourth show (there are five shows every day starting at 5:30pm), but I’d already done a jazz triathlon and was ready to call it a night. The good news is, the club is open 365 days a year so I can come back any time I want and feel my pulse race or let the tears drip down my cheeks as I cry over a ballad. Birdland really is the jazz corner of the world.