Birdland – The Jazz Corner of the World

A few years way back, I overheard the sounds of the singing quartet, Manhattan Transfer, coming from the stereo in my son’s room. The group had added lyrics to Joe Zawinul’s extraordinary instrumental “Birdland,” conjuring some warm memories of the jazz club that had once been called “The Jazz Corner of the World.”

Broadway and 52nd Street in the 1950s and Early Sixties was a jazz oasis. On Saturday evenings crowds could steal glances through open doors at the Metropole Cafe, across from the Colony Record Shop of greats such as Roy Eldridge or Gene Krupa playing on top of the bar. Wednesday night was Mambomania night at the Palladium Ballroom up the street with Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria ticking and booming their impulsive and complex rhythms on well-tuned skins, what was to become the pulse of today’s Latin Jazz, to the bustling street below.

Below the level of the street near an all-night cafe hung the canopy of a place called “Birdland.” Descending the magic stairs beneath a sign that read “Through these portals, pass the most mortals,” visitors were greeted by waves of modern jazz being created, breezing past the thick red carpets. The intricate sound of Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, the bell of the horn wasn’t turned up as yet, blended coolly with the feel of the air conditioning pumping into the club.

To the right of the entrance were the tables, to the left, the bar with the unique “Peanut Gallery,” where one, on a limited budget, could sit to the side of the bandstand, without being hounded, and nurse a watered-down Scotch on the rocks for an entire night. An unspoken feeling of harmony united the gallery dwellers. Most of them were there to listen reverently to the fresh musical feelings and to escape the upstairs tedium of Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and the “Top Ten” of the day. In fact, the jazz side of AfroBeat was born here.

Ever since the advent of Bebop, American jazz had been ever changing, influenced by the ides of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and other giants of the music who helped create this new form. While, at the time, other jazz clubs in the city delivered the message more convincingly than Birdland. Birdland, because of its popularity, was able to reach out to a wider audience. Businessmen, tourists, and musicians who played other types of music were among the customers in attendance who came to listen.

There would never be another jazz club that would at times feature three big attractions for the price of one. In today’s world, once a set is completed, you either pay another cover or you’re on your way.

Musicians experimented with some of the newer forms of jazz during, Monday’s “Jam Session.” Stars of today came from some of those Monday night memorable sessions. I can remember seeing Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and Joe Farrell, to name just a few perform at one time on another.

When John Coltrane broke from the Miles Davis group to form his now famous quartet, he played an engagement at Birdland. In those days, Birdland ran its sets on a strict schedule. The conductor “Master of Ceremonies,” Pee Wee Marquette, who later became a doorman outside the Hawaii Kai Restaurant just up the street, became flustered when just one extended piece by Coltrane would run well past his allotted time.

On another memorable Saturday night into Sunday morning, Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughn made one of their impromptu visits sitting in with the Count Basie orchestra to the delight and thrill of all the patrons. Their duets have since become jazz classics. See also this post about Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus and All That Jazz.

Once, when Stan Kenton brought in twenty of the brightest young musicians from the West Coast to play an engagement, they were packed in on that tiny bandstand like rush-hour riders on the I.R.T. The five-man trumpet section, with Maynard Ferguson on top of the orchestra with his supersonic blasts, popped manhole covers up and down Broadway, whenever they did the famous theme of the band, “Artistry in Rhythm, Viva Prado or the extended piece written by Shorty Rogers called, Maynard Ferguson.”

I also had the added fortune of hearing and seeing Bud Powell’s incredible trio, featuring Powell on piano, Max Roach of drums and Charles Mingus on Bass. This was an incredible trio that was so innovatively tight and worked off each other to perfection. Bud Powell, even in his most troubled moments, was an incredible musician and composer. It’s my contention that after Charlie Parker, it was Bud who illuminated the ideas and visions of this new music.

Of course, there was “Bird” himself, Charlie Parker, for whom the club was named. Even in his most painful times, he was brilliant, inventing the fibers of the music that was to follow him for a long time to come. Parker died in 1955, his drug addiction finally killing him and much great music, never to be unleashed, dying with him.

However, this is all in the past. Birdland lost its influence in the mid-1960s and went from a dance club to a vacant space. The owners of the Metropole Cafe have long closed its doors so passersby won’t be exposed to the sight of topless dancers who have replaced the long-gone musicians. A gray, featureless, building stands on the site of what was once the Palladium Ballroom.

Electricity has become an important element of jazz and many of the younger musicians lean heavily on it. Technically speaking, today’s young musicians are magnificent. Many colleges around the country now offer courses leading to degrees in jazz. Modern recording techniques have developed a sort of sterile, predictable perfection, and the media can give us whatever we want instantly. In some areas, a pseudo form calling itself cool jazz, sic, has taken on a Top Ten format.

I am not advocating a step back in time, especially where jazz, or any other art form, is concerned. However, I would like to see preserved, a certain amount of purity and honesty. It would be nice if some of the essence and spontaneity remained to nurture the design of today’s jazz music. Check out as well this article: “A Blues Chronicle – from Robert Johnson to Robert Cray”.

Birdland’s “Lullaby” was not a sad song; it was a theme for another era. That era, like any other, had troubles of its own and Birdland was just a place to go to forget one’s blues while the good music played under the surface of the humid city’s streets.