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Remembering Birdland, a Jazz Icon

Elyse Martin | Dec 19, 2018

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.’” 

Singer Pearl Bailey arrives at Birdland for a 1950 performance.

Singer Pearl Bailey arrives at Birdland for a 1950 performance. Michael Cuscuna/Mosaic Records

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.”

Unlike many other jazz clubs of the time, Birdland was not segregated.

“There’d be up to four bills a night,” Sullivan says. “I mean, triple bills, double bills, going to all hours of the morning.” As Sullivan recounts in the book, audiences would descend into the basement club to find themselves in “a smoky, dimly lit room that opened up with a long bar against the left wall, where you could sit or stand while listening to the jazz entertainment. Many famous jazz musicians and celebrities would usually congregate there to gossip and catch the jazz acts.”

Even unexpected celebrities, like classical composer Igor Stravinsky, visited the club, causing an unusual but inspired musical synthesis one evening in 1951 when Bird met “Firebird.” Sullivan writes that the trumpeter for the Charlie Parker quintet, Red Rodney, “told Parker of Stravinsky’s presence,” and Parker then inserted a few lines from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in his solo chorus, “causing Stravinsky to roar with delight.” “He went ballistic,” Sullivan says. “I think his drink splashed all over the place, he was so happy that [Parker] had noticed and was that astute to be able to understand” how to meld the two styles of music so seamlessly and instantaneously.

Miles Davis (left) and John Coltrane play together one evening in October 1955.

Miles Davis (left) and John Coltrane play together one evening in October 1955. Michael Randolph Images

Birdland was in Midtown Manhattan and, unlike many of the other clubs of the time, was not segregated. “That’s one of the biggest things about Birdland,” says Sullivan. “People of all races and walks of life could get together and they didn’t care about anything, just the music.”

As a professional jazz saxophonist himself, Sullivan frequently heard about Birdland from the musicians with whom he performed. “They would always talk about Birdland,” he recalls. “Anybody who became anybody in jazz all cut their teeth at Birdland . . . and if you wanted to be anybody in jazz, they’d have jam sessions on Monday nights there, and you’d go. It was the typical day off for the entertainers, and they’d play until dawn. . . . It was a chance for musicians to get together and meet new faces, and . . . make new music. And because of that, new bands would be formed, just by hanging out at those Monday-evening jam sessions.”

Within its first 10 years, the club had attracted 2 million visitors.

During a lull in his performance schedule, Sullivan began creating websites about famous jazz musicians he admired or had collaborated with, in order to preserve their legacies. He created over 60 sites before deciding to dedicate a website solely to Birdland. An editor at Schiffer Books, Bob Biondi, saw the website and asked Sullivan to write a book on the club. Sullivan leaped at the chance to turn his website into an illustrated tribute to such an important place in jazz history, and to showcase not only the biographies he had created over the years, but photos by famed jazz photographer Marcel Fleiss and his own collection of Birdland memorabilia.

Sullivan’s personal favorite is an autographed menu, which features all the performers during one evening in 1952: Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Al McKibbon, Oscar Peterson, Chuck Wayne, Milt Jackson, Joe Carroll, and Art Blakey. “The amalgamation of all those famous musicians in that one little location,” Sullivan says, “that’s something that you’ll never see again.”

A 1955 handbill advertises live shows for audiences and jam sessions for musicians.

A 1955 handbill advertises live shows for audiences and jam sessions for musicians. Tad Hershorn/from the archive at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies

A number of jazz greats recorded albums live at Birdland, like the Art Blakey Quintet’s A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1. This recording, Sullivan notes in the book, “made jazz history by being the first of its kind ever to be recorded at a live venue, using a major record label’s equipment.” Sullivan also recommends John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, recorded on two nights in 1963.

Birdland closed down in 1965 due to high overhead and increasing rent on Broadway. Twenty years later, John R. Valenti opened a new version of the club on the Upper West Side, and then moved it again in 1996, back to Midtown. The club is still open, offering four or five different acts each evening.

Sullivan, however, still longs for the heyday of the original Birdland. As he says, “I’d give anything to get in a time machine now and go back to the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, just for a night, and catch all the great acts, all in one little location.”


Elyse Martin is associate editor, web content and social media, at the AHA. She tweets @champs_elyse.


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