6. Birdland -Present
On December 15, 1949, the jazz club Birdland joined the New York music scene at a time in which the city served as one of the country’s top locations for jazz performances. Irving Levy, Morris Levy, and Oscar Goodstein—along with six other partners—purchased 1678 Broadway, located just north of West 52nd Street from Joseph “Joe the Wop” Catalano to house Birdland. The venue sat around 500 people, with ample bandstand space for performers and a long bar, tables, booths, and folding chairs for customer usage. Priced at just $1.50, Birdland was frequented by an impressive 1,400,000 persons during its first five years, making it one of the top jazz clubs in NYC seemingly overnight.
The club’s name was specifically chosen to capitalize on the profile of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker—more commonly known by his fans and fellow musicians as Bird, a contraction of his formal nickname Yardbird—who served as its first headliner. Over the club’s initial fifteen-year run, it relied on a business model which consisted of double and triple bills which commenced at 9 p.m. and ran sometimes until dawn. Many well-known jazz musicians frequented the establishment including John Coltrane’s Quartet and DJ Symphony Sid Torin, who broadcasted live from the club to audiences up and down the eastern seaboard. Similarly, Birdland was also visited by many of the time period’s most well-known celebrities including Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Sugar Ray Robinson.
At the same time, Birdland became a site of violence, with trumpet player Miles Davis being beaten by a New York City policeman on the sidewalk in front of the club. Irving Levy was also stabbed to death inside the club while trombonist Urbie Green was performing. His body was later found near the service area. By the 1960s, with the emergence of Rock and Roll, jazz clubs in NYC began to lose their popularity and Birdland’s finances began to decline. It eventually closed to the public in 1965.
However, Birdland’s legacy does not end there, with the club eventually reopening in 1985 at 2745 Broadway on 105th Street. The club quickly regained its notoriety and hosted more than 2,000 emerging artists during its first 10 years back in business. Owner John R. Valenti felt that the spirit of the club’s original midtown location had been lost, however, and as a result in 1996 he moved it to West 44th Street where it remains today. Recent performers at Birdland have included Diana Krall, Dave Holland, Regina Carter, and the last concert of Toshiko Akiyoshi’s jazz orchestra, which took place on December 29, 2003. Even as Birdland has come and gone, the club has remained a staple reference in American pop culture. Visited often by many writers of the Beat Generation, Birdland was mentioned in Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road. The club has been featured in a number of songs such as Us3’s single “Cantaloop,” Weather Report’s hit “Birdland,” and U2’s “Angel of Harlem.” A version of Birdland also exists on the children’s television show Sesame Street, being run by Hoots the Owl.