David and Art - "Down at Birdland...For Now"

Aug 31, 2020

Historic Jazz Spots in New York City are scrambling to stay afloat as the effects of the pandemic keeps their doors shut.

Last week I mentioned the rush I got from going to a famous jazz club in New York just before the pandemic shut everything down in March, and all the consequent troubles music venues are having since they’re now unable, for the most part, to host performances.

I’ve written before about the energy that some particular places have in terms of art:  the room where Jackson Pollack painted Lavender Mist, for instance, with the swirls of paint still on the floor; the bar at which Roger Miller was sitting when he wrote the classic “Dang Me.”  Birdland is one of those places, and even though it isn’t in the same spot as it was in its heyday, when you’re there you still get the feeling that you’re someplace culturally important.

The original Birdland opened on Broadway in December 1949, as was known as the “Jazz Corner of the World.”  Almost any jazz player you could name from the 20th century played there repeatedly.  Many of them recorded live albums from its stage.  Over the course of the 1950s it developed a cultural cache all its 

own.  Jack Kerouac mentions it in his novel On the Road.  Sarah Vaughan had a 1954 hit called “The Lullaby of Birdland.”  And in 1977, the fusion group Weather Report recorded an instantly recognizable tune named for the club.  A few years later the vocal group Manhattan Transfer won a Grammy for their version of that same song.  In 1989, Quincy Jones won a Grammy for his version of it.

The current incarnation of the club—the one where I went—is now on West 44th Street where it’s been since 1996.  It’s still the “Jazz Corner of the World.”  And it’s still closed.

But determined not to go quietly into that good night, Birdland has begun a series of livestreaming concerts every Tuesday and Thursday night called Radio Free Birdland.  I’ve tuned in and they’re entirely worth the price of a ticket.  You also get the feeling that you’re helping to keep an institution afloat.

The Village Vanguard is another colossus on the American jazz scene, and it’s even older than Birdland.  It opened in 1935 and at first specialized in folk music and poetry readings.  It became a jazz spot about 1957.  My favorite John Coltrane live recording was made at the Village Vanguard in November of 1961.  The Vanguard is now live streaming concerts, too, boldly diving into technology it probably thought it would never have to use. 

A recent report on NPR said that small and medium-sized music venues are more than just businesses serving customers. “They are living, breathing mini-institutions in their own right” that connect communities of attendees with artists.  That connection happens not just in historic places like Birdland and the Village Vanguard but everywhere live music is a feature.  It’s why we need to keep those places afloat.

(Birdland audio clip by Weather Report - source You Tube)