The famed New York jazz club Birdland celebrated the birthday of its namesake Charlie “Yardbird” Parker late last month with three nights of music inspired by the icon, and opened to a packed house. The venue, the club’s third location, opened in 1949 with Parker as the headlining act.
Parker was an alto saxophonist who revolutionized the jazz world of the 1940s and 50s by inventing bebop and changing the vocabulary of the genre. “He was, for jazz, somebody that represented the highest possible class of musicianship and genius,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. “As much as he was a musician, he was a movement.”
Pelt, 38, was part of an all-star ensemble that played the Birdland celebration from August 28th to 30th, alongside saxophonist Vincent Herring, pianist Don Friedman, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Victor Lewis. Moments before the first performance, the men’s instruments stood illuminated on a carpeted platform before a velvet curtain onto which “Birdland” was projected in bright light.
The intimate club radiated out from around the stage, with a wide rectangular bar near the entrance and a dining room of low tables that seat around 175 guests. Most of the crowd seemed to be in their 40s and 50s, with a handful of younger people tossed in. It was a varied gathering, a mix of stylish older couples, tourists and eccentric theater types.
The room was animated until the owner, Gianni Valenti, 65, took the microphone to ask that conversation be kept to a minimum during the performance. While Birdland offers a full bar and Southern-inspired dinner menu, Valenti explained that the stage is the main attraction. He makes a point of employing aspiring musicians as servers, who refrain from serving during solos and are careful not to obstruct the view of the performers.
The music matters most, Valenti said. “Everyone is here for the same reason. That is what makes jazz special.”
Valenti became involved with Birdland in 1986, 20 years after the original venue had shut its doors on 52nd St. He was running a restaurant on the Upper West Side when Parker’s widow, Doris, came in for dinner. She became a regular, and, with the help of legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, convinced him to take a chance and reestablish the club uptown at 105th St. and Broadway.
Valenti grew up around music; his father played the saxophone and clarinet, and Valenti plays the bass “just for fun.” Though he had no experience in music management, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to preserve Parker’s legacy. The club was a success and in 1995 moved to its current home at 315 West 44th St.
Many of the men involved in the celebration had a vested interest in the preservation of jazz, specifically through education. Don Friedman, 79, teaches at New York University, and said that there are far more collegiate jazz programs than when he started playing in the early 50s. He said that young people are in jazz classrooms instead of in the audience.
Pelt expressed concern at the pervasive belief that it’s hard to appreciate jazz without a certain refinement. He thinks people should just come out to listen and enjoy.
Allan Mednard, a 27-year-old drummer who studied jazz performance and now plays a variety of different styles, agreed. “No one says you have to analyze a rapper or decipher how many bars this guy’s spinning on harmony, or how many syllables he is saying in one sentence,” he said. He encourages young people to listen open-mindedly and see how the music makes them feel.
At Birdland, the crowd broke into shouts and spirited applause after the lively brass and exceptional percussion solos. When the performance ended, many members of the audience approached the musicians to offer thanks and ask for autographs on purchased CDs.