'We're Not Just Bebop': Birdland Searches For Fresh Audiences With New 100-Seat Theater
On and off for the past half-century, the Birdland Jazz Club has been a hub and a home for the jazz community in the genre's spiritual hometown of Manhattan. Now, a new club has quietly slipped into town and set up shop just downstairs: the Birdland Theater, an extension of the flagship club that fits right into the upstart spirit of the alto saxophone icon that is its namesake Charlie Parker.
Parker, who died in 1955 at age 34, still looms large today for his music, not only in jazz circles, but also as a legacy centerpiece of the genre. Nicknamed Yardbird, or Bird for short, he's best known as the co-founder of the newfangled take on jazz called bebop that was thrust to the vanguard after the genre had stagnated in the swing era. Velocity and revolutionary harmonic ideas hit at the heart of Bird's astounding improvisation, and he was also a freedom fighter for the music, paying the price of being an impoverished contrarian overcome by substance abuse.
In obeisance, the club Birdland rose during his lifetime, opening in 1949 on Broadway and 52nd, though Bird rarely played there. But it was jazz central for several up-and-comers who are now legends, including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Like most jazz clubs, Birdland closed in 1965 -- the victim of the popularity of rock music -- but at the urging of Bird’s widow, Doris, the club resurfaced in 1986 on the Upper West Side (Broadway and 105th) under the artistic direction of Gianni Valenti. A decade later, Valenti moved the club to the theater district near Times Square.
“Back then it was a frontier to go above 96th Street,” Valenti says, while sitting at the bar of his new well-appointed space. “It was our good fortune to find our room on West 44th Street, where there is plenty of tourism, visibility, in a transport hub and with access to parking.”
For 33 years, Valenti has been running the venue, keeping one of New York’s premier dine-and-listen straight-ahead clubs in the black. “But the audience is changing constantly," he says. "You need to learn that the crowds coming in just aren’t only jazz fans anymore. They’ve grown to appreciate all kinds of music, including cabaret, country, the blues and rock. We’re attracting an audience that ranges in age from 15 to 85, and they want to hear more than just bebop."
He notes that in addition to its regulars, the club attracts 60 to 70 percent of its visitors from outside the U.S. to see performances. This September, Valenti has booked top-tier acts like the Yellowjackets and an all-star Charlie Parker Birthday Celebration, who would have been 98 today (Aug. 29), and later this fall a three-week residency by legendary bassist Ron Carter’s bands.
Now, in the midst of that run, the 150-seat flagship has launched the 100-seat Birdland Theater. Its first shows began in mid-July with cabaret performances by Lucie Arnaz and Marilyn Maye.
"Our landlord said the space was available and wanted me to take it over,” Valenti says. “Ten years earlier it was a processing plant for technicolor film, complete with lots of pipes, large vats for chemicals and drainage pits.” At first Valenti considered using the 4,000-square-foot lower level as office space or a rehearsal or recording studio. (Upstairs from Birdland used to be the studios for The Record Plant, where acts like Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen recorded and where John Lennon had his final studio session on the day he was murdered in 1980. The Plant in NYC shuttered in 1987.)
Instead, Valenti consulted one of his bookers, Jim Caruso, who for 16 years has produced the popular Broadway at Birdland Cast Party on Monday’s dark nights. Caruso supported the idea. “The Cast Party is like an open mic and a variety show with people from Broadway shows dropping in,” he says. “I brought the Broadway scene to the club, and over the years we recognized that we were attracting a whole new audience."
Meanwhile, Valenti had begun experimenting beyond jazz, booking such Nashville artists as Victoria Shaw and Gary Burr that attracted another audience. He saw the expansion possibilities of a new venue and started the renovation process on the space in 2014, which included major construction -- tearing down metal columns (except for one near the bar to remind people of its industrial history) and putting in new beams and offering clean sight lines. “I wanted to create a room where musicians feel comfortable, and the guests feel the same way,” he says. “We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves musically, so we have a very eclectic mix of music. We’re not just bebop down here.”
Valenti also used the space to create a dressing room and green room (neither exists upstairs), in addition to cubicles for venue staff and his three-year-old AB Artists management company. The theater uses the same dining menu as the club.
He notes that while the upstairs walls are covered with archival photos from Birdland’s early days, downstairs the artwork is made up of large, modern, colorful abstract photos by NYC photographer Bill Westmoreland. “Performers don’t have to deal with the photos of Dizzy [Gillespie] or Bird staring down at them,” Valenti says. “So artists like Victoria and Gary can use the stage downstairs to find what feels right.”
Surveying the room, Caruso says that calling the space a theater is actually to its advantage. “Upstairs, Birdland is a cultural icon,” he says. “Down here we can bring in more cabaret and Broadway-oriented acts -- new jazz acts, comedy, dance, burlesque and I’ll bring in my Broadway friends. Some performers from upstairs have come down here and love the space. [Jazz/cabaret vocalist] Jane Monheit sells out her shows with her band upstairs, but she was hoping to play downstairs with just a guitarist or pianist. We’re a theater. We can do anything we want. Upstairs won’t change as the Jazz Corner of the World. All the expanding will happen here. We’re taking the Birdland brand to the next step.”
Even though Valenti likes branching out musically, he’s still solid on jazz, giving up-and-coming youngsters a club stage at 5 p.m. four times a week and supporting the Birdland Big Band, whose players bring their jazz students to sit in. “Is jazz gone?” he asks, rhetorically. “It’s more about changing and evolving. More young people go to schools and universities and conservatories, and instead of jumping into rock, they look for more sophisticated music. That’s happening all over the world. I’m hearing American tunes all the time by artists from Europe, Russia, South America, Asia. They’re learning our music. It's a good sign."