Birdland is a jazz club started in New York City on December 15, 1949. The original Birdland, which was located at 1678 Broadway, just north of West 52nd Street in Manhattan, was closed in 1965 due to increased rents, but it re-opened for one night in 1979. A revival began in 1986 with the opening of the second nightclub by the same name that is now located in Manhattan's Theater District, not far from the original nightclub's location. The current location is in the same building as the previous headquarters of The New York Observer.
Irving Levy (1923-1959), Morris Levy, and Oscar Goodstein - along with six other partners - purchased the venue in 1949 from Joseph "Joe the Wop" Catalano. They adopted the name "Birdland" to capitalize on the profile of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker.
The club was originally scheduled to open on September 8, 1949, but this was put back to December 15 following difficulties in getting a liquor license. The opening night was "A Journey Through Jazz", consisting of various styles of the music up to that point, played by "Maxie Kaminsky, Hot Lips Page, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Harry Belafonte, Stan Getz, and Lennie Tristano, in that order."
Parker played very few jobs at Birdland. This was not because his drug addiction caused problems for the management, but (according to Gene Ramey) Goodstein said, "He was continually wanting money." Ramey had persuaded Goodstein to let Parker perform at Birdland with his band on a pair of Monday nights in 1954.
The neon sign at the front of the club read, "Birdland, Jazz Corner of the World". The venue seated 500 people and had bandstand space for a big band--the Count Basie Orcherstra was a regular booking. The venue had a long bar, tables, booths, and a fenced-in bullpen, several rows of folding chairs, some directly alongside a corner of the bandstand, accessible with just the $1.50 admission fee to the venue; a drink could be carried there by an adult, but teenagers were admitted there, too. Irving Levy and Morris Levy were the main owners but the club was operated by Oscar Goodstein, who took tickets and tended the bar. In the late 50s, he moved his post to the back hallway where he could compare the trays from the kitchen with the order tickets. Some lucky few could spend the wee hours chatting with him and reading letters musicians like Charlie Mingus sent to him. Goldstein called Mingus a prolific writer. The name was carried through into the feature of caged finches inside the club.
The venue attracted other jazz musicians who also made recordings there. This includes Art Blakey's February 1954 gigs resulting in the A Night at Birdland albums, most of John Coltrane's Live at Birdland, the Toshiko - Mariano Quartet's Live at Birdland, and Count Basie's Basie at Birdland. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Louie Bellson, Bud Powell, Johnny Smith, Stan Getz, Lester Young, and many others made appearances. George Shearing's standard "Lullaby of Birdland" (1952) was named in the club's honor.
The club's original master of ceremonies, the diminutive, four feet tall Pee Wee Marquette, was known for mispronouncing the names of musicians, if they refused to tip him. The disc jockey Symphony Sid broadcast live on WJZ early in the club's existence. Later broadcasts organized in the 1950s with the musicians' union were relayed across network radio with announcers and guests like the jazz critic Leonard Feather.
On August 25, 1959, Miles Davis was beaten by a New York City policeman on the sidewalk in front of Birdland, during a performing engagement at the club.
During the 1950s, Birdland also became a fashionable place for celebrities to be seen, with Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Sugar Ray Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, Joe Louis, Judy Garland and others as regulars. Irving Levy was stabbed to death at the club on Sunday, January 26, 1959 (after midnight January 25) while the group of trombonist Urbie Green was performing. The body was discovered in the rear of the club, near the service area. The stabbing had apparently occurred unnoticed by the patrons. Irving's younger brother, Morris, took over Irving's role in the club, and from 1959 through the early 1960s, the club enjoyed great success as one of the few remaining jazz clubs in the area. Johnnie Garry, the production coordinator and historian for the Jazzmobile project, managed the club in the early 1960s.
In June 1964, Birdland filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York Federal Court. Goodstein was president of the club at the time. Creditors included Goodstein himself ($22,490), NLP Restaurant ($12,275), and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan ($3,500), who had been booked through International Talent Associates. In an effort to stem losses in 1964, Birdland began to feature jazz artists that played a more traditional style of jazz, rather than the "way-out" artists. In 1965, Goodstein closed Birdland. The premises was taken over by Lloyd Price, an R&B and rock-and-roll singer who re-dedicated the venue and named it the Turntable.
A new Birdland Club, initially owned by John R. Valenti, opened in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1985, at 2745 Broadway at 105th Street, and presented emerging artists to a neighborhood audience .
In 1996, Valenti moved the club to West 44th Street, west of Eighth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan where it features a full weekly schedule of performers. These have included Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Lee Konitz, Diana Krall, Dave Holland, Regina Carter, and Tito Puente. It was the club where Toshiko Akiyoshi's jazz orchestra played its final concert on December 29, 2003. As mentioned above, she had also played at the original Birdland. The Birdland Big Band was created in 2006.
Birdland was frequented by many of the writers of the Beat generation. Reference to Birdland is made in Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road: "I saw him wish a well-to-do man Merry Christmas so volubly a five-spot in change for twenty was never missed. We went out and spent it in Birdland, the bop joint. Lester Young was on the stand, eternity on his huge eyelids." Birdland is also referenced in Emmett Grogan's novel Ringolevio. "From the get-go, Birdland became one of his favourite haunts."
In 1993, Us3 released the single "Cantaloop", which opens with the line: "Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, we have something special down here at Birdland this evening"; Pee Wee Marquette's opening announcement from Art Blakey's first Birdland album in 1954.
Weather Report released their most commercially successful hit entitled "Birdland" on the album Heavy Weather in 1977. The Manhattan Transfer recorded a cover version of the same song in 1979, with vocalese lyrics describing the club at its peak.
In the play Send Me No Flowers, George Kimball relates a story concerning a female friend who ran off with a "bongo player from Birdland" after her husband died. The bongo player subsequently "took her for every cent". In the play Middle of the Night, the husband remembers the good old days at Birdland with his wife, in an attempt to save their marriage.