The legendary New York City music venue has been crushed by the pandemic.Photograph by Brent N. Clarke / Getty

One truth of New York is that more great art has been made below the basement line—or at least at street level, in makeshift bars and speakeasies—than in grand concert halls and ritzy aeries. There was a time, within living memory, when a quadrant of Manhattan, stretching more or less from Broadway to Seventh Avenue and from Forty-eighth to Fifty-second Street, held more great musicians, and a greater outflow of musical genius, than any comparable few blocks in any city ever has—Vienna in 1820 perhaps aside. To think of American music is to think of those places, night clubs stretched out along those streets: the Embers, the Hickory House, the Metropole, Eddie Condon’s, Gregory’s . . . just reeling off the names is a Manhattan catechism.

New Yorkers ought to feel as possessive and proud of these places as, say, Parisians feel about their grand artists’ cafés, but they don’t, because almost all of them are gone. They were makeshift arrangements of often shady night-club owners with complicated lives, and they’ve largely vanished into time and memory and real-estate development. One of the few of those clubs to remain on the scene is, however, the most famous of them all—Birdland. Like Madison Square Garden (now in its fourth incarnation) or the Waldorf-Astoria (now in its second), Birdland has had multiple physical incarnations. All enveloped the same spiritual substance, connected by Bird—Charlie Parker, the great Yardbird—whose widow, Doris, midwifed the rebirth of the club, in the eighties. (Among the many theories for this nickname, one was the result of his Arkansas country-boy roots. He once stopped a band bus to claim and cook a road-kill chicken.) Originating on Broadway, right off Fifty-second Street, Birdland was the place that inspired George Shearing to write the classic “Lullaby of Birdland,” while Jack Kerouac could wander in to see the matchless Lester Young on the stage, “eternity on his huge eyelids.” (If one needs proof that there is a cosmic Santa Claus—or at least a benevolent Louis Armstrong overseeing the city—it is that just this January Lester Young, Jr., Young’s only son, became the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents.)

Birdland, now on West Forty-fourth Street, has been owned by Gianni Valenti for the past few decades; it is also, like every music venue in the city, struggling to find ways to keep its head, and its singing mouths, above water long enough to survive the pandemic and reopen when the city reopens, as (we all tell each other) it surely must, soon. Birdland’s struggle is both singular and exemplary: though its circumstances are, for good and ill, part of its own unique history and place, the larger irony, which is hugely frustrating for music clubs, is how they don’t receive the kind of empathy that rightly goes to larger cultural institutions—yet they know that they are the red blood cells of the city and that without them New York culture would be a pale, anemic thing, hardly worth sustaining.

Valenti told me how he started with Birdland: “I had been running a restaurant on the Upper Wast Side when Doris approached me, wanting to reopen Charlie’s bandstand. Over dinner, Max Roach, Charlie’s drummer said, ‘If we do this, we’ve gotta do this right,’ and I said, ‘But I can only do this for fifty years.’ ” He laughs. “It was a gesture—a joke. But you know what? I’m now in my thirty-fifth year—only fifteen more to go, if we can go there.” The conditions of a jazz club had altered dramatically in the years between when the first Birdland opened, in 1949, and the latest Birdland shut down, last March. The first Birdland was a hardcore noir night club, of a kind now mostly vanished. Owned by the notorious Levy brothers, Morris and Irving, it was a machine—and sometimes a machine gun—for turning music into money. The younger Levy brother, Morris, or Moishe, became a byword for the evils of the mobbed-up music business, exploiting everyone from Frankie Lymon to John Lennon, and eventually getting convicted and briefly imprisoned for extortion. (The American music business is a strange mix of shadows and light, though, and, just as Phil Spector made great records, Moishe co-owned Roulette Records, where Count Basie’s band produced many of its greatest and most unimpeded recordings, including “The Atomic Mr. Basie.”)

The elder Levy brother, Irving, found a still more complicated fate at the club, having been murdered there, stabbed to death on a night in 1959 while Urbie Green’s band was playing. The murder remains unsolved—though not, perhaps mysterious. The gangland connections and potential antagonists of the Levy brothers were simply too numerous to pin down to a single cause, or knife. A famously piquant detail is that the band was playing the song “Cherokee” as the stabbing went on, or perhaps right after. The Charlie Parker flag-waver is legendary as the fastest (and hardest) song in the bop book, guaranteed to fully absorb the musicians and the audience—exactly the number you would want to have playing if you were murdering someone at Birdland.

Despite the Levys’ film-noir management style, much good music was made there. Morris asked the great blind British jazz pianist George Shearing to record a theme for a “Live from Birdland” broadcast, and, after being forced to shed the publishing rights, Shearing instead wrote in ten minutes; the indelible “Lullaby of Birdland,” which some musician somewhere is playing pretty much every moment of the day, often at the club. (“I had to ask musicians coming for the first time not to play it in every set, though they mean it well,” Valenti admitted. “Once Brad Mehldau went off into one of his twelve-minute rhapsodies, and right there, about nine minutes in, you heard it: Lula-by of Birdland.”)

Jazz musicians Tommy Potter Charlie Parker Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane stand together on stage at Birdland

The legendary jazz musicians Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane performing together at Birdland, in 1951.Photograph from Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

By the mid-eighties, Valenti recalled, everything had calmed down but also turned upside down. “By 1965, when the first Birdland club closed, most of the musicians had moved to Europe and Asia. Pop music, the Beatles—you know, the sixties and seventies—had made American music unpopular. So, our poor musicians went all over, to Denmark and India—it’s the reason everyone from outside America knows more about our heritage of jazz than we do.” Though this diaspora of jazz men and women is perhaps a bit overstated, it is not false: racism as well as inattention sent Hall of Famers like Bill Coleman and Sidney Bechet to spend their later lives in France, while the avant-gardists of free jazz (Don Cherry, Don Byas, Albert Ayler) spent much of the sixties and seventies touring Europe, to far greater appreciation than they could find at home. “So, what happened is we tried to do what we wanted to do is make jazz accessible—and the way we did it, and we brought in younger jazz musicians. They would see elderly men playing with a standup bass, and they couldn’t relate to that.” (The hangover of the Levys also haunted the club after its rebirth. “Morris was a very shady, dark guy. When I took over, there were musicians who still demanded money even before they played. That’s what Morris did.”) Valenti brought in a new generation of jazz players, without neglecting the old heroes. His proudest moments, and memories, are of the visits of the old and ailing but still sublime Oscar Peterson, patiently signing autographs even as he was wheeled toward his car—and of Shearing himself, silent and poetic at a table near the bandstand.

Where the original club was made for walk-ins, who drank and listened interchangeably, the current room is largely designed for an audience that includes, along with the enthusiastic locals, a healthy nightly share of Canadian and European and South American jazz aficionados—and has had to be more exquisitely engineered. “You know—we’re a music room first, and then a restaurant,” Valenti said. “Sounds and sight line, and the ability to teach your staff how to conduct themselves while people are performing—that’s our work. We don’t have specials because I don’t want a server hovering over the table, looking at the menu, pointing. The waitresses get down on one knee so they don’t break the sight lines. And there are no blenders or margarita machines. That’s percussion the band doesn’t want.”

Stacey Kent, the tremolo-piccolo-voiced jazz singer, and a Birdland regular, finds in the room a unique sense of a singer’s place. “The room is set up left, right, and center—different tiers. So, you’re sort of performing in three spaces at once: there’s room for me to be in my space, in my own little world, where I can be transported by my song and the lyrics, then the band has its space to fill around me, and then there’s the space we share with the audience. It’s not necessarily about the size, it’s set up in a Three Bears kind of sense, it’s just right.”

Valenti recalled, forlornly, closing night at the club last March. “On that Sunday night, I had the Chico O’Farrill orchestra playing. We got the announcement: all businesses closed by 8 P.M. Monday. I have two complete bars stocked, and two kitchens stocked, and sixty-two employees, and bookings all through ’21. I figured I’ll take this time; I figured it would only be a couple of weeks—a month, tops. . . . I’ll redo the club. And it goes on. But by April , we needed to come up with some kind of relief, because we thought we’d be open in July. We’re still paying insurance, utilities, payroll—I must admit that my landlord has been understanding and coöperative in today’s climate. And I’m aware of that. . . . But I have to tell you, from April to this January, I paid everything out of my own savings. Fifty thousand a month, for nine months, and I depleted it. I tried reopening in December—when the governor gave us twenty-five per cent. I invested in filtration and partitions. It ran me in total another eighteen thousand—and he closed us up in ten days. That’s when I went to the landlord and said I thought I’d have income coming in, I thought we’d get through this together; maybe we’re not going to have live indoor music until after Labor Day. The first relief package came out—but for a club like ours it was seventy-five per-cent payroll and twenty-five per cent to keep your business going. . . . After the money was used up, my staff all went back on unemployment. But we still have to pay the nut. So, I wanted to say to the governor, wouldn’t it be wise to support us while we’re open?”

The exodus of staff and musicians led a number of Birdland fans and veterans, including the impresarios Jim Caruso and Susie Mosher, to come together to organize a benefit. “I said to Susie and Jim, I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do—I’m pretty much strapped out. I’m not one to go out and beg for money.’ ” Soon, what became a series of benefit performances with pop stars such as Sting and Leslie Odom, Jr.—not to mention regulars like Stacey Kent, her husband, Jim Tomlinson, and the bassist Ron Carter—created a reservoir of support. “We put a goal up of two hundred and fifty thousand, and raised four hundred thousand. Brought me to tears to see the outpouring of the arts community for Birdland and live music.”

“It sounds like a lot, but we have to find fifty thousand every month. If Birdland were to close, it would send shockwaves through all the live-music venues. We’ve been around for seventy-one years; great reputation—if they saw that I couldn’t make it would be devastating to the other clubs. It’s frustrating for all of us—I can take my car right now and drive fifteen minutes to Jersey . . . and there’s fifteen fifty-per-cent attendance, and there’s live music! Yet in Manhattan, the music capital of the world, for the theatre, we have zero-per-cent occupancy for live music.”

“Live music is the backbone of New York City and the city has treated us like shit. You can’t have music! It can only be ‘incidental’—and then they say, by comparison, a cabin on the street with propane gas and electric heaters and no ventilation is safe? It upsets me to think that in the ten square blocks around me, in Times Square, I can drive my car from Ninth Avenue to Fifth Avenue, and see no people, and nothing but boarded-up stores. Thank you, yes, to the front-line workers, of course! But music is who this town is, and we need to respect our artists.”

The Save Our Stages Act, passed last December, promised to solve the issues but presents bureaucratic obstacles. “If you don’t have a top-notch accounting firm, if you don’t have a bookkeeper—it’s so difficult. There are still no applications available. We’ll give you forty-five per cent of your gross income for 2019, they say, but we still have to pay insurance, utilities, some payroll, and taxes—while I’m closed! Who benefits from that? Only the landlord! Not the musicians who can’t play! The owner is happy, sure. But we’re closed, and the artists are unemployed?!” Valenti’s plan, in league with other jazz-club owners, in step with hotels and Broadway theatres, is to try to hang on till the fall and pray that the Christmas season happens again—a more complicated formula than it sounds, since it depends on the reappearance of out-of-towners in town. Not just the city itself but the world that pours into it has to reopen.

“If we’re smart enough and understand the law enough, then, with music and dinner separated, properly, with the right ventilation and the proper procedures, there’s no reason why I can’t have a trio fourteen feet from the first row. Why can you go to a restaurant with piped-in music, with tables just as packed? Why have we become the last resort, when we’re the first attraction?” To reëmploy a famous local musical idiom, it’s the unanswered question.

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