(Adam Gopnick’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 3/ 4. Photo: 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.”)