It was the bebop era, when jazz was at the height of its powers and New York City was its spiritual home. Birdland, the club named in honor of Charlie “Bird” Parker, had opened on Dec. 15, 1949, a block west of the 52nd St. scene and for the next fifteen years, the club’s survival formula was built upon memorable double and triple bills, commencing at 9 p.m. and sometimes lasting ’til dawn.
Birdland established itself as the one place that every jazz musician had to play, as did Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Lester Young, George Shearing, Billie Holiday, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, and Sonny Rollins to name a few, in front of audiences that might have included Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Within the first 5 years of it’s existence, the club entertained almost one and half million jazz listeners at $1.50 a person admission charge.
Birdland was a rather small club, which seated around 400 people. After descending down the stairs the room opened up with the bandstand right in front and a bar along the left wall. On the opposite side from the bar – as well as just in front of it – there were rows of chairs reserved for listeners only – sometimes refered to as The Peanut Gallery or Bullpen – and in the middle there were 10 to 15 tables with red and white checkered table cloths where food and drinks were served. On the far right wall there were booths.
Hailed as The Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland was the closest thing to a pure jazz club at the time. A place where new bands were born, new alliances formed, and modern musicians felt at home. rving Levy and Morris Primack were the owners of Birdland, though it was operated by Oscar Goodstein, who tended bar.
Many live recordings were made at Birdland over the years by such artists as Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Lennie Tristano, Count Basie, Art Blakey, John Coltrane to name a few. Count Basie and his Orchestra recorded Live from Birdland in the 1950s, and even recorded the famous Lullaby of Birdland there. The disc jockey Symphony Sid broadcast live from Birdland on WJZ early in the club’s existence as did the Voice of America radio show.
Birdland had a master of ceremonies named Pee Wee Marquette who was under four feet tall and was notorious for mispronouncing musicians names that didn’t tip him. One night Horace Silver refused to tip Pee Wee, so he introduced him as Hore Ass Silber. His voice can be heard making the introductions on Art Blakey’s 1954 recording “A Night At Birdland.”
For sixteen years the greatest music in the world was generated nightly within its walls until it succumbed to the high cost of rent that doomed many of the clubs in the area.