Some time ago, I described my dad as a good sport. This week I’m going to raise the ante.
Well, OK, that might be pushing it.
But I am impressed to know that, as a young man, my dad spent some time at one of America’s most celebrated nightspots — a place practically synonymous with jazz, and equally synonymous with cool.
This particular visit to Birdland, the famous New York City jazz club, appears to have been cancelled — perhaps due to the snow and frigid weather.
But my dad confirmed that he and other jazz fans from Stamford High made the drive into New York several times to dig the scene at Birdland:
We didn’t consider going to NYC to hear jazz a big deal. It was only a 45-60 minute drive from Stamford (probably another 15 to find parking), we never had any safety problems (we always went as a small group), and jazz was more commonplace than it is now (I’m not including Kenny G and the like). Probably only the relatively high expense for us high-schoolers prevented us from going more often!
To translate this for the rock n’ roll fans in the audience: This is kinda like finding out that your dad saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club, or Jimi Hendrix at a club in the Village, or the Ramones at CBGB’s.
Everybody who was anybody in the jazz business played the original Birdland between 1949 and its closing in 1965. Miles? Trane? Duke? Dizzy? Monk? Yup, all them and then some. (A partial list is here.)
When musicians weren’t playing there, they went to hang out and listen to whoever was onstage.
Legendary keyboardist Joe Zawinul told Jazz magazine in 1977: “To me Birdland was the most important place in my entire life. I met everybody including my beautiful wife in this club. I met Miles, I met Duke Ellington. I met anyone I ever cared for in this business. I used to hang out there every night.” (Quote taken from the excellent Weather Report Annotated Discography website.)
Birdland attracted more than just famous musicians. Jack Kerouac, for instance, made reference to the club in his writings. I doubt he was there when my father was. But it’s still kinda cool to imagine the angelheaded hipster saint of American literature in the same room as my dad.
Anyway, my dad’s recollections of the setting at Birdland:
It was below ground (e.g., down cellar), dark, dank and cellar-like (e.g. with support columns in inconvenient places), quite low ceilinged, and surprisingly small. No memorable decor, just very functional. Doubt if the tables and chairs matched. Lots of sound-absorbing material so the sound was very dead. As our visits were all before we could legally drink (even tho’ drinking age in NY was then 18), we were seated in the less desirable seats and sipped coca cola. But I think even the WORST seat was only about 30 feet from the stage, which was not really big enough for a big band (grand piano sat on the floor next to the stage).
Unless I’m mixing up my venues, there was a diminutive black man who met you at the door and took your money, circulated about, and ended up being the announcer. Maybe PeeWee something, or some such… He was allegedly almost as much of an institution as the venue itself.
(My dad is correct in his memories of Pee Wee Marquette, the house emcee at Birdland.)
Ferguson’s band included sax players Joe Farrell and Lanny Morgan and pianist Jaki Byard. According to my dad, the musicians were just as close to the crowd offstage as they were on the bandstand:
I remember seeing several of the guys in the street – and chatting with them – before the performance. We usually found our jazz “idols” very accessible. (A buddy of mine had a great conversation with Dizzy Gillespie in the mens’ room of the Village Vanguard once.)
(OK, I’m gonna amend my assessment of a few paragraphs ago. This is like finding out that your dad shared a smoke break with George Harrison outside the Cavern Club, or ran into Hendrix wandering through the Village. Pretty cool, in other words.)
I asked him if he knew at the time that he was hanging out in a legendary place. His reply:
Maybe “legendary” is a little strong, but we knew it was THE happening place for jazz. I mean, the same sort of feeling you have when you go to Fenway!
Nice comparison, I thought. Dank, crowded, small, support poles in bad places … yup, that’s Fenway.
My dad has some pretty good live jazz stories from other places, too. Maybe some other time I’ll share his story about seeing Chick Corea take a screwdriver to his malfunctioning electric piano while Miles Davis stared bullets at him from across the stage.
But for right now I’ll leave him at Birdland, sipping intently on a Coke and watching Eric Dolphy take an unaccompanied bass clarinet solo … and probably not appreciating that, in the eyes of future generations, he will seem like the epitome of cool.