It is hard to imagine New York City without jazz, which has been a central element of the city's cultural profile for a century. But the shutdown has hit NYC's performance venues hard. The East Side’s Jazz Standard closed for good in December, and music lovers fear that the essential midtown venue Birdland might be forced to follow this year—unless a new campaign to rescue the club raises enough money to keep it going through the lean times ahead.
A GoFundMe campaign to save the nightclub was set up last week, and the response has been highly encouraging: The drive has already raised $200,000 toward its goal. Now a virtual concert will follow on Sunday, January 24, with a major lineup of stars eager to lend a hand. "Birdland was the world's greatest jazz club in the 1950s, and it is the world's greatest jazz club today,” says the jazz and cabaret historian James Gavin. “The air vibrates with history, both bygone and in the making. Birdland defines the excitement of New York, and it must be saved."
Save Birdland: A Celebration of Music, History and Community will stream for free at 7pm EST (midnight GMT) on Sunday, January 24, on the website SaveBirdland and will remain viewable for one week afterward. The lineup so far includes Wynton Marsalis, Elvis Costello, Chita Rivera, Leslie Odom, Jr., Mandy Patinkin, Jeff Daniels, Clive Davis, Matthew Broderick, Ken Burns, Peter Cincotti, Giancarlo Esposito, Melissa Leo, Norm Lewis, Manhattan Transfer, Bebe Neuwirth, John Pizzarelli, Martha Plimpton, Randy Rainbow, Mercedes Ruehl, Catherine Russell, Billy Stritch and Veronica Swift. Former President and saxophone enthusiast Bill Clinton will add remarks.
Named in honor of the great sax man Charlie “Bird” Parker, Birdland was born in 1949 on Broadway near 52nd Street, where it served as a nest for such iconic figures as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Thelonious Monk. It later reopened in the Upper West Side before moving to its current digs at 315 West 44th Street in 1996. “It’s such a remarkable spot as a musician,” says the guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, who performs at Birdland regularly and will be performing in the concert. “If you happen to be in midtown you can go in and hear world-class jazz on any given night.”
The COVID crisis, however, has largely stopped the music. “I’ve had to battle, obviously, for the last ten months, to keep the club alive,” says longtime Birdland owner Gianni Valenti. “We’ve had to pay our rent, our utilities, our insurance, things like that, without income coming in. I’m looking at 2021 and I don’t know what to expect.”
Enter theater producer Tom D’Angora, the force behind a highly successful campaign last month to raise funds for the West Bank Cafe, a beloved midtown restaurant that also houses the downstairs cabaret space known as the Laurie Beechman Theatre. That effort, which centered on a 10-hour marathon of musical performances on Christmas Day, wound up with substantially more than its goal. Now D’Angora is turning his attention to Birdland, at the urging of pals like Birdland staples Jim Caruso and Susie Mosher, who have helped create a second performance space at the venue that focuses on cabaret and comedy. “I watched in amazement as the numbers catapulted for the West Bank Cafe,” Caruso recalls. “It was like the community decided to give New York City a Christmas present! Now, the same thing is happening for our beloved Birdland, which is so heartwarming. We have no intention of letting this pandemic get us down without a fight.”
And if the fundraiser is a success? “My primary goal is to help the artists and my employees survive and get through this pandemic,” says owner Valenti. “All the resident artists that have been with us for many years—such as the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra, the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, the Birdland Big Band—I want to make sure that they’re comfortable. I want to make sure that my employees, over 60 of them, get their Christmas bonuses. And people are behind us because people realize that we need music. This is our lives, and we need to stick together. And with help from New York, I think we’re going to get by.”
“We have to have our places when this is over—places where we can get drunk and hear our friends sing,” D’Angora says. “We need community. It’s the only way we’ll survive.”
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