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First Time I Saw

Lullaby of Birdland


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This month, instead of writing about a jazz personality, I decided to write about a room. A jazz room which sadly no longer exists but that had a personality as unique as the great musicians who played there. I'm talking about a club called Birdland—the original Birdland on Broadway near 56th Street in Manhattan's Times Square (before it got Disney-fied.)

It billed itself as "The Jazz Corner of the World," and in the sixties and seventies it undoubtedly was just that.

On any night of the week, you'd walk up to the narrow doorway and the doorman in his admiral's uniform would push open the door for you. Black and white publicity photos of people like Miles and Horace and Count Basie were stuck to the glass with Scotch tape. The stairs were steep. They led down to a landing where the box office was located. As you descended them, the light began to turn a dreamy bourbon color and you started to feel a kind of pulse that seemed to emanate from the floor and vibrate through your body.

On the first landing there was a box office with a big round window. I remember thinking the first time I stepped up to it to buy a ticket that the woman behind the glass was the most exotic, beautiful creature I'd ever seen. She had big soft black eyelashes, a white flower in her hair like Billie Holiday, and when she handed me my ticket I noticed her fingernails were long and pink like flower petals. Her perfume wafted through the window's speech hole and mingled with the smoke-beer smell coming up from the bar. You could purchase a ticket for the side gallery for about two or three bucks. Tables, which had direct sight lines to the bandstand, could be as high as ten or twelve bucks, depending on who was playing.

You descended another flight of stairs and the light became a kind of midnight blue. A hand-lettered sign overhead read: "Welcome to The Jazz Corner of the World. Through these doors pass the most." There were shadows moving around inside and a silvery white gleamings coming off the tablecloths. You were greeted—if that's the word for it—by the strident and irascible Mr. Pee Wee Marquette, the tuxedoed midget who also worked as the MC. (I can't tell you the number of times I was summarily turned away by Mr. Marquette because I could not produce proof that I was 18 years old. And even after I had my draft card, he still insisted I show it to him every time I came.)

Once inside there was the black, stylized silhouettes of musicians on the walls, along with photos of the stars like Stan Kenton and George Shearing, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke. The bar went along the left side of the low-ceilinged room. There was a sign up on the back wall that said, "Learn to fly!" And there were beat-up old wooden chairs you could draw right up to the fence separating the gallery from the posher table section. From the gallery, you had to crane your neck a little to see the bandstand, but the sound in any part of the room was amazing. Sound systems at that time were rather primitive. You didn't have the stadium-size speakers or the Buck Rogers sound booth. Basically, someone would turn the mics on and adjust the volume. But somehow when the music came out into that room, it was like the musicians were playing just for you. Miles would insert his harmon mute right into the mic and it would be as if he were literally inside your head. You heard the ping of Philly Joe's ride cymbal exactly as he played it, right there in the very center of the beat. The vibrations from Paul Chambers' bass wrapped themselves around you like a warm fur glove.

The grand piano got moved around according to who was playing. When it was the Basie Band, for instance, they'd move the piano off the stage and onto the floor and nestle a couple of front row tables up against it.

Other times with smaller groups, the piano got lifted up onto the top step of the bandstand, but didn't seem to matter—the balance always sounded perfect, just the way the musicians were intending it. You heard the softness of Hank Jones's touch or the startling brilliance of Monk's left hand like you were sitting on the piano bench next to either one. About the only sound that didn't resonate beautifully in that room was the voice of Pee Wee Marquette, who seemed to have mastered every bad mike technique ever known: pops, squeaks, hisses, feedback, plus a shrill voice that would rattle the ice cubes in your glass. He was also pretty good at mispronouncing names and one night introduced the audience to "the inimitable Art Blakes-ly!"

I'd heard they actually had a kitchen at Birdland; regardless, I think most of the cooking was done on the bandstand. There was also a "dressing room," which from what I could tell was pretty primitive.

The air was smoky and stale but the temperature always seemed right. The drinks were watery. And the stage lighting was fairly illuminating, but not very flattering—"¹a trait I'm sure the lady singers weren't too crazy about.

The ceiling at Birdland was all acoustic tiles and very low. So low that when Sonny Payne played there with the Basie Band, he wasn't able to twirl his drumsticks over his head the way he did in other venues. The guys in the trumpet section had to stand up carefully so as not to bump their heads.

Monday nights were, of course, jam session nights, and that was when the musicians would come to sit in the gallery and hear what was new in town. One Monday night drummer Charlie Persip was leading the house band, and about midway through the second set (they played as many as four sets then, lasting well on into the wee hours), Charlie stepped out from behind his drum set and moved to the mic.

"I'd like to introduce a guest who is going to sit in with us tonight. Probably not too many of you have heard of him yet, but I think you will. And when I tell you that he plays two and three saxophones at once, you're probably going to think it's like a gimmick. That's what I thoughts until I heard him. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to New York, Mr. Roland Kirk!"

A large mountain of a man stood up from one of the front row tables. He had on a big fur hat and was draped in capes and saxophones. Charlie came down from the stand and led him up to the mike and we could tell then from the dark glasses and the tentative way he moved that he was blind.

Charlie counted off the tune, I forget what it was, and Kirk started to blow, and suddenly the quartet sounded like a big band. People in the audience were looking at each other in disbelief. The power of the sound that Roland Kirk was putting forth in that low ceilinged room with its intimate acoustics was almost too much to bear. It was thrilling the way watching a volcano erupt is thrilling, resonating deep down inside your chest. Charlie Persip was really right about this one: this was no gimmick.

When you came back up outside from Birdland, it was like swimming up to the surface from some deep oceanic pool of sound and sensations. The traffic seemed to move at a faster speed. Car horns startled you and made you jump. The air was thin and ticklish. Everyone had slightly different re-entry symptoms, but nobody came back up from Birdland quite the same as they'd gone down.

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