Ferguson and Big Band Christen New Birdland
Originally printed in the January, 1997 issue of Down Beat.
By Alan Nahigian & Zoe Anglesey

Birdland, the legendary midtown jazz nightclub that Charlie Parker once dubbed "the jazz corner of the world," reopened in October at 315 W. 44th St., not far from the original club, located between New York's 52nd and 53rd streets.

Trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, who led the Birdland Dream Band 14 weeks a year at the club beginning in 1956, and his Big Bop Nouveau played at the grand opening. Standards like "Caravan" and "Milestones" as well as the New Orleans-inspired tune "Cajun Cookin'" were performed in the traditional Ferguson high-energy manner.

In addition to trumpet and flugelhorn, Ferguson played a soprano sax on a composition inspired by an Indian raga. For the encore, Big Bop Nouveau played a new arrangement of Joe Zawinul's "Birdland" by Chip McNeill, which can be heard on Ferguson's new CD, One More Trip To Birdland.

"This is funny; you know, you talk about destiny," Ferguson said. "I couldn't think of a name for the new album, and Glen Barros, president of Concord Jazz, said, 'Well, I caught you at the Fairmont in San Francisco, and when you came out to do an encore, you said, "Let's take one more trip to Birdland," and you played "Birdland" as an encore.' And Glen said, 'Why don't you call the album that?' Frankly, I loved it, and it wasn't a bad idea because we had this new arrangement of 'Birdland.' We had played the same old one for so long that I just felt it was time to get a new one. But at the time we had no idea that this club was going to open."

Ferguson spoke fondly of the original club, noting that his steady big band gig there helped guarantee that his group would stay together during its first couple of years. "That was enough to keep the band together, along with the one-nighters we played in jazz clubs in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia."

Backstage, Ferguson said he was surprised by the comfortable artist facilities. "This dressing room is terrific compared to the original Birdland's, which was a quarter of this size. And that was for Miles [Davis], [John] Coltrane, Cannonball [Adderley], Philly Joe [Jones] and I guess maybe Herbie Hancock and Red Garland ... the rhythm section would change at various times. Miles' band and my home band, we all shared one little room. ... So I'm really looking forward to this."

"The sound system is state-of-the-art," said proprietor John Valenti of the new club, which includes a large stage and a full dining room. "The sightlines and the music are optimum from every vantage point." Valenti, who ran the uptown Birdland club at 105th and Broadway from 1986 until recently, said he expects to book many of the same artists who played the original Birdland, which was run by Morris Levy and Oscar Goodstein until it closed in 1965. "I've only asked them to bring not only their talents, but also their memories with them," Valenti said.

Sunday nights will be billed as big band night and will feature various large ensembles from New York City and beyond.

Department of Business Services Commissioner Earl Andrews, an emissary from New York Mayor Rudy Guilliani's office, presented a framed proclamation about the Birdland legacy.

"The mayor knows that we need Birdlands," Andrews said after the grand opening. "We need places where people can go where jazz is nurtured and kept alive. It's a very important industry in this city."

Pre-grand-opening events at Birdland included performances by vocalist Kevin Mahogany and vibist/harmonicist Hendirk Meurken's quintet featuring saxophonist Andres Bojarsky, pianist Mark Soskin, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Portinho.