Bebop in Detroit Nights at the Bluebird Inn by
Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert


  In the jazz world, one sure sign of veneration is having tunes named for you. By that measure Detroit's Blue Bird Inn has made it: At least two prominent Motor City jazz stars have honored the legendary jazz nightclub - and their old stomping ground - with tune titles in recent years.  
Tommy Flanagan Beyond the Blue Bird album cover
Beyond the Blue Bird
First there was trumpeter Thad Jones' composition "5021"; it refers to the Blue Bird's address on Tireman, on the city's near west side. Then there's pianist Tommy Flanagan's "Beyond The Bluebird," the title track of his recent acclaimed recording with his former bandmate, guitarist Kenny Burrell. This CD is a virtual compilation of Blue Bird- related tunes. Tommy Flanagan Beyond the Blue Bird album back cover
(Back cover showing club)
Kenny Burrell playing guitar
Kenny Burrell
Locally the Blue Bird continues to do well too. It has now been celebrated for three straight years at an annual "Blue Bird Reunion" dinner/concert organized by the Societie for the Culturally Concerned. A fourth such celebration, featuring altoist Charles McPherson and pianist Barry Harris, takes place in a few weeks. [Ed note: Sheila Jordan, Kirk Lightsey and George Bohannon were saluted in '95; Louis Hayes, Curtis Fuller and Herman Wright, the long-time core of Yusef Lateef's band were '96 honorees. Plans are underway for the '97 dinner.]  
  Why has the Blue Bird come to be such a symbol of Detroit's contribution to modern jazz? Simply put, because the Blue Bird Inn was the hippest modern jazz nightspot in Detroit during the city's bebop heyday. Almost every significant 1950s hard bop veteran in the city either played or hung out there during its peak years. It's still there on Tireman, in excellent shape and, as one longtime patron has said, "If you go in there and listen close, you can still hear all of that music coming out of the walls!"  
  What made the Blue Bird unique was the people who played, listened and enjoyed themselves there. It was a neighborhood bar that welcomed jazz lovers. The late Detroit baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams once recalled its "great atmosphere. Nothing phony about it in any way…. No pretensions and great swinging music." Pepper Adams lying on bed
Pepper Adams

James Beans Richardson
Musicians not only graced the bandstand, they were an important part of the audience, as bassist James "Beans" Richardson points out.  
  "The majority of the people in there played an instrument, so music-wise they were very 'up', you know," he says. "When there was a lousy record on the jukebox, even the bartenders would say 'Get that record off!'"  
  Sometimes those musicians played unusual instruments; Donald "Martini" Martino played excellent bebop choruses on kazoo! All in all, as The Michigan Chronicle concluded, "in the late '40s the Blue Bird was a mecca for the goatee and beret, a sort of cave for the 'musically misunderstood' and a gallery for the set who talked ,rapidly in terms of 'atonal qualities, polyphonic melodies and counterpoint'."  

Abe Woodly
It all started in 1948 when the Blue Bird hired pianist Phil Hill and told him to assemble a house band specializing in the newest thing from New York City - bebop. There had been music at the Blue Bird Inn intermittently since the mid-'30s, but this was the first time that the new generation of beboppers was heard there. Hill hired vibraphonist Abe Woodly and drummer Art Mardigian (later Mardigan). Mardigan soon left Detroit to pursue national prominence, but his brief stay at the Inn had a strong effect on someone who has since become one of the world's greatest drummers - Elvin Jones.
Art Mardigan
  "I used to go to the club and listen to Wardell Gray and all these cats,"Jones remembers. "Art Mardigan was the drummer, and he was always very friendly and helpful to me. He used to ask me to sit in, but I would never do it. I thought it was presumptuous to sit in with these musicians, because to me, they were the greatest people I knew."  
  The real attraction of the Blue Bird for younger musicians was the freedom it offered them. They could play what they wanted to play.  
  "It had all the support a jazz club needed," Flanagan says. "Everyone who loved jazz in Detroit came. We were always able to play what we wanted to play, and the people liked what they heard." The Michigan Chronicle saw it that way too, observing that "the musicians who take chorus after chorus on the bandstand are just about the most uninhibited, relaxed and frenetic bunch of men in the city."  
  For nearly a decade the Blue Bird featured the best modern jazz artists in Detroit, most of whom went on to national prominence. The original Phil Hill combo in 1949 backed up tenorist Wardell Gray, and the following year they recorded a classic session for Prestige Records. A quartet with Flanagan and tenorist Frank Foster also appeared at the club in early 1950. Their sound was captured by dedicated jazz fan Porter Crutcher on portable recording equipment. Crutcher was a regular at the Blue Bird in 1949 and '50; he had the foresight to buy a Presto portable disc recorder and cut records there on several occasions.  
  Today his old "hobby" is the stuff of legend. An example: One night in late 1949 someone told him that bebop legend extraordinaire Charlie Parker had just walked into the club. Crutcher quickly drove four blocks to his home, grabbed his equipment and hurried back to the Blue Bird.  
  "When I got back I couldn't get in the place!" he recalls."I was outside and so I took my microphone and passed it inside to somebody….I caught the last part of 'Now's the Time'."  
  The Hill house band was replaced in the early 1950s by the Billy Mitchell Quintet, which featured drummer Jones along with his brother, trumpeter Thad. That group got recorded, too, but under much more ideal studio conditions. They waxed four titles for Detroit's Dee Gee records.  
  The Blue Bird built on its extremely hip reputation by billing itself as "the West Side's most beautiful and exclusive bar." It attracted a mainly black audience from both the immediate neighborhood and the city at large. Those who visited the place were first struck with its distinctive exterior - a pure blue facade accented with a New York City-style awning that ran across the sidewalk and right up to the curb. It was just as attractive inside. The acoustics were excellent and the small, understated, semi-circular bandstand could hold a quintet with something close to comfort. The bandstand was moved from near the front to its present location at the rear of the club around 1957 by owner Clarence Eddins, who had taken over the club from the DuBois family four years earlier. The Blue Bird quickly developed a national reputation because of its completely up-to-date music policy, its friendly but fierce jam sessions and its penchant for attracting visits from national stars when they were in town for concerts at larger venues.  
  The most celebrated Blue Bird visitor was Miles Davis. Miles came to Detroit for an extended stay in the latter half of 1953, when he was trying to kick his heroin habit. Eddins befriended him and gave him a job with the Mitchell band. Since Eddins and Davis were about the same size and build, Eddins shared his wardrobe with the trumpeter. Davis never forgot his kindness, and even after he became a huge star, he always gave Eddins a great price for appearances by his group. Davis returned as a single in 1954 to play with the house band, and in the latter half of the decade his groups were frequent attractions. Advertising poster for Blue Bird Inn with Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis
Poster
  Phil Hill's brother Carl, the Inn's doorman, remembers Miles vividly: "He was living in Sunny Wilson's hotel on Grand River and the (West Grand) Boulevard…it was in the winter and he walked from the hotel to the Blue Bird and the joint was packed, everybody was waiting for Miles Davis. So when he came in he had on this grimy white shirt and a navy blue sweater and Clarence told him to go home and put on a tie….So Miles went outside and took a shoelace out of his shoe and tied it up under his shirt and said 'How do you like this, boss?' and went on the bandstand and played."  
Sonny Stitt playing saxophone
Sonny Stitt
While Eddins extended many a kindness to musicians such as Miles, he could also be feisty and combative. One incident between Eddins and Sonny Stitt actually led to the blacklisting of the club by the American Federation of Musicians; for a time AFM members were not permitted to work there. Slowly, the club's attention to the local scene decreased. By the late 1950s the Blue Bird was largely presenting touring national acts, many of whom were former Detroiters. The Blue Bird Inn's house band soon became a thing of the past; meanwhile, the migration of many of Detroit's best players to New York City, where they affected big changes on the music's stylistic evolution, continued unabated. Those players who had spent so many nights blowing at the Blue Bird spread the club's name and legend far and wide.  
  The Blue Bird continued to present music in the 1960s, but eventually the live music stopped in the early '70s. The Blue Bird is today a neighborhood bar again. The bandstand is intact, the piano carefully shrouded and regularly tuned. The club is spotless; one gets the feeling that any minute a band will walk through the door and begin setting up. Billy Mitchell, maybe? Donald Byrd? Tommy Flanagan? Elvin Jones? Following Clarence's death last year his widow Mary decided to resume the live music policy after decades of silence.Whether this attempt at a revival succeeds or not, the Blue Bird Inn's important place in jazz history is assured.  
  (Live jazz indeed continues at the Blue Bird. For info call 1-313-894-9539.)  
 
 
  Lars Bjorn is a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan's Dearborn campus. Jim Gallert was the host of the WDET-FM programs "Detroit Jazz Alive" and "Jazz Yesterday"; he can now be heard as the host of "Swing City" on Ypsilanti's WEMU-FM. Gallert and Bjorn are noted jazz historians who are at work on the first full history of jazz in Detroit. This article first appeared in the program book for the 1994 Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival.  

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