BWW Feature: Gianni Valenti And The Continuing Legacy of Birdland
On 44th Street, just off of 8th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, there lies a Shangri-La for the lovers of jazz. In recent memory, that place that was born some 70 years ago developed a broader vision to bring inside of its' walls musical artists of other genres, opening another room so that more patrons could be served more music more of the time. An indispensable thread in the cultural tapestry that is New York City, this famed nightclub has always stood as a beacon to tourists and to the cabaret community, nightly welcoming all to enter, to relax, to enjoy what many have come to consider a home away from home. That place is called Birdland.
Birdland has been a musical hotbed in New York City on and off since 1949, when alto sax genius Charlie Parker, known to his fans and fellow musicians as "Bird," served as the inspiration and namesake for the club. The original Birdland, located on Broadway and 52nd Street, attracted a who's who of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane (to name only a few) but as rock & roll overcame the world as the music of choice, the much-loved Birdland was forced to close their doors in 1965. Those doors would remain closed for twenty years.
Enter restaurateur Gianni Valenti who had a vision of recreating the musical magic with an update Birdland in 1986. Since then, the room has been host to some of the best jazz on earth (some might argue THE best), welcome to its' legendary room musicians like Oscar Peterson, Pat Metheny, Diana Krall, Michel Legrand, Dave Brubeck, John Pizzarelli, Kurt Elling, Jon Hendricks, and George Shearing, as well as the most successful big bands in the business. For the past 18 years, Birdland has been also been home to the "Broadway at Birdland" concert series, shining a spotlight on superstars, creators, and the most prominent up-and-comers from the theatrical and cabaret scenes. Among the entertainers who have graced the stages of Birdland under Mr. Valenti's regime are Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Jason Robert Brown, Stephanie J. Block, Santino Fontana, Gavin Creel, Barbara Cook, Pasek & Paul, Laura Osnes, and Cheyenne Jackson, and that's before one even stops to consider all of the performers that have passed across the stage during the 17-year tenure of "Jim Caruso's Cast Party," a weekly open mic night where can be found jaw-dropping talent, some who have gone on to become big stars, like Erich Bergen, and those who are emerging as the stars of tomorrow, like The Drinkwater Brothers and Joseph C. Townsend. Not content to rest on their laurels, Valenti & co. constantly seek new ways to make Birdland a greater cultural center of Manhattan, leading to the creation of The Birdland Theater, beneath the main room of Birdland, where one can find the popular weekly series "The Lineup with Susie Mosher," as well as venerated nightclub stars like Linda Lavin and Marilyn Maye, or new talents like Hannah Jane Peterson and Ari Axelrod.
On March 16th Birdland closed their doors. The club made the decision in order to slow the COVID-19 and flatten the curve, as many other clubs had in the days before, and as all non-essential businesses would do in the days after. Mr. Valenti says "Of course we understood the gravity of the situation. But it was devastating to lay off an entire kitchen, bar, wait and office staff, to say nothing of the canceling of the musicians. I've always felt that Birdland is a home-away-from-home for so many performers and their fans...it's heart-wrenching, but we are staying positive."
Valenti certainly isn't putting his feet up during this downtime. He has been on site every day, making improvements and updates to his beloved club, keeping busy deep cleaning, refinishing the bar tops, installing a new kitchen floor, painting walls, shampooing carpets, building banquettes in the Birdland Theater, and refinishing the stage floor. "I'm taking advantage of the time. When we finally get the go-ahead to reopen, the place will shine like the top of the Chrysler Building! Whenever it happens, that first night of music will do everyone's heart good!"
As Herbie Hancock said, "To work at Birdland means you've really arrived on the scene."
That scene will live on. The clubs and club owners will see to it with resilience and fortitude, with grit and guile.
And Gianni Valenti will be leading the charge.
Photo by Bill Westmoreland