New York Elusive: Birdland
Birdland is a place that bleeds jazz. Cassady bopped here. Miles blew here. Miles was silent here. The atmosphere was full of musical expectation when I arrived, alone, for the 9 PM show. I was there an hour early after dropping off the girls at the New Amsterdam Theater to see the Broadway production of Mary Poppins. Highly anticipated by them, the show did not disappoint as I found out later. As for me, the three hour getaway was an opportunity for observation and experience. I had no plans beyond walking them to the show, and after one more rejection of my wife's invitation to experience Mary Poppins with them; I was walking the streets of Times Square.
All of humanity seemed represented. Everyone with a destination. Seemingly not me. I was content to see, to hear, and to taste the heart of Manhattan. After wandering fully engaged and alive, I took a back street and spotted Birdland. The familiar place was noticed by accident but immediately remembered from the book I was currently reading-Desolation Angels by Kerouac. The $30 cover only caused a brief pause and was partly overcome by the footnote of the hostess, "That also includes a free drink ticket," she proudly informed me.
"Here you go." I quickly handed over the cash not wanting to give the impression that $30 was a big deal. Earlier in the month, $30 would have been a huge amount as we continued our paycheck to paycheck, suburban, family of four existence. Thankfully, our current month's paycheck had been deposited a couple of days prior and were a loaded gun. My father’s generosity and ashes to ashes perspective provided additional traveling funds. God had continued to provide and we continued to worry. Hopefully, middle age will bring more trust as we find ourselves on the downhill path of life. Maybe we can coast a bit more. Reflect on what we've become, on what we've created, and the miracles we've seen. We've been trusted. No worries or anxieties engulfed me that night as I sat at Birdland's bar, my girls tucked safely in their Broadway seats six blocks away.
Perhaps the finest bartender in New York greeted me with a warm smile and an eager look as he quickly locked into my needs. "What can I get you my friend?" he asked while leaning over the bar, looking me right in the eyes, and glowing. I captured his full attention. This struck me as unique due to my earlier New York service industry experiences.
"How 'bout a Stella?” I inquired with my normal slow paced, Texas drawl.
"Coming right up my friend." he said and thirty seconds later I had an ice cold Stella Artois, a frosted glass, and an unordered ice water.
I surveyed the place from my barstool perch. The stage was the first thing I noticed. No question about the main attraction at Birdland. Anyone who took the stage would enjoy a focused, and quiet, audience. The tables were arranged in a semi circle on three levels. Shadowy waiters and waitresses were efficiently serving delicious looking and smelling courses. Half full bottles of wine littered the room. But this was a musician's place. Everything took a backseat and we were reminded at five till 9 by the emcee introducing the night's performance that any noise during the hour-long set was reserved for those on the stage. What a place! The host continued with the introduction, "Tonight we are once again honored to have Regina Carter and the Peacemakers at the historic Birdland." The band entered from behind the stage with an array of instruments and coolly took their places. Then Regina walked out with a violin and unmistakable style. The next hour was pure listening silk as the tight group traded solos and made music as if playing as one. Clearly, they were talented and familiar with each other. Regina, for her part, was excellent at taking the spotlight, giving it up, regaining it, and in the end, not needing it. The music was the thing and didn't need light. I closed my eyes through most of the performance. A scotch finale, purchased with my drink ticket, had me exiting Birdland loose and satisfied.
Unfortunately, my final impression was forged by the gift booth on the way out. The sad sight of t-shirts, snow globes, coffee mugs, and key chains gave me a brief pause. Snow globes? Was this the Birdland of old or a cash cow trading on the legendary reputation of prior years? Regina and her band mates delivered a tremendous show, but an authentic experience seemed elusive. My youngest daughter collects snow globes.