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NY notes: Jazz at Birdland

May 2, 2008
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The last time I was in New York City was about a year and a half ago. I was doing a story on things to do when you are in town on business and you find yourself with a few extra hours in between appointments.

On that mission, I hit some museums, made the upward trek to the top of the Empire State Building, picked up last minute tickets to a play at the TKTS booth, and caught a Sunday night improv show at Upright Citizens Brigade.

That wasn't the half (or the third, of the hundreth) of the options available.

This time, knowing I had a two hours between a matinee and an evening show, so I called my friend John for advice on what I should do.

He said, "Meet me at Birdland."

Even if you aren't a jazz head, you might know the name. Named for the sax great Charlie "Bird" Parker, the legendary club was the inspiration for George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland." Many a jazz legend recorded a "Live at Birdland" disc.

The most recent incarnation of the club is located just west of Broadway on 44th Street. Roomy and friendly, it still hosts a wide range of talent. On the current schedule, there's the bebop of Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, the 16-piece Sultans of Swing doing the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, violinist Regina Carter and much more.

Prefer vocalists? Try the legendary Keelly Smith. Or Phoebe Snow. Or Broadway star Christine Ebersole with pop piano star Billy Stritch.

All of which is to say that amazing music happens here.

On my visit, David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band is in the midst of its steady Wednesday gig. When it comes to music, I trust my friend John--a jazz trumpeter who I met when we both were working at Philadelphia magazine (John's a terrific writer, too: Check out his moving father/son book Renovations and his recent The Violin Maker). And he has guided me to the right place.

Not only is this traditional Dixieland style group thrilling to hear, but they are joined by semi-regular Wycliffe Gordon, one of the world's great trombone players and a master of the mute.

For a crowd that mixes curious tourists with in-the-know locals and renowned jazz writer Dan Morgenstern, they play these sweet sounds for all they are worth. The cards on the bar that say "Please respect our quiet policy during performances" are hardly necessary. What conversation could beat this sound?

In short: New York is New York because you can see greatness on stage at 6 p.m. in the middle of the week. For $10.
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