Reviving Detroit’s Historic Blue Bird Inn

2020-06-05T17:03:32-04:00May 22, 2020|

Once “the nerve center” of the jazz scene in Detroit, the venue is now in shambles. But the Detroit Sound Conservancy and neighborhood leaders have plans to change that.

By Anna Clark

Along a modest stretch of Tireman Avenue, on the near west side of Detroit, lies a building full of secrets. It’s a low-slung place, tucked between a liquor store and towing service, but with a bit of stylized blonde brick evoking an earlier era. A swath of bright blue paint across the front is adorned with the black silhouettes of dancers and musicians, and between two windows of cubed glass is a marquee awning that reads: The Blue Bird Inn.

For about thirty years, beginning in the late 1930s, The Blue Bird Inn hosted live jazz and bebop nearly every night. The club had a lively free-wheeling spirit, an audience that was largely Black and steeped in musical knowledge, and a bandstand tucked up against the window that featured some of the most breathtaking musicians of the last century. John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker all performed here, as did Dorothy Ashby, Betty Carter, Alice Coltrane, and Sarah Vaughan. The house band featured the likes of Yusef Lateef, Art Mardigan, and Tommy Flanagan, who later titled his album with Kenny Burrell Beyond the Blue Bird. And Miles Davis made numerous appearances, playing both with the house band and his own groups.

Davis’s first visit was in 1953. He lived in the city for five months, trying to ease off heroin, and often showed up to play. One wintry evening, he walked over from his hotel on Grand River and West Grand Boulevard. “The joint was packed, everybody was waiting for Miles Davis,” remembered Carl Hill, the doorman, according to the trumpeter’s biography. “So when he came in he had on this grimy white shirt and a navy blue sweater and Clarence [Eddins, part-owner of the Blue Bird] 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.”

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Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit in 1958 with Kirk Lightsey on piano, Herman Wright on bass, and Roy Brooks on drums. Photo by James “Beans” Richardson, courtesy of Jim Gallert Collection and Detroit Sound Conservancy.

“What an amazing thing it is, really—what a mysterious one—the way Detroiters accept jazz,” wrote a Down Beat columnist in 1955, after a visit to the Blue Bird. “They take it for granted, but don’t avoid it as a result. They keep the warmth alive for the best of the old, but don’t reject any of the new in consequence. Symptomatic of the Detroit approach to jazz is the atmosphere, the look and the feel and the sound, of the Blue Bird…”

The club went through a major renovation in 1957, and expanded its showcase to more national performers. But increasing options for modern jazz in Detroit cut into its popularity. Top talent got more expensive, too. Around 1970, live music at the Blue Bird began trailing off, outside of some revival performances in later years. It remained open as a neighborhood bar for another few decades before closing down. Since then, multiple owners left the club sitting vacant and vulnerable to scrappers. The roof began falling down. Eventually, the old club was put on the city’s demolition list.

In its heyday, the Blue Bird Inn was “the nerve center of the scene,” Mark Stryker wrote in his book Jazz in Detroit. But sixty-some years later, the building is in shambles. The stories that came out of the Blue Bird—like Miles Davis and the shoelace—are still treasured by many music fans and residents, but by and large, the people who hold the frontline memories of a thriving jazz culture in this little club are dying. That history is at risk of being forgotten, a casualty of neglect and time.

 

The Detroit Sound Conservancy means to change that. For eight years, the nonprofit organization has been on a mission to preserve the breadth of Detroit’s music legacy. Led by Carleton Gholz, executive director, it builds collections, digitizes archives, hosts listening parties and performances, and has become a force in the preservation of significant buildings and artifacts. DSC is the caretaker for the iconic Blue Bird stage, which travels from time to time for events (or at least, it did before the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown). The stage is a convenient starting place to share stories of its original home, and the artists who once blared trumpets and saxophones upon it.

DSC’s annual budget is about $100,000. It’s funded mostly by grants, along with nearly $600 per month from contributing supporters via Patreon. This pays for secure temperature-controlled storage space for its archive. (Additional space comes courtesy of community partners: “We don’t have our own home, so our home is everywhere,” Gholz said.) It also pays for modest staffing: Gholz, with “full-time hours, but not full-time pay”; and sixteen hours a week from a project manager. Additional leadership comes from a working board of directors, a majority-Black group of musicians, archivists, music writers, and fans. There are volunteers and interns, too.

“This is an impossible mission,” Gholz said of preserving Detroit’s musical legacy. “But you just have to keep showing up and putting in the hours, two- to four-hour shifts, working on archival projects each week.” Those hours are  expanding further with a new position. The Dan Sicko Collections Fellowship is a paid part-time position designed for a recent graduate of Wayne State University’s program for emerging archivists. “It’s not a lot,” Gholz said. “It’s grassroots. It should be more. But I take it as one of the great accomplishments of my life, because the impact on the ecosystem of those…hours is profound.”

Gholz told me he’d been driving by the Blue Bird since 2012, long before the DSC officially got involved. “I guess I thought someone else would come along and save it.” Four years ago, the DSC team salvaged the stage. Three years later, they bought the building. Then they found out it was on the city’s demolition list.

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Interior of Blue Bird Inn. Photo by Iian Tarver, courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy.

Despite that, Detroit Sound Conservancy has big hopes for the Blue Bird Inn—to preserve the building; to bring live music back to its stage; to create an in-house archive and museum; and to make it DSC’s permanent home. “Right now, the place looks kind of like an archeological dig,” said bassist Marion Hayden on a local news segment last year, as she walked through the barren space strewn with peeling paint. (Indeed, the Blue Bird has been an excavation site.) But, Hayden added, it has good bones. “There’s hope for this structure.”

 

After twenty years as an associate pastor, Ventra Asana, a native of Detroit’s east side, retired to the near west neighborhood, near the Blue Bird. She began rehabbing a hundred-year-old home, and planted a vegetable garden in her front yard. She offered  vegetables to passing neighbors, and was soon recruited to start the Larchmont Community Association. The neighborhood group organizes community beautification efforts, clean-ups, and snow removal. It also runs a tool bank and often invites city and state leaders to address residents at its meeting place, Ark of Deliverance church.

As both a community leader and a newcomer, Asana, who trained as an ecology minister, has been listening to her neighbors with great intention. “The people are hardworking. They are creative. They have long memories of what this part of town used to be and how beautiful it was and all the amenities that were here: the barber shops, the beauty salons, the supermarkets. Everything in walking distance.” The Awrey Bakery, with its signature windmill icon, was well loved; residents still talk about going to the bakery after school. But the decimation of the neighborhood over the years has taken a toll. “In terms of what the community needs, it needs everything,” Asana said.

One day, Gholz called Asana and asked if he could come to an LCA meeting to talk about reviving the Blue Bird Inn. She agreed, and there he made his pitch: What if the DSC and LCA worked together to preserve community history? “And so he’s been partnering with the Larchmont Community Association ever since,” Asana said. That includes DSC’s support for a big resource fair held at Ark of Deliverance, four blocks west of the old club. Asana has also attended a number of DSC events—she’s a fan of music, especially jazz and gospel—including “a wonderful exhibit with art from the Blue Bird.”

The collaboration between DSC and LCA gives residents a chance to bring their own visions for the Blue Bird forward, working from three-by-five cards at association meetings. This includes long-timers “who actually went to the Blue Bird Inn and partied there,” Asana said. They remember what was described in an early advertisement as “West Side Detroit’s Most Beautiful and Exclusive Bar.”

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Melvin “Detroit Soul Ambassador” Davis performs at The Historic Blue Bird Stage residency at Walter P. Reuther Library, Detroit, Michigan. Photo by Iian Tarver, courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy.

Community members see the Blue Bird Inn becoming more than an entertainment and archival space. They picture it as a community center, too. “We’d like to have the opportunity for youth, as well as adults, to learn voice and musical instruments,” Asana said. “We’d like to have a coffee shop in there.” It could provide job opportunities and meeting space for community groups. It could also be a destination that brings visitors to the area, igniting further development. Though, she added, “we want development without displacement. We don’t want the gentrifying piece.”

 

The first major obstacle to preserving the Blue Bird—after acquiring the building, which the DSC did with the help of the Kresge Foundation—is getting it removed from the demolition list. The only way to do that , Gholz said, is to get the city council to take a vote that reverses the decision to list it. One way to get this on the agenda is by creating a historic district around the Blue Bird. So the DSC began the process of advocating for a new Blue Bird Inn Historic District.

A study accepted this month by the city council’s historic designation advisory board describes this district as consisting of “a single contributing building” that was the “prototype of the modern jazz club,” designed for listening in an intimate space, rather than dancing and big shows. The study quotes Billy Mitchell, a former house band leader, describing the early days of the Blue Bird: “I was working with groups that were playing in clubs that were more show- oriented than actually jazz-oriented…there was some jamming going on, but the time of the extended solo…for example, in those days it was almost an unwritten law that you played two choruses and then sat down. Whereas today, two choruses, ain’t nobody took a deep breath yet…that era came for us in Detroit, when the Blue Bird era started.”

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The Blue Bird’s legacy wasn’t only on stage. Eddins gave money to a promising Cass Tech high school student named Donald Byrd so that he could afford trumpet lessons; Byrd went on to a profound musical career (and a stint in the Blue Bird house band). Young folks were also permitted to peek in the club’s back door, and sometimes play onstage on Sundays. “The boys didn’t have anywhere to go, so I made that their day,” Eddins told the Detroit Free Press in 1992. “I let their parents bring them in. The parents could sit there and drink pop and eat potato chips while the kids played in the band.” Many of those boys—Kenny Cox, Charles McPherson, and others—went on to become professional musicians.

The Blue Bird also provided check-cashing services to Black residents who were discriminated against by traditional financial institutions. (Notably, one block away from the Blue Bird is the Orsel and Minnie McGhee House, which was at the center of the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case that took the teeth out of racially restrictive covenants.) The club was also owned by men who ran the numbers, a wildly popular underground lottery system that, as Bridgett M. Davis describes in The World According to Fannie Davis, was essential for re-circulating money in the African American community and building meaningful social ties.

 

In addition to making the case for a historic district, it’ll take real money to bring the Blue Bird back to life. Gholz estimated that building restoration will cost around $400,000. Locally, music lovers are raising money in a capital campaign. Cash-on-hand is necessary to meet the tight deadlines required for rehabbing abandoned buildings. Gholz is critical of this. “You can’t win. The process is set up for you to fail.” That is, he said, it favors developers with enough assets to borrow large sums of money, or the ability to move cash around or await the benefits of tax incentives. Community groups with a vision for their own assets don’t have such flexibility.

Tapping national support is part of the strategy for the Blue Bird. The DSC is pursuing grants, including a bid to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. This is the organization’s third time applying for that particular grant; this time, it’s one of fifty-eight programs invited to submit a full application. “This is one of those grants where every project is amazing,” Gholz said. Its recipients, focusing on the preservation of significant African American historical sites, illustrate “the demand for saving black modernity.”

“That’s where demand is: black modernity and civil rights projects,” he continued. “Of course, preserve every goddamn thing in Birmingham and Selma and Greenwood, Alabama. But also it’s got to be in the north, got to be in Bronzeville in Chicago, got to be Detroit’s old west side.” (One Detroit-area site that has received this funding: Hamtramck Stadium, one of the last remaining Negro League ballparks.)

The DSC is also eyeing another ambitious prospect: a national heritage trail for Detroit music, akin to the Gullee Geechee corridor in South Carolina. Visitors could navigate from the Blue Bird to the Motown Museum to United Sound to a host of other significant sites. Ventra Asana, the president of Larchmont Community Association, suggested Northwestern High School could be part of the pathway, given its uncommonly strong tradition of music. Its alumni include Motown’s Florence Ballard and Mary Wells, bassist James Jamerson, and many other lights.

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Founder and Executive Director of Detroit Sound Conservancy, Carleton Gholz, PhD introduces Ron English Trio at The Historic Blue Bird Stage residency at Walter P. Reuther Library, Detroit, Michigan. Photo by Iian Tarver, courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy.

In the midst of it all, Gholz will be leaving the DSC. While the coronavirus pandemic has made the timeline of the transition uncertain, he is headed for New Jersey, where his partner lives. This comes a couple of years after LaVell Williams, DSC’s other co-founder, passed away. The search for a new director is open-ended, and Gholz will continue to work for DSC in the meantime, likely through the end of the year. But, he said, “one of the good things about me leaving is it won’t be some white boy from the suburbs running this shit.” Moreover, he added, “the ideas are bigger than me. I feel confident in the leadership we’ve put together.”

He means not only the leadership of DSC’s board and staff, but also the leadership in the neighborhood, which is alert for ways to meet community needs with partnerships that are not top-down, but ground up. It takes a long time to build trust, Ventra Asana has learned, and only a second to break it. As for the Blue Bird Inn—Asana said, “I actually believe that it’s going to happen.”

 

Two months before Clarence Eddins died, in 1992, the Blue Bird’s owner imagined a future for the closed-down club—one that ideally involved live music. “If I sold this place,” Eddins told the Detroit Free Press, “I would like to sell it to somebody who thinks as much of it as I do. Because I’ve really treasured it.” The work to bring forth that vision has now begun in earnest.

Telling the story of the Blue Bird is necessarily telling the story of the neighborhood. “We’re telling the story not just of the Blue Bird, but of Grand River and Larchmont,” said Larry Williams, DSC’s board president. His family comes from a nearby neighborhood.“Who lived around there? Who had to travel to get there? What does it mean this wasn’t a club on the outskirts of town and wasn’t, at least by that point, in one of the bigger areas of town?” He noted that the club is near the site of the Detroit Rebellion, in July 1967. “I think that’s part of Blue Bird too.”

Williams said the neglect of the Blue Bird is part of a pattern. “In Detroit, I think we kind of just move on to the next thing,” he explained. “Our music has a lasting impact all over the world, but here, it’s always what’s next, and how to improve.” DSC’s purpose, he said, is to make the legacy accessible “not just to music nerds, but everybody. It’s such a beautiful thing to do for everybody. If we don’t protect our own, who knows who will tell our story?” ■

 

 

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit and the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.

Cover image of the Blue Bird with residents and community partners of Detroit Sound Conservancy, City of Detroit MotorCity Makeover 2019. Photo by Iian Tarver, courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy.

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