Birdland Takes Flight

In 1949, Morris Levy opened Birdland, a trendy nightclub featuring the hottest new music, bebop. Opening night featured Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among other jazz luminaries; regular costumers included writers Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac; the bar space attracted down-on-their-heels students, drifters, and jazz freaks, while the more expensive tables, requiring a full cover charge, brought in haute society.

Despite many claims that Birdland was named in honor of Charlie Parker, it is more likely that it continued in the tradition of the fowl-based names of Topsy’s Chicken Shack and the previous club that Levy managed, The Royal Roost. The Charlie Ventura bop-flavored recording of the same name released in early 1949 may have also been an inspiration; the opening harmonized scat vocal gave it a hip, modern sound. For jazz fans, the name would indicate that the club would feature the new style of bebop without directly stating it. Of course, once the association was made between Parker—known as “Bird”—and the club, the club owners did nothing to discourage it; in fact, from the mid-‘50s on the owners touted their association with the king of bop.

The exact identity of the club’s original financial backers is shrouded in mystery. Monte Kay—who had partnered with Levy at the Royal Roost booking bop acts—was involved from the start. Two of his brothers, Joe and Sol Kaplan, were the original applicants for the club’s liquor license, which was initially denied by the city’s Alcohol Beverage Commission. According to the Kaplans, they had already booked the talent for a projected September 1949 opening night, and spent $8,000 redecorating the club. However, the licensing bureau was unmoved, saying “anyone who proceeds with decorating a room and hiring of talent without knowing whether the liquor license was forthcoming has only himself to blame.” Down Beat more ominously said that—given their failure to get an operating license—“chances are [the club] won’t open at all.”

Having missed their original opening date, the club’s promoters scrambled to find someone who had a “clean” background and the cash needed to pay for a liquor license. An unlikely investor was brought to the table by a shadowy figure named Dave Rosenbloom, said to be involved in at least one of the 52nd Street clubs. Rosenbloom had a childhood friend named Morris Primack, who had lately cashed out of his family’s lumber business. Primack had the cash and the “clean” name, so he was selected to apply for the license. His son, Aurin, recalls some burly-looking police inspectors visiting the family apartment to check out Primack and to make sure he had no nefarious associates. Word came back from the liquor board with provisional approval, so a new opening date of December 15 was planned. However, when Primack and his lawyer went to pick up the license at the end of November, the clerk had a surprise for them:

 I went up with my lawyer to the liquor board and asked for the license and why they were withholding it and so they said it may take a month or so or a little more but we would definitely get it since everything was OK. Then my lawyer came out and told me that I had to pay $3000 under the table if I wanted to get the license immediately. Since we were going to open, I had to pay the $3000, and we got our license.

Although rarely documented, this demand by city officials for additional payoffs was not unusual.

Besides the named investors, there are several other accounts of who may have been behind-the-scenes investors in the club. Chief among the rumors was a well-known mobster, Joseph “Joe the Wop” Cataldo, invested in the operation. Cataldo owned several nightspots, including Pastor’s Club in Greenwich Village and the Camelot Supper Club—located across town from Birdland and a known “wise guy hangout”—and was a major dealer in illegal narcotics. The FBI dubbed him “a top NYC hoodlum,” a dubious honor. Some sources say Levy and Kay bought from Cataldo the lease to the space, previously occupied by the Clique, which had itself experimented with a jazz policy for a while during 1948.

Birdland finally opened on December 15, 1949, with an all-star concert featuring Parker, Lester Young, a Dixieland band, and the young singer who Levy claimed to have discovered at the Royal Roost, Harry Belafonte. Showing their ambitions to make Birdland the definitive jazz club, Levy and Kay put together a program that was a kind of mini-history of jazz, from Dixieland to the latest bop. The opening night was a sellout, and more importantly a critical success. John S. Wilson, writing in Down Beat—the jazz bible of the era—lauded the concert not only for its historical significance but for the quality of the music:

A little imagination was applied to the presentation of jazz in a night club and, wonder of wonders, it resulted in not only good entertainment but good music. . . . Show is called A Journey through Jazz, and it turned out to be just that. With Bill Williams, an unfrocked disc jockey, doing the commentary, it covered the Dixie of the ’20s, the swing of the ’30s, the bop of the ’40s, and the ultracool, or whatever it’s going to be called, of the ’50s.

So far, so good. It’s a nice idea and anybody can get up and talk about the history of jazz. But the real kick to the presentation is the fact that when the samples of each type of music are offered, the guys offering the samples are the kingpins, or damned close to it, of their period.

Excerpted  from Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy by Richard Carlin (c) 2016

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