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Birdland Jazz Club, A Marquee NYC Venue, Sounds the Alarm to Raise Vital Funding

Jonathan Chimene
The Chucho Valdes / Joe Lovano Quintet at Birdland in 2016.

Birdland Jazz Club has officially joined the endangered venue list.

A GoFundMe campaign initiated this week aims to raise at least $250,000 to help prevent the venue from closing permanently, in the wake of a nine-month draught precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“On March 16 we were given the order to close,” Gianni Valenti, Birdland’s owner, tells WBGO. “I thought it would be a couple of weeks, and I kept everybody employed through March. I did all new carpeting, new drapes, new painting — because we never have downtime to do all these things. We had high hopes that we were going to reopen the first week of July. So I went to my landlord; I don’t need to tell you what 9,000 square feet in Times Square costs these days, along with utilities and real estate taxes. We made a deal to pay half rent in April, May and June, and resume in July — not knowing all of these restrictions the state was going to impose on us.”

Valenti laid off nearly 60 employees, keeping a core staff of eight on a part-time basis in case he had the opportunity to reopen on short notice. He seized that opportunity on Dec. 2, after investing $18,000 in a new air filtration system, table partitions and other safety measures. According to New York State regulations, the club opened with limited capacity, and was prohibited from issuing a music charge, or even advertising the artists. Then on Dec. 12, another lockdown order arrived: “I open for 10 days, and the Governor shuts us down,” Valenti says.

Credit Seth Walters / Broadway World
Broadway World
Jim Caruso, left, with Gianni Valenti at Birdland in 2013.

Birdland, which has a capacity of 200 people, is one of the most prominent jazz venues in the country, and among the more steadfast tourist attractions in New York City. Along with the basement-level Birdland Theater, which opened in 2018 and accommodates 100, the club is also beloved by the Broadway and cabaret community, largely thanks to Jim Caruso’s Cast Party, an open-mic variety show that has become an institution since its inception more than 15 years ago.

It was Caruso and Susie Mosher — the host of another weekly series at Birdland, The Lineup — who brought Birdland’s plight to the attention of writer and producer Tom D’Angora, who recently helped spearhead a wildly successful fundraising effort for the West Bank Café and Laurie Beechman Theatre.

“Birdland is so iconic and so historic, and so important to New York,” D’Angora says. “The fact that such an iconic venue is so welcoming and so open to the Broadway community is a wonderful thing. We’ve always felt so welcomed there.”

Credit Jonathan Chimene / WBGO
Sara Gazarek performing with Josh Nelson at Birdland.

Birdland’s call for support comes less than a week after The Blue Whale, a notable Los Angeles jazz venue, announced its closure, and one month since Jazz Standard, another leading New York club, did the same. “Clubs around the country are dropping like flies,” Spike Wilner, the owner of Smalls Jazz Club, wrote to its email list yesterday, “and perhaps I am delusional, but I don’t want to give up.  We can’t give up, not yet.” (Like Birdland, Smalls briefly reopened with limited capacity this fall; it has produced a regular series of livestreams, supported by members.)

“Throughout these last nine months, GoFundMe has seen an increase in fundraisers for small businesses in New York City who have reached out to their community for support to stay afloat and while providing financial support to their employees,” says a GoFundMe spokesperson. According to a data report issued by the company, more than half of the campaigns in its first five months were for small businesses, with New York claiming the highest number of fundraisers per capita.

The fundraising effort for the West Bank Café, which raised more than $340,000, hinged in part on a virtual 10-hour holiday telethon featuring stars like Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera and Alan Cumming. Will there be a similar event for Birdland? When the question is posed, D’Angora laughs conspiratorially. “Of course,” he says. “Something fabulous will be announced soon.” (Details are due later this week.)

Valenti describes the effort in terms of survival. “I needed people to realize that we’re still alive, that we’re going to be there, that we’re part of the landscape,” he says. “It’s heartwarming to see the outpouring for the club. I don’t care if someone gives a dollar or a thousand dollars. It’s that they made an effort to help.”

To donate to the GoFundMe for Birdland, click here.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.