Jazz Review : Regulars Say Bye-Bye Birdland : The Long Beach nightclub’s farewell is one big jam session as the owner, drummer Al Williams, calls it quits.
Like the line in “Lush Life,” songwriter Billy Strayhorn’s paean to the denizens of nightclubs, a neon sign in a second-story window announces “jazz and cocktails"--this one overlooking the downtown corner of Pine Avenue and East Broadway.
Sadly, the drinks and the music are gone from that spot now as Birdland West, the heart of the Long Beach jazz scene, has closed.
After almost eight years in business, owner Al Williams has decided that too many demands were being made on his time and that it would be best to close the club.
“We weren’t doing great, but we weren’t in any (financial) trouble really,” Williams explained Sunday at the club’s closing bash. “It’s just that I’ve got so many things to do.”
Williams, a drummer himself, says he’ll spend more time with his music, his grandchildren and maybe take a sculpting class. He’ll also stay involved with his entertainment company, Rainbow Promotions, which sponsors the Long Beach Jazz Festival and the Long Beach Carnivale.
“I don’t play any golf,” he joked.
But Birdland wouldn’t close without one last party. A group of friends and well-wishers climbed the 31 steps to the second-floor location Sunday afternoon for the last time. They were treated to performances from some of Birdland’s regular performers, including singers Ernie Andrews, Barbara Morrison and Lil’ Joe Dobbins, pianist Gildo Mahones, drummers Ndugu Chancler, Alphonse Mouzon and, of course, Williams.
The evening was one big jam session as musicians rotated on and off the stage in mix-and-match sessions that underscored the spontaneous nature of their art.
While these might not have been the most polished sessions ever to grace the club’s bandstand, they were, no doubt, some of the most heartfelt as a long parade of regulars made their way to the microphone to pay their respects.
Vocalist Andrews, who appeared early in the show with pianist Mahones, bassist Andy Simpkins and Williams, later said, “It’s a shame that you have to wait for someone to close to get this many people out. This club looks today like it should have looked all the time in the city of Long Beach, because jazz is so great and there are so many great people in the business. And we dearly love Al.”
With Williams at the traps, Andrews brought down the house with his rendition of “Kansas City,” which he peppered with asides about Jay McShann and long-winded raps about the morals of the Midwestern city’s women.
Saxophonist Pat Britt sat in with Mahones and company for a taste of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Then bassist Louis Spears joined the band as Jeff Littleton replaced Williams for a blues led by Mahones’ stirring keyboard charge.
Dobbins, backed by a group that included drummer Chancler, worked through Eddie Jefferson’s lyric to “Night in Tunisia,” in an arrangement that featured an ambitious set of rhythm changes.
But the singer’s best moments came when singing the blues, his style more emotive than musical. Dobbins delivered a few risque phrases in such raunchy fashion that he risked being cited for pandering. His accompaniment, again featuring Mahones, was equally as spirited.
Drummer Chancler took a long galloping solo on “So What” that had Williams shouting jokingly from the audience, “That’s enough! No more!” He was followed by drummer Mouzon, who opened playing piano on a strong, modal number that found him sounding in places like his old boss, McCoy Tyner. Saxophonist George Harper added an appropriately Coltrane-influenced tenor improvisation.
Mouzon then sang “Fly Me to the Moon” in a style that made most karaoke aficionados look good. But, thankfully, he finally settled behind the drums, rattling away impressively with Williams comically holding cymbals in place.
After more tributes from Andrews and a request for Williams to “relocate himself,” vocalist Sandy Graham came up to sing “Alone Together” and “Love for Sale” in the company of Mahones.
Then, some five hours after it began, vocalist Barbara Morrison offered “My One and Only Love” before being joined by Andrews for an upbeat number that could be heard all the way out on the sidewalks.
Birdland’s particular niche as a champion of mainstream and R & B-flavored jazz made it indispensable to the Southern California music scene. There are no ready replacements, and its loss, part of a discouraging and accelerating trend that has seen the such stalwart locations as Newport Beach’s Cafe Lido and Hollywood’s Vine St. Bar & Grill close their doors in the last 12 months, is deeply felt.
At least it went out with a bang.