Blakey’s Birdland Blue Note Sessions

LJC says: Recent posts highlighted confusion on my part on the various live recording releases of Art Blakey At Birdland.

 To set the record straight, in my own mind not least, I have organised the history, spiced up with a little research, bumped to the status of a full post. Great!

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recorded many live sessions for Blue Note, showcasing the talents of the evolving membership of one of the most formidable ensembles of the bop years, The Jazz Messengers. Though recorded under the leadership of Blakey, it is the Jazz Messengers that are as much the stars.


Blakey’s Messengers also recorded sessions for other labels like Columbia and Pacific Jazz, and at other live venues like Cafe Bohemia. The point of   interest listening to these live sessions is the changing front line membership of the Messengers, with initially on saxophone.  Lou Donaldson, then Hank Mobley and eventually Wayne Shorter, with Horace Silver on piano replaced by Bobby Timmons; Clifford Brown on trumpet replaced by Lee Morgan.

Birdland 1678 Broadway NYC

Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records, brother Irving, and Oscar Goodstein, attorney and jazz fan, along with a other partners, purchased the Broadway basement venue, which seated over 400,  in 1949 and adopted the name, “Birdland,” to capitalize on the popularity of their occasional headliner Charlie Parker.

Parker, in reality, played very few jobs at Birdland, not because he was troublesome, but it was claimed by Goodstein that “he was continually wanting money.” Doesn’t sound unreasonable from where I sit.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, we have something special down here at Birdland this evening”  The club’s master of ceremonies, the diminutive four feet tall Pee Wee Marquette, was notorious for mispronouncing the names of musicians during their introduction if they failed to tip him.

The Club hosted many famous jazz recordings, among them John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” and it became came a fashionable place for celebrities to be seen. However by the early Sixties paying audiences for jazz dwindled and in 1964 the club  filed for bankruptcy, its creditors included $3,500 owed to Gerry Mulligan. The following year its new owner, R&B and rock-and-roll singer Lloyd Price, relaunched the venue under the name The Turntable and Birdland was no more.

Van Gelder on Recording Live at Birdland

(Extract below – full interview with Jazz Wax here)

JW: What do you remember about A Night at Birdland from February 1954 with Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver, Curly Russell and Art Blakey?

Rudy Van Gelder: I remember I used a portable version of the Ampex (300-2) recorder and brought all the Neumann microphones (U-47) from my studio.

JW: Was it tough to record Van Gelder style there?

RVG: Not really. Birdland was an ideal place for Art Blakey, from a recording and showbiz standpoint. The lights were dimmed and only Art’s sticks were lit up by spots. The audience would see only the sticks moving on a dark stage, flashing, with thunderous drumming. It was a wild scene, very dramatic.

The Ampex allowed me to record musicians live—during concerts and at clubs. I started doing that for Blue Note during the club date we just discussed. Alfred always liked the energy and excitement of a live performance at night, but it would take me three days to record it. I’d have to take apart the studio and pack all the equipment into my car, drive to the venue, set up the equipment, record the musicians, and then break down everything and bring it all back to my studio in Hackensack—before my next session.

The Records:

1. Art Blakey Quintet (1954) BN 1521-2

Clifford Brown (tp) Lou Donaldson (as) Horace Silver (p) Curly Russell (b) Art Blakey (d) Pee Wee Marquette (ann) recorded live at “Birdland”, NYC, February 21, 1954

1522 Runout Detail: RVGe, P, 9M; Scully lock-groove; 172 grams – W63rd, +INC +®


2. Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers (1959) BN 4015-6

Lee Morgan (tp) Hank Mobley (ts) Bobby Timmons (p) Jymie Merritt (b) Art Blakey (d) Pee Wee Marquette (ann) recorded live at “Birdland”, NYC, April 15, 1959

3. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (1960) BN 4054-5

Lee Morgan (tp) Wayne Shorter (ts) Bobby Timmons (p) Jymie Merritt (b) Art Blakey (d) recorded at “Birdland”, NYC, September 14, 1960

Collectors Corner

These two volume recording are quite a headache from a collectors point of view.

They are rarely found second hand as a pair. One comes along, a couple of years later the other volume turns up. Since the covers and liner notes are often the same or very similar design apart from some accent colours, you need a good memory andor good record-keeping information to remember whether you already have Volume 1 – or was it Volume 2 ? Sometimes you will end up with a mono for one and a stereo for the other, an original and a second pressing, or a Japanese reissue as filler.

Despite the problems, Van Gelders live recordings are astonishing, a total in the room experience, not unlike being there at that front table with the other hipsters. Now that is what I call “Great!”

7 thoughts on “Blakey’s Birdland Blue Note Sessions

  1. Hello LJC, I was able to get out to a local record store the other day and found a beautiful mixed label copy of 1522. I actually scored a copy of 1521 years ago so I now have the set 🙂
    So it seems I have the opposite of your set as my 521 has 47w 63rd labels and 1522 has NY USA side 1 and 47w 63rd side 2. Both have deep groove. Question, does your set have laminated covers? Mine has and also 1522 has inner sleeve #3 so that would date from late 62, the 1521 must be a few years earlier.

      • No worries, Dottore: the collective weight of all our vinyl should create enough gravity to bend space/time to such an extent that we can still join LJC before the show begins 😉

        • Glad you can all make it! Valet parking have now located the Time Machine, and I have booked us all into both the 1954 and 1959 Birdland sessions- be sure to look sharp: shades obligatory.

          Latest time travel advice: due to essential maintenance work on the space/time continuum, some delays are expected approaching 1954. Time Travellers are advised to allow extra time for their journey, and to change at 1956 to avoid any temporal congestion.

  2. Lovely article and an interesting read. If only we could flash ourselves back in time. There are moments that I really feel that I missed out on all that good stuff; not to mention all the other magnificent live sets he recorded for Blue Note 😉

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