Edmonton Journal

Finger-snappin' time at the Yardbird
Live jazz rules the stage far from the boy bands and mainstream circuit

Todd Babiak, Edmonton Journal

Thursday, March 07, 2002
Volunteer bartenders Leah Tolton and Luc Bouchard at the Yardbird Suite.

The Yardbird Suite, 11 Tommy Banks Way
Aggressiveness quotient: We don't give receipts!
Snootiness factor: Handshakes and hugs
Genre: Jazz
Bathrooms: Not for profit

- - -

Jazz is a blend of individualism and compromise. Fifty years ago, there were no greater metaphors for American democracy than the Mississippi River and jazz. If the genre has not lost its charisma and soul since Chuck Berry and Elvis changed everything, jazz has lost its cultural centrality. For most of us, bop is little more than a curiosity.

For everyone else, there is the Yardbird Suite. If you are sick of the boy bands, video screens, breast implants, second-hand smoke and neon booze advertisements of the mainstream nightclub scene, try some live jazz. The Yardbird Suite is the talented, pudgy kid with glasses peeking around the corner at all the drunken brutes of Whyte Avenue, wondering why they keep barfing in the garbage bins and punching each other in the face.

"This is technically a private members' club," says house manager Danielle Burns. Like everyone else working at the Yardbird tonight, Burns is a volunteer, which makes it difficult to complain about the service. "But we welcome anyone who wants to come check us out."

Burns says that everything about the Yardbird Suite is unique, but most peculiar is the smell inside. Microwaved popcorn replaces cigarette smoke as the dominant odor. This either says the Yardbird is the most progressive bar in the city or that jazz is in big, big trouble. Remember Dean Moriarty in On The Road, ripping his shirt off in the jazz clubs and howling about Charlie Parker, the wild god of the beat generation? Despite the fact that the Yardbird Suite was named after a Parker song, all the sweaty, smoky, improvisational madness has been replaced by the suburban scent of microwaved popcorn.

The tables are close together, so it is easy to make new friends as you watch and listen. Even if you don't make friends, you are close enough to hear your neighbours' stomachs gurgling when Lisa Otey plays the quiet parts of My Funny Valentine. You can appreciate the exact tenor of their sniffles and coughs, and during the intermission you can hear about their plans to go for brunch at the High Level Diner if the husband's cystitis isn't acting up.

Near the stage, a few tables are pushed together for Yardbird regulars, the enthusiasts. They have a bottle of gold-label Wolf Blass to share. A positive correlation between wine consumption and audience participation is evident in this zone, as random shouts of "woo," "Lord," "damn" and "smokin' " increase in volume and intensity as the evening progresses.

If the average age at the Yardbird is 45, it's being pulled downward by a new generation of easy listeners. Julie Stinchcombe, 9, is here because she met bluesy pianist Lisa Otey at the Old Strathcona Farmer's Market. Stinchcombe is looking for inspiration, according to her dad. When I ask if she will play here at the Yardbird one day, Stinchcombe looks toward the stage and replies, "Yeah."

The clean-breathing patrons of the Yardbird Suite move their heads from side to side, snap their fingers and sing along. Their animal-print shirts and black leather pants illuminated by candles and elegant blue lights, the hep cats shimmy in their seats and stand up occasionally for ovations and accolades.

As Lisa Otey plays, her velvet shawl keeps falling off her shoulders. We can't stop looking at her, or laughing generously at her jokes. Most of her songs are about someone named Baby, and many of us know that person and nod our heads about leaving him, or her. When Otey leaves the stage for the intermission, a bearded man stands up and turns around, faces the crowd, wipes his brow and says, "Whoa. I need some popcorn."

© Copyright  2002 Edmonton Journal