SEE Magazine: Issue #576: December 9, 2004
Big birthday for a big bird
Yardbird Suite’s 20th marked by jazzy fanfare

Fri — Sat, Dec 10 — 11 (Doors 8 pm, show 9 pm)
Yardbird Suite (Corner of 102 St.& 86 Ave.)
Members $22, guests $26
Info: 432-0428
Jazz fans in Edmonton will raise a glass this weekend and toast the 20th birthday of the Yardbird Suite. No mean feat, considering the whims of the music business. In fact, the Yardbird is totally unique in North America–a club owned by the 400 members of the Edmonton Jazz Society, a not-for-profit organization.

The first performance at the current location of the Yardbird Suite took place in the fall of 1984, but there were at least four previous locations, dating back to 1957. The first "Suite" opened up at 10444 Whyte Avenue (actually in the basement around the back) with a performance featuring drummer Terry Hawkeye, saxophonists Ray and Zen Magus, trumpeter Garry Nelson, and bassist Ron Repka. Over the years the Yardbird lived at the old Steak Loft on Jasper, Captain’s Cabin on 99 Street (now the Fiddler’s Roost), and an old Volkswagen Garage at 81 Avenue and 102 Street.

Craig Magill, longtime supporter of jazz and the EJS in this city is the chief architect of this weekend’s celebration. "It really began in 1973, when Marc Vasey came to four or five of us and asked us to put up some money to bring in shows," recalls Magill. "The first one featured Charles Tolliver at the old Captains’ Cabin. Some years later, in 1984, Marc, and the board at the time, found the old Malone warehouse; the building already had a small theatre and restaurant and with a little work we got it going. Our first booking was Herb Ellis." Purchased for the princely sum of $28,000, the Yardbird has since become a shining example for jazz societies across the continent. "We get calls all the time from people asking us how we managed to make it happen and how we can sustain it. There are a few crucial factors: first, for some unknown reason Edmonton has always nurtured jazz, even back to the 1930s and ’40s. Musicians in this city have always supported the concept as well, but the single most important factor is the incredible group of volunteers who have run this place from the outset."

In fact, the Yardbird has flirted with the idea of paid staff in the past, with near disastrous results. "We attempted to have a paid manager and some staff but it didn’t work at all–morale sank and the whole attitude around the club was terrible. We went back to an all-volunteer situation in 1992, and things turned around right away. Monique Bielech, our longest serving volunteer, was a big part of that successful reorganization. We’ll be recognizing her contributions over the years with a special presentation this Friday night. We’ll also be presenting Marc Vasey with a lifetime membership to show our appreciation for his part in making the Suite a reality."

As always, though, it’s about the music, and this weekend will be no exception as over a dozen players will take the stage at various times. While a few details are still up in the air, Magill says, "It’s looking like Friday will feature Don Berner, Bill Jamieson, Bob Tildesley, Ken Chaney and Tom Doran in the first set. We’ll also get Mike Lent, Tom Foster, Jim Pinchin, Ron Johnson, Bobby Cairns, and Judy Singh up there before we’re done and have a jam to wind up the night."

Saturday will be no less special with Senator Tommy Banks taking part, along with Kent Sangster, Jim Pinchin, and many special guests.

The weekend is also a time to look ahead. "Over the next three years we’re going to be doing some major work at the suite", Magill explains, "We want to expand our capacity up to 250, remove some pillars that obstruct sight lines, move the front door to 103 Street, and shift the location of the bar. Next June we’ll be working in tandem with the Jazz City Festival to present shows."

Those unable to attend can still catch the action on CKUA. Broadcaster David Ward, jazz supporter and host of CKUA’s "Time for Jazz" will be on hand. "The Yardbird is really something to be proud of", he says. "It’s non-profit, is in great financial shape, and has the most incredible volunteers that make it all happen. We’ll be doing some interviews from 8 to 9 this Saturday night, chatting about the history and future of the Suite, and then, from 9 to 10, we’ll be broadcasting the first set live from the Suite."