Thursday, March 1, 2007

A place to play the music they love
Yardbird Suite jazz club celebrates 50 years

Roger Levesque

EDMONTON - For 50 years, the Yardbird Suite club has offered a venue that jazz musicians from far and wide have truly come to appreciate.

Chicago-based Ken Chaney still has fond memories of the original club, which opened in 1957. Just 16 at the time, the pianist was the youngest of a half-dozen musicians who co-founded the first Yardbird basement room simply to have a place to play the music they loved.

"That was the whole idea," recalls Chaney. "Now I've played a lot of the major jazz clubs all over the world, and the last time I was at the Yardbird (two years ago) I was so impressed. It matches just about any place I've been for what it offers. I don't think there's any other place quite like it. They've never had a club like it in the United States. I'm really proud that we started it and that it's still going strong."

He insists his experiences at the original Yardbird were essential in "making up my mind what I wanted to do." He still performs and teaches in Chicago and on tour, and sits on the board of the Jazz Institute Of Chicago. This weekend he visits Edmonton again to join the Yardbird Suite Allstars band, which kicks off a month of celebrations in the current club at 11 Tommy Banks Way.

Chaney remembers seeing significant touring jazz names visit the original Yardbird every month or so. American trumpeter Don Cherry was one of the artists who impressed him, and when Nat (King) Cole made a concert appearance here, Cole's band came to jam at the jazz club afterward.

"We almost always had decent crowds on the weekends with people who would come there week after week after week. There were more jazz fans in Edmonton at the time than people realized. Memberships started almost right away with a discount deal, and that's how the original Edmonton Jazz Society got started."

The original Yardbird locations nurtured the careers of many local performers and hosted appearances from many stars of the golden age of jazz . Since its opening in September 1984, the current Yardbird Suite, run by the volunteer force of the Edmonton Jazz Society (incorporated in 1973), has listed another impressive collection of great players from several generations.

Bebop pioneer drummer Max Roach brought his band there in the mid-1980s, while bassist Dave Holland -- whose name now regularly appears at the top of the jazz polls -- has led his band in numerous appearances at the club. Over the past 15 years or so, the current club has also tapped into opportunities to host top touring groups from Europe like the ICP Orchestra, Willem Breuker's Kollectief from the Netherlands, and Denmark's New Jungle Orchestra.

In a recent e-mail from Copenhagen, NJO leader/guitarist Pierre Dorge recalled his first experience playing the Yardbird in 1990.

"Our names were posted outside the club so we felt very welcome. I remember a very enthusiastic audience, and some very nice helpful people in the stage crew. We only had three horns, but I think we did a very good and powerful show there, with drumming by Hamid Drake and John Tchicai's sax. Everything worked that night to make it so spontaneous and telepathic."

Among the many American performers who have played the current Yardbird, New York singer Sheila Jordan has fond memories of her visits to the club.

"They treated me with such respect, it was like singing for my family. The people who worked their were so great, and the fact that they were doing all of this for the love of jazz with no payment blew my mind. And I loved all the writings on the wall in the musician's green room. I have especially fond memories of working there with (late Edmonton pianist) Bill Emes. It's a very special club, superior to most clubs for the fantastic vibes and the real jazz listening audience."

Check the website for details of month-long anniversary celebrations, which will include visits from past performers like vocalist Mark Murphy and New York saxophonist Lew Tabackin, who will perform with the Edmonton Jazz Orchestra.

This Friday the Yardbird Allstars will include Tommy Banks, Ken Chaney, Kent Sangster, Bob Tildesley, Bobby Cairns, Mike Lent and Blaine Wikjord with an opening solo set from Chris Andrew.

Ex-Edmonton, Vancouver-based pianist George Blondheim opens with a solo set Saturday, and that evening the all-star band will also include appearances from singer Judy Singh, and Calgary jazz veterans Eric Friedenberg and Al Muirhead.

The Edmonton Journal 2007