SEE Magazine: Issue #760: June 19, 2008

Suite Memories
After five decades and multiple relocations, the Yardbird remains a premier jazz club

by Mike Garvie


This isn’t Toronto. This isn’t New York. There’s no flash, no razzle-dazzle here in Edmonton. But if you’re in the jazz community anywhere in the world, you’ve heard of The Yardbird Suite, the longest-standing volunteer-run music establishment in North America—and Edmonton’s a big fat star on your map of places to visit because of it.

But on March 23, 1957, Edmonton was a middling city of about 238,000 people. The Old Strathcona area was dark, moody, and cheap. Whyte Avenue housed the original Yardbird Suite, a tiny room with an entrance accessible via an alleyway on 104 Street—a humble beginning for what would become one of the country’s powerhouse jazz clubs.

Terry Hawkeye, Zen and Ray Magus, Ron Repka, Gary Nelson, Neil Gunn, and Ken Chaney­—the founding members of the club—would jam there together, playing whatever genre was necessary to pay bills, bringing in musicians, including the likes of Don Cherry (the trumpeter, not the Hockey Night in Canada host, obviously) and Nat King Cole’s band. Through it all, the wives and girlfriends ran the front lines—unpaid—for the love of the music.

Fifty-one years later, The Yardbird is in a different location but still very much in operation, thanks in large part to the local jazz enthusiasts who donate time and effort to keep it running. Jasiek Poznanski, president of the Edmonton Jazz Society (EJS) and a Yardbird programmer for 12 years, talks passionately about keeping the venue afloat.

“We volunteer our own time,” he says, “so that we can not only be part of a community group but also see lots of great music. It’s kind of a situation where everybody benefits.... If we had to hire staff we’d be out of business. With no paid staff, all the money we have we try to channel into artists’ fees, keeping overhead at a minimum so all the money you have you can dedicate to performing artists.”

It’s a harrowing way to run a business, but after 50 years, it’s starting to look like the Yardbird may be onto something. “Crowds are getting larger, the membership base seems to be continuously growing,” Poznanski says. “Maybe 15 years ago we had 200 members. These days we’re around 500. That’s a good indication of the whole vibe.”

In 1959 the Suite relocated to Jasper Avenue and 98 Street when the Steak Loft vacated the premises. In 1967, the Yardbird took over a Volkswagen garage just off Whyte across from a retired train station, and then disappeared. You may have heard of a few of the bands who contributed to jazz’s marginalization: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cream. So while the Yardbird Suite had apparently faded from the limelight, the EJS (which formed in 1973) was still organizing concerts at the Captain’s Cabin, Palm’s Cafe, and other locations.

“That was a time that there was not really any location that could last longer than a few years,” Poznanski says. “Now since 1984, we are at our own home. That makes it way easier for us and that’s why the future looks really bright. This would be the major point of the organization. You have to have a place to present your art, and we have it.”

In 1984, the Yardbird found its new home at the Malone Warehouse at 11 Tommy Banks Way. To this day, the Suite’s squadron of volunteers refuses to allow jazz to die in Edmonton. “We are a community-oriented organization,” Poznanski says, “so we definitely support jazz. But we also try to support other community events in our venue. There’s been quite a few of those, self-promoted CD releases or other younger performers.... We try to support younger players and that’s where our liberal arts program comes in. A few of them end up being really great players [such as Rubim de Toledo, now based in Calgary].”

The Yardbird fought an uphill battle for the Yardbird to reach this point, but after five decades, the club isn’t going anywhere soon.