[JPL] Bird Of Paradise has flown away

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Aug 22 17:10:28 EDT 2004


This Bird has flown
Sunday, August 22, 2004BY ROGER LELIEVRE
News Arts Writer

For 19 years the Bird of Paradise jazz club, owned by local bass
player Ron Brooks, earned praise, recognition and crowds for a lineup
that mixed local musicians with national headliners. But at a
sparsely attended closing party July 27, the Bird sounded its final
note.

The end came as no surprise.

The building the Bird occupied was sold in February. By then, the
club was behind in its rent, and the new owner ordered it to vacate
by July 31. The once-stellar lineup of musical talent had dwindled to
mostly Brooks' own trio.

How did the Bird, named by jazz bible DownBeat magazine in 2002 as
one of the best clubs in the nation, wind up out of business two
years later? Was a 2000 move - from an intimate storefront setting on
South Ashley Street to a larger, more expensive basement location on
South Main Street - to blame? Was part of the problem an owner who
was a bassist first and a businessman second? Or was it simply
increased competition for a limited audience?

Brooks, who has said he doesn't want to elaborate on his disputes
with his landlords in the newspaper, also promised jazz fans he is
actively seeking a new home for the Bird and hopes to relocate by
fall.

"We managed to survive for almost 20 years, second only to Baker's
Keyboard Lounge (in Detroit) - that's longer than most marriages,"
Brooks said.

A promising beginning

A self-taught musician, Brooks graduated from Eastern Michigan
University (where he was captain of the wrestling team) in the early
1960s with a degree in speech and physical education. Soon
thereafter, he enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he
earned a degree in counseling (he currently works for Southeastern
Dispute Resolution Services in Jackson, an agency that provides
mediation services to resolve disputes without going to court).
During his college days, he wanted to become a jazz vocalist;
however, his singing career never got off the ground. Instead, he
turned to the bass.

Brooks has been making and promoting jazz in this area ever since.

The Bird of Paradise, named after a Charlie Parker tune, opened with
fanfare on May 28, 1985, at 209 S. Ashley St., in a building that
once served as an auto dealership and, later, a storage area for
Saguaro Nursery and Plants. At the time, the Bird was considered the
first legitimate jazz club in town since the mid-1970s closings of
such establishments as the Loma Linda and Golden Falcon.

In short order, the new Bird of Paradise became a regional draw for
some of the top names in jazz. Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Krall and Ray
Brown were just a few of the stars drawn to the Bird; at the same
time, local musicians found a home there too.

In an interview after the Bird closed, Brooks said he started the
club in an attempt to "pay back jazz for providing me with the
opportunity to be exposed to things that I probably wouldn't have
been exposed to."

He said he was disappointed that Ann Arbor audiences didn't support
the Bird after its move, but he also remains philosophical.

"I remember when the space I was in was Sears, and then it was
Spiegels, then it was a clothing store, then it was Chianti ...
change is inevitable."

Bad move?

Some blame the Bird's decline on its move to Main Street.

In April 2000, the nightspot moved to a new, larger location in the
basement of 312 S. Main St.; the Firefly Club, which programs mostly
jazz, opened in the Bird's former space. At the time, Brooks said he
was looking for a better location and increased capacity.
Unfortunately, the economy was on the downswing.

In March 2002, the club lost its signature Bird of Paradise
Orchestra, led by local bassist Paul Keller, to the Firefly, where it
was rechristened the Paul Keller Orchestra. Zydeco, the New Orleans-
style restaurant upstairs, closed this January, dashing hopes that
the two could work cooperatively in attracting customers. The next
month, the building, which also houses Ann Arbor's not-for-profit
acoustic music venue The Ark, was bought by developer Jerry Spears
and several other investors. Although it was confirmed at the time
that The Ark would remain in place, the Bird's fate was uncertain.
Now, it has been sealed.

The building's new owner said police reports of a disturbance outside
the club in July hastened the Bird's departure before its lease was
up in October.

"We had already had discussions of him leaving earlier. The episode
pushed the date closer to him vacating," Spears said.

The question asks itself: If the Bird was doing so well on South
Ashley Street, why move it?

Brooks said he the club's popularity led him to believe a larger
place was needed.

"I look back, and I remember the vision of Dizzy Gillespie performing
at the old club and looking outside the window and seeing as many
people outside as there were inside.

"I saw that in order for (the club) to sustain itself and grow, a
bigger space was desirable. I was getting calls from musicians from
(here to) Timbuktu all looking for work. The number of people looking
for a place to play grew astronomically, which told me that there
weren't that many to places to play."

Brooks said he had the opportunity to sit down and talk to the late
bassist Ray Brown, who was a frequent performer at the Bird at its
South Ashley location.

"He took a stab at trying to operate a club in California, and we had
several talks about it - what it was like, what were some of the
pluses or minuses," Brooks recalled. "He provided me with some
notions of what you could and couldn't do."

Did he advise Brooks not to move?

"What he said was, he lost a fortune," Brooks said.

The economics of the situation dogged Brooks as well.

"The overhead goes up because you have a bigger spot, and unless the
response is that much greater, then two and two don't make four," he
said. The difficulty comes in broadening the club's appeal beyond a
core group of jazz lovers.

Lars Bjorn, a professor of sociology at the U-M-Dearborn, treasurer
of Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association (commonly known as SEMJA)
and co-author of "Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-
60," said it was obvious that the Bird was suffering.

"Paying rent on Main Street is a very difficult thing. ... The jazz
club business is not something you get into to make money. What
(Brooks) has done over the last half year, he started to compromise
just to pay the rent. One night a week he starting bringing in
DJs. ... That was, I am sure, a very hard decision for him."

He said the problems just got worse when the building was sold and
Zydeco closed.

According to Brooks, the South Ashley Street version of the Bird of
Paradise occupied 3,000 square feet, with a capacity of 120 people.
On Main Street, the club boasted 6,000 square feet and a capacity of
220, or with tables and chairs removed just over 300. Rent on the
South Ashley Street space was around $3,000 a month; on Main Street
it was $6,000, he said.

"The space doubled and the rent doubled," Brooks said, with a rent
hike looming when the building changed hands. No new amount was
specified.

Brooks declined to comment on specifics such as how much the Bird
took in revenues, other costs associated with running the club and
how much musicians were paid to perform.

He did say not enough money was coming in to cover expenses. "If
you've got a business and you aren't doing the business," he
said, "you can't pay the musicians what you want. Nobody can work for
free."

Drummer Pete Siers - who leads Los Gatos, a Latin jazz band that has
played at both the Bird and the Firefly - said he blames the club's
demise on a number of factors, including the move to Main Street.

In addition to the high rent, Siers said the club was hindered by its
downstairs digs.

"Everybody thought there would be a lot more foot traffic off the
street. In reality, the sign didn't get up for almost 6-8 months
after the club opened. The people who had the upstairs didn't want to
give up their frontage, so there wasn't anything visible to bring
people down there."

Brooks said it's hard to tell if the downstairs location was a major
drawback.

"The kind of audience who would not be deterred by a basement space
in Europe might be deterred in Ann Arbor," he said.

Added Bjorn: "Things have been slowing down at the Bird gradually for
a while. ... There have been less national acts coming in and so on.
Everybody was asking when the Bird moved to its new location - it was
on everyone's mind - 'Can Ann Arbor support two jazz clubs?"'

Firefly buzzing

When the Bird of Paradise opened in 1985, it was the only place in
Ann Arbor to hear quality, mainstream jazz. Now, there's more
competition all around. Besides the Firefly Club, the nonprofit
Kerrytown Concert House and The Ark also offer occasional jazz acts,
and Goodnight Gracie is jazz-oriented as well.

"I thought to myself, 'Ron, you'd better be careful for what you wish
for. You just might get it,"' Brooks recalled. "I wished for Ann
Arbor to be a thriving community for musicians. That means more
venues, more opportunities."

Other places are playing jazz, but "they aren't full-time, straight-
ahead jazz clubs," he added.

What happened to the musicians who played at the Bird, and to many of
the Bird's customers, is obvious. They can be found at the Firefly,
which recently landed a coup by presenting jazz legend Maynard
Ferguson.

When times started getting tough at the Bird, musicians - such as the
rechristened Paul Keller Trio and Los Gatos, which played a long-
running Wednesday night gig at the club - were dismissed or left,
only to resurface at the Firefly.

Siers, who also played with Brooks as part of his trio for 11 years,
said he harbors no ill will toward Brooks - quite the contrary. "Even
though I took my band over to the 'Fly, it's been cool," he said.

Firefly owner Susan Chastain, meanwhile, has nothing but praise for
Brooks.

"Having more than one venue makes for a jazz scene, so that people
can come to town and know they will find something they'll like," she
said.

She said economics probably played a part in the Bird's demise.

"The cost of doing business in Ann Arbor is off the planet - that's a
huge contributor," she said. "Many jazz clubs across the country have
found the way they can support the music is by becoming more of a
restaurant and pulling cash in that way to pay the bills, and that
seriously marginalizes the music.

"Ron has always been 'music first,' and I applaud him for that."

Bassist first, businessman second

Did bassist Brooks enjoy the business end of running his club?

He tried his best to be diplomatic.

"Those who spend a lot of time and energy being creative and consider
themselves as artistically oriented, are more often than not
challenged by the notion of ... I don't want to make generalizations
about everybody. ...

"Certainly I was more challenged by the business aspects than I was
the artistic aspects," he concluded.

"Ray Kroc, the inventor of McDonald's, once said that somebody asked
him (to) what he attributed most of his success. He said, 'I don't
attribute it to my math skills or my business acumen. I purely
attribute it to persistence.'

"So if you have something you strongly believe in, you could use that
as a model. You have to be persistent."

Does that persistence mean that the Bird will be back?

Perhaps, he said, but likely not in downtown Ann Arbor. "There's a
low probability," he conceded. "Things change so quickly in a
community. ... You never know."

He pointed out that business was crippled not long after the move by
the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He also blamed liquor laws,
especially those regulating happy hours, which changed at about that
time. "People became conservative about their drinking behaviors.
People would go home early and not stay out late.

"Our weekend business was always OK. I think people changed their
habits by probably going out a lot less and not staying out as long -
by investing heavier in their CD players and cell phones and other
things that would keep them home."

Bird's future

During the Bird's closing party, Brooks vowed to reopen somewhere
else. There are rumors he's found a new space, but Brooks won't
confirm the speculation. He did say that any future club would
probably be smaller than the space he just vacated.

"The economics are such, with a larger location, the overhead is too
much," he said.

If Brooks chooses not to reopen, he could sell his liquor license and
use the money to pay some of the back rent, which the landlords have
said is at least $31,600, a figure Brooks has disputed.

Brooks could expect between $25,000 and $60,000 if he wanted to sell
the license, according to Terry Conlin of the Ann Arbor firm of
Selligson Deloof Hopper and Dever, which has handled liquor-license
cases throughout the state for three decades.

Conlin said the demand for licenses is not as strong as it has been
past years.

The value, he said, "depends on how many are available at any given
time and how anxious the seller is to sell."

If Brooks reopened the Bird of Paradise at another location in
Washtenaw County, he could transfer the liquor license pending
approval from the municipal government, police and the Michigan
Liquor Control Commission, according to Julie Wendt, director of
licensing.

Bruce Hutchinson, a former board member of the Ann Arbor Blues and
Jazz Festival, said he doubts Ann Arbor would be a good place to open
another jazz club.

"I think at this point any town Ann Arbor's size would be hard-
pressed to support two jazz clubs," he said. "If it could be done,
Ann Arbor would be the place. But my gut feeling is no."

The Bird's closing leaves a void not only in terms of places for
musicians to perform, but also for presenters trying to place those
artists, he added.

"It looks like we'll just go with the Firefly Club now, right?"

© 2004 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission
Copyright 2004 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.


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