Birdland is in New York. Currently it’s in the Theater District of Manhattan but Weather Report’s track of the same name harks back to its original location on Broadway. Judging by the music, it must have been a magical, joyous place then, always full of happy sounds.
Birdland is the first track on the Heavy Weather album released in 1977. The lineup of the band at that time was Joe Zawinul (keyboards), Wayne Shorter (saxophones), Jaco Pastorius (bass), Alex Acuña (drums) and Manolo Badrena (percussion). Weather Report are known as a jazz fusion band and that description fits Birdland pretty well. It’s undeniably jazz and Zawinul’s synthesisers pull it over to the fusion side of the genre. But the fretless bass adds a little funk, the drums tap out a metronomic beat and there are infectious latin rhythms in the percussion. With Wayne Shorter’s saxophones providing a simple melody the whole piece exudes a sense of relaxed playfulness.
Jazz in general and jazz fusion in particular rarely make an impact on the pop charts but the Heavy Weather album peaked at 30 on the Billboard 200 chart and reached 43 on the UK album chart. Birdland itself was released as a single; it didn’t chart as far as I know but it has become a jazz standard and flits by from time to time on the radio, on the TV and in films. Even if you never listen to jazz I’m sure you’ve heard it once or twice.
There’s a compilation album called Je n’aime toujours pas le jazz mais ça j’aime bien, which translates as “I don’t always like jazz but I do like this”. It contains 75 jazz tunes selected for their wide appeal and it includes the Weather Report track Teen Town. If I had chosen those tracks I’d have included Birdland instead of (or perhaps as well as) Teen Town. It’s the ultimate jazz tune for those who don’t like jazz.
Birdland was named after the place in New York. It’s not a park full of pigeons or a collection of rare birds in cages, it’s a jazz club named in honour of Charlie Parker (a.k.a. “Bird”). To Joe Zawinul it was indeed a happy place full of sounds – the sounds of his favourite jazz musicians – and you can hear his joy in the music of Birdland.