December 2020 marked the highest (and lowest) points of Gianni Valenti’s thirty-five-year ownership of Birdland. The rollercoaster continues in January, as a GoFundMe accelerates towards its goal of $250,000 to save “The Jazz Corner Of The World”.
Valenti had to close the club in mid-March when local government locked down the state. “We got the notice on that Sunday night, the 15th, from the governor — saying that Monday at eight o’clock, all venues had to be closed. With two spaces open, two regular crowds, two kitchens, full staffs, I had to go on Sunday night and let go 62 people. I had to give away food from fully stocked kitchens to as many people as I could, to get the food through that wouldn’t spoil in order to close. They didn’t give us enough time, but it had to be done,” he recalls.
The rest of the year was a whirl. He negotiated with his landlord. “I’ve had a great relationship with the owner of the building,” he stressed. “The management company has been very understanding in today’s climate, and I’m sure going forward we’ll be able to work out things that are amicable to both parties in today’s world.”
Then he moved on to getting the 5,000 square foot club and 4,000 square foot downstairs theater ready for a reopening. “We had false alarms that we were going to open in July and then we were going to open in September. I started preparing the clubs to meet the requirements for the COVID virus,” shared Valenti. “I installed new filter systems. I redid the carpeting. I had the drapes cleaned. I refinished the bars, floors, kitchen, and painted. I did everything we could to make it as sanitary and as safe as possible. I reached those goals by the end of the summer.”
Birdland didn’t manage to open its doors until December 2. “It was the most uplifting experience I’d had there in 35 years. I had gone dark for almost 9 months. I missed walking into my club that always had vibrant music, laughter, people having dinner, enjoying the artists and the artists enjoying the audiences,” enthused Valenti. “When I opened for that short period of time at 25%, we sold out. People came in with smiles and were thrilled to get out and hear live music. For me, it was like reopening Birdland 35 years ago. I found something to do rather than sit home and watch Netflix. I was actually getting up, showering, putting on shoes, a jacket, a tie, and going to work rather than hanging around thinking ‘What can I do today?’ So it was amazing. And when I had to close again it was another heartbreak.”
By the end of the month, he felt desperate. “My lowest point was on Christmas Eve. I never thought that I would finish Christmas alone in my club,” Valenti said. ” I went to the store. It was the first time in 35 years that I had not been at Birdland for the Christmas show. I missed having people there, joyous, having a great time, and the city buzzing and full of decorations. I felt very, very depressed, and hurt. Not having my team with me, not having music around me and without the artists around me.”
He hoped that Birdland was going to get help, considered starting liquidation or finding a way to take on more borrowing to make it work, and kept on a skeleton part-time staff. “They all know my desire. They know my will. They know that it is my life and that I will never let it go away. I will fight till the very end.”
Meanwhile a couple of blocks away, on Christmas Day, a team of locals lead by Tom and Michael D’Angora were fighting to save West Bank Cafe and Laurie Beechman Theater. The successful GoFundMe and telethon has so far raised over $340,000 to save these Hell’s Kitchen institutions.
Although Birdland is renowned as the world’s leading jazz venue, the club is equally loved by the Broadway cabaret crowd. Jim Caruso’s Cast Party is a Monday night open-mic variety show that’s been at the club for nearly 20 years and Susie Mosher’s The Lineup has become another show that diversifies the club’s program. It was Jim and Susie who connected with Tom D’Angora and asked if he could help Birdland.
Caruso said: “If this isn’t a time for some kind-hearted togetherness, I don’t know what is! Birdland has been entertaining folks with superior music for seventy-one years. It’s been known as ‘The Jazz Corner of the World,’ for sure, but over the past eighteen years, I’ve been thrilled to help expand the schedule to include Broadway, cabaret, comedy and dance.
“Performers deserve an excellent venue, and audiences deserve Birdland. Our goal is to treat both the entertainers AND the guests as superstars, and I think that feeling is apparent.”
Tom D’Angora said: “I thought about a New York without Birdland and I knew right away that we couldn’t let that happen. Live music is imperative to the spirit and energy of this city. I immediately told Michael and Tim Guinee about the situation, and they both agreed that we need to launch a campaign to Save Birdland.” Since then, the GoFundMe has raised nearly $170,000. There is a live show planned for later in January that will include jazz greats, along with A-Listers from Broadway and the world of music.
Jim Caruso is excited at the prospect: “The enthusiasm the community has shown the club with the GoFundMe campaign is overwhelming and invigorating. Fingers crossed we will re-open, and the music and joy pouring out onto W44 Street will be historic!”
Gianni Valenti has been uplifted by the show of support: “I’m feeling more relieved and I’m more in love with the community, with the people that have shown their support with the outpouring of love, not only for Birdland, but for live music and venues and for New York City. I don’t have deep pockets. I need some help to get there because I’ve covered the last 10 months of all the expenses personally with no money coming into the club and I don’t know if I can last until reopening. Without this help, I didn’t know what was going to happen with Birdland. This gives us a bridge to get to when the governor says that we can reopen and to make sure that we’re there strong enough and ready to go.”
As for the music, Valenti perked up when he talked about the live show that Tom and his team will pull together: “I’ve literally given them my whole heart and club and said ‘here, handle with care.’ The fundraiser will touch all the music. We’ve got jazz, cabaret, musical theater, country and comedy. We’ve got it all. So this fundraiser will be something special for everyone.”
He closed by recalling the last major crisis in New York City: “After 9/11, we could still get together — but we can’t get together now. It makes it even harder that people are alone and we can’t give them music, which is what people need is during times like this. Music is our soul. Music keeps us going and — they’ve closed off the music.”