The Bird of Paradise:
Michigan's Finest Jazz Club
The Ron Brooks Trio
by Mike McHoneED NOTE: report from the Detroit Free Choice (July 30, 2004) "The Bird of Paradise, a top jazz club in Ann Arbor for nearly two decades, closed its doors this week, with a Tuesday gig led by owner (and jazz bassist) Ron Brooks... Brooks is said to be considering re-opening at another location in the area." As such, consider this article a tribute to a departed club...
If you're a fan of Jazz then you owe it to yourself to visit The Bird of Paradise, Ann Arbor, Michigan's premier Jazz club. Jazz fans from all over the United States and Canada have made it a point to visit this club, as it is touted to be one of the greatest places to see Jazz in America.
During its 18 year presence, The Bird has featured such acts as the Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Brown, Astral Project, Marcus Belgrave, Shirley Horn, and the great Dizzy Gillespie. It is the only Jazz club in Michigan that features local, national, and legendary acts all in the same venue. It is the only club known in all of Michigan - as well as most of the mid-West - to deliver live Jazz seven nights a week.
Stabbed in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor, nestled beneath a Cajun restaurant called Zydecos, and sitting off to the side on Main Street, The Bird is, literally, an underground club, complete with a low ceiling, a smoky atmosphere, and adorned with black chairs and tables sprinkled with candles. When you descend from the stairs, you enter into the bar area. Framed pictures of Miles, Bird, Satch, Ella and Billie hang on the walls. Friendly hosts and hostesses greet you and take your order. Next to the bar area is the music room with up close seating and a low, intimate stage area. Seeing this might remind the Jazz enthusiast of the clubs that where peppered around New York in the early fifties. A single spotlight focuses on the piano. You sit back, nestle in with a Guinness, and feel the music. Depending on the day, you might see guitarist Russell Malone or vocalist DeeDee Bridgewater. Pianist Ray Brown could stop by any moment. Or if it's a Tuesday, you'll see Tad Weed on piano, Pete Siers on drums, and a man by the name of Ron Brooks on bass. That would be the Ron Brooks Trio. And Ron Brooks would also happen to be the owner of the Bird of Paradise.
Ron Brooks' history in music is as complex and compelling as his playing. He first caught the jazz bug when watching his mother sing along to old Ella Fitzgerald albums. Later in high school, he began strumming on guitars and finally moved to the upright bass. Soon after, he met Bob James.
In 1962, Ron debuted with the Bob James Trio on their album "Bold Conceptions" which was produced by Quincy Jones. The album, a critical darling, has recently been re-issued and can be found at the Bob James web site (bobjames.com). After a stint with James, Brooks went on to form The Mixed Bag and recorded an album for Tribe Records.
During the late '60's he toured Europe with Duke Ellington performing at Paris' lengendary Blue Note cafe, as well as other places in Germany and London. Throughout the '70's, Brooks shared the stage with such performers as Eddie Russ, Sarah Vaughn, Mel Torme, and Sonny Stitt. It was, however, in 1985 that Ron went back to his roots, settled in his hometown of Ann Arbor and opened The Bird of Paradise.
"The goal," he told the Detroit Free Press, "was always to create an environment in which the music I hold near and dear to me could flourish, and that still is the goal." And it will most likely be the goal for a long time to come, considering the fact that Brook's lease is covered until its renewal date in March of 2015!
The Bird, also, is in no short supply of admirers, be it local or otherwise. Local entertainment newspaper, Detroit alternative paper Metro Times declared it the "Best Place to Hear Jazz" in 1999, 2000, 2001 and yet again 2002. Downbeat Magazine, the leading American magazine for serious jazz fans, connoisseurs, and aficionados for the past 68 years, voted The Bird of Paradise as one of the 100 greatest Jazz clubs in the entire world. In addition, IBJ Magazine's Cal Stone called it "one of the most recognized names in jazz" and called the acoustics of the club "nothing short of remarkable."
It seems that every person who walks into the place is automatically put under a spell. "Amazing," said Stephanie Rozner, 27, local resident and music fan. "For the cover charge and the atmosphere, there's no other place where you can get so much for just a few dollars." The weekday charge is generally $5.00, weekends $10.00, which, of course, is another perk about the club. Not only is it one of the best, it also happens to be one of the most affordable. And on Sunday evenings. everyone gets a treat. Sunday is the open jam session day when audience members can get up and jam with local and seasoned musicians.
In a time where the radio is awash in flavor-of-the-moment-Tiger-Beat teens looking as if they had just gotten off their morning shift at the Gap, where MTV is overrun with hip-hoppers who couldn't construct a lyric without an expletive while flashing their 'bling bling,' where concert venues are flowing over with "pop-punk" acts (oxymoron?) by the dozen, where old rock acts are more concerned with making money than music (are you hearing me, Lars Ulrich?), where new rock acts can't play anything besides an E minor chord while the lead singer sounds like he's doing his best impression of Cookie Monster, it's refreshing to see someone, anyone, trying their damnedest to keep the first true form of American music alive and kicking. And to know that so many people around the country, the world even, delight in its offerings, as well as the music of the man who gave it a home, lifts the heart of the true fan.
The club itself is legendary, but it also has had a hand in helping provide the area with a magnificent array of musicians that perform at the annual Blues and Jazz Festival. The Festival which, in the past has headlined such acts as Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, and Miles Davis, has been a mainstay in Michigan for the last 32 years. Brooks, himself, has performed at the festival, as well as some of the other regulars. Praised in such publications as Rolling Stone and the New York Times, as well as by legendary Detroit DJ Ed Luv on WDET 101.9 FM, the festival draws thousands from all over the Globe. Some of whom, by word of mouth, or otherwise, have heard of The Bird and want to check it out for themselves. And usually when a national headliner is playing at the festival or in a club in nearby Detroit, sometimes they stop by and hang out.
It can be said that you either hate or love Jazz. When you hate it, it mostly comes out of a misunderstanding of the art form. But when you love it, it's a passion that runs deep. This is the reason for The Bird's longevity. Ron Brooks is not only a great performer, he is still a fan of the music. This quiet, humble man, with smooth features and hair going gray, has a genuine love affair with Jazz. And because of him, we have a chance to share in it.
Ray Brown and Ron Brooks
(Photographs courtesy of the Bird of Paradise homepage)
Address: 312 Main St., Ann Arbor, Michigan
Phone: (734) 662-8310
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