Some of jazz's most iconic musicians have graced the stage at the Blue Bird Inn on Detroit’s West Side. But the once popular bar at 5021 Tireman has stood empty for more than a decade. Now, there’s an effort to restore the historic venue for a new era.
The Detroit Sound Conservancy is a nonprofit focused on music preservation in the city of Detroit. Carleton Gholz is its executive director. Gholz says the building will eventually serve as a home to the nonprofit, a depository for its archives of Detroit music history, as well as a live music venue.
But that is going to take some major work.
“You know the building has just gone through a lot. There’s a lot of waterlogged stuff…You can see the light coming through the roof. You know, the tin ceiling has sort of falling in,” Gholz said.
A few weeks ago, more than a dozen volunteers met up at the Blue Bird on a Saturday to get that work started. They shoveled dirt and debris into heavy duty garbage bags, pulled up weeds from the sidewalk out front, and cut down the overgrown backyard.
There is not much left in the interior of the building aside from support poles, a few of which feature small mirrored tiles. Gholz said many of the artifacts from the Blue Bird – things like photos, artwork, and chairs – were stolen after the bar’s then-owner passed away in 2003. The Detroit Sound Conservancy did manage to salvage and restore the stage from the Blue Bird several years ago.
Some of jazz’s most iconic names – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker – were just a few of the musicians to step foot on the small stage over the years. There was also a local band, and musicians who played on Motown and United Sound System tracks.
“They all learned how to play music on this stage and in this audience,” said Gholz.
The Blue Bird Inn was also a community gathering space for the West Side.
“Oh we had church members that we said came from the Blue Bird to church on Sunday. They were here Saturday, and they went from here to church,” said lifelong West Side resident LaVeta Browne.
As the Blue Bird became a go-to spot for bebop and jazz in the city during the late 1940s, the surrounding neighborhood was also going through massive change.
“I don’t know how many people realize, but Tireman was the division line for segregation in Detroit,” explained Browne. “It was a covenant that blacks lived on the south side of Tireman and whites lived on the north side of Tireman.”
Just a couple of blocks away from the Blue Bird Inn, there’s a historical marker commemorating Orsel and Minnie McGhee. They were the black Detroit family who moved into the all-white neighborhood north of Tireman in 1944. After neighbors attempted to enforce a racist housing covenant that forbade selling the property to non-white owners, the McGhees took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1948, the Court struck down racist housing covenants in Detroit and St. Louis, opening up the neighborhood north of Tireman to more black families.
Sheila Allen-Frazier, another lifelong West Sider, lives on the same block as the McGhee house. Allen-Frazier says that growing up, no one in the neighborhood really thought of the Blue Bird Inn as being a historic site.
“It was just a neighborhood bar, just a neighborhood bar where everybody knew your name,” she said with a laugh.
Allen-Frazier said the Blue Bird holds special memories for a lot of people in the neighborhood. She said it was a tradition amongst her friends that when they turned 18, they came to the Blue Bird and had Clarence, the bartender, serve them their first legal drink.
“It was a wonderful place to be. You know this area was a wonderful place. And I’m hoping we can get it back to where it once was,” she said.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.