The Blue Bird with residents and community partners of Detroit Sound Conservancy, Labor Day 2019.
Photo courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy
The Detroit music scene is an iconic piece of American history. Long before the Motown Sound, Detroiters enjoyed their jazz musical roots. The Blue Bird Inn was one of the most popular locations to listen to live music. Destined for demolition until the Detroit City Council intervenes to classify it as a Historic District, the Blue Bird Inn may fly again as the Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC) has made its mission to rehabilitate the dilapidated building.
Opened in the 1930s, the Blue Bird Inn was home to artists such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dorothy Ashby and many more music legends. The neighborhood hotspot served as more than a music venue, but the very heartbeat of the community. Credited with the development of the bebop musical art form, the Black-owned club closed its doors in the early 2000s.
Founded in April 2012, the Detroit Sound Conservancy works hand-in-hand with the legacy of the Blue Bird Inn. Created to ensure Detroit’s musical legacy would be preserved for generations to come, DSC has dedicated itself to resurrecting the Blue Bird Inn and restoring its vibrancy and impact in the community.
“There was a magic there. There was clearly a magic in the space. We’ve talked to a number of people through oral history over the years where they talk about it in this almost mythical way,” said Jonah Raduns-Silverstein, director of operations for the DSC. “Something about the atmosphere and the space and the sound and probably the way it smelled and felt.”
In its history, the Blue Bird Inn not only served as a stage for many Black artists of that time, but also provided mentorship for children in the area. As legend has it, musicians would leave the back door propped open for kids to sneak in and not only enjoy the sounds, but have conversations with artists sparking kindred ties from generation to generation.
“A lot of relationships were created that way. This place was really a place where culture was passed on. It was where people were having real conversation; were having life — connections were happening at this place,” said Michelle Jahra McKinney, director and head of archives for the DSC.
To sustain original pieces of the building, the DSC partners with archaeologists from Wayne State University to collect and preserve material from the building. The stage, being one of the most treasured items, has been salvaged and will be reinstalled as the building is restored. Officially purchasing the Blue Bird Inn in 2019, the DSC has begun the planning and action needed to rebuild the historic icon. In 2021, the DSC raised several thousand dollars from its capital campaign to begin rehabbing the space.
“Since we’ve purchased the building, we’ve done a number of improvements from maintenance to maintain the building and in the past year we’ve raised over $40,000 through private donations and through funds from the state, from Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, which is actually known now as MACC,” said Raduns-Silverstein.
Now, the DSC has announced the next phase of its capital campaign. Gearing up to complete the architectural design of the new and improved Blue Bird Inn, the organization hopes to open doors by the end of 2023. Heading the renovation project is Saundra Little of Quinn Evans Architects.
“We’re hoping with the success of this campaign, it’ll put us in prime position to execute the rehabilitation so that we can open the doors to the community,” said Raduns-Silverstein.
More than a desire to open its doors again, the Detroit Sound Conservancy hopes to immerse Detroit’s culture and communities into the once-happening space. Looking to get younger generations engaged, the DSC aims to use the space as more than a musical hearth, but a community space filled with opportunities.
“For the future, I’m thinking about education, workshops, live performances, archives, museum, library,” said McKinney. “It’s going to be a flexible area where people can come in and present. Where we can have different connections to get the inter-generational thing going again where the masters come and talk to the students.”