Unexpected Encounters: The Birdland Jazz Club

By: Schneur Schusterman  |  November 20, 2023

By Schneur Schusterman

Who doesn’t turn down a free ticket to a jazz club?

When I found out that I could redeem an unused ticket to Birdland Jazz Club I had lying around all summer, I immediately made reservations to see a jazz singer I followed on instagram. 

The time reserved was in the middle of midterms, and feeling the itch to try something new, I decided to go on my own.

So on a Sunday evening in early November, I passed through Times Square and walked down 44th until I saw the iconic Birdland sign and a small line outside.

As I got on line I immediately noticed how diverse the audience was. Behind me was a group of 20-somethings babbling away in German, and to my front was a reserved older Korean couple. 

I walked down the stairs and saw the room open into a low-ceilinged theater. The lights were dim and everything had a purple-brownish glow to it. Soft jazz played on a speaker before the start of the show. The cashiers and bartenders all had matte-black attire. The aesthetic was vintage. And I was taking it all in. 

I was seated at the center back, on a bar table for four, that overlooked the whole theater so that I had a direct line of sight to the band. As I sat down, I noticed an older gentleman sitting by a bar table adjacent to mine. 

Being pretty introverted, my first instinct was to flap through the catalog of performances set in front of me. But the older gentleman on my right made a comment to me about the singer, and we started engaging in light conversation. After a few minutes of small talk he, noticing my tzitzis, remarked on me being a “religious” Jew in a jazz club. He told me he was a self-identified assimilated Jew, and that he was a little fascinated by me being there. That moment gave me confidence and from there our conversation flowed incredibly easily, encompassing radio stations, commute times, being at a jazz club purely to have a nice night out, and our shared heritage (of living in Brooklyn). 

By the natural end of our conversation (when the waiter asked us if we wanted to order after waiting on the side for too long) I felt like I’d got a glimpse of this man’s life, and that he’d got a glimpse into mine. It felt cool to learn about someone so similar to yet so different from me.

I ordered my drink and noticed another guy had appeared to my right. By now I was already in a conversational mood, and we engaged in a little small talk. “A little small talk” may be an understatement, as everything that this man said about himself was just so fascinating to me. In what other scenario would I, a Yeshiva University student, have a chance to get to know a Japanese new father from California on a business trip who happens to be into jazz – but not very into jazz? His life story, as that is what our small talk evolved into, fascinated me, and mine possibly fascinated him too. He was always smiling at things that to me seemed normal, like that I knew about some jazz clubs in the city, or that I’d like to go to graduate school. 

Just as we started to have a lull in conversation, the lights dimmed and the room hushed. The music was about to start. The conversation we were here for.

The band got on stage and started with a medium-paced introduction song that I don’t quite remember the name of. Although I definitely remember the phrase “Hello! How are you” was repeated. After the introduction, they started playing some slow and medium-paced Jazz songs.

While watching the musicians play, they seemed completely at ease. I noticed the drummer did a weird rhythm and the pianist smiled at him. I saw the bassist stare into nothingness contemplating existence until the singer had to make a little motion at him that they were about to change the song. They made the audience, or at least just me, feel comfortable there. The music gave an ambiance of calmness, chillness, and familiarity. 

It’s because of this comfort that when, in the middle of the set, they invited a tenor saxophonist in the audience to play “After You’ve Gone” (a notoriously fast and lively song) that the entire audience was taken aback, and a “woooh!” came from a few college guys by the bar. Now the entire club’s spirit shifted and reflected the musicians’ pure outburst of upbeat expression. The energy of the room was filled with conversation, both in English and music. I turned to my new Japanese friend and we shared a look of satisfaction of it all. 

As the pianist’s hands glided over the keys, I glided from my seat to the door, satisfied with the night and ready to head home. As I left the club I caught the sounds of the singer and saxophone playing off each other. For a night I had absolutely no expectations of (besides for the sound of some sweet jazz), the entire experience, the decor of the club, the people I met, and especially the music, all pleasantly surprised me.