outside of The Blue Bird Inn
The Blue Bird Inn on Tireman is being restored and reinvented by a Detroit nonprofit. A Sunday groundbreaking will kick off the project more than a decade in the making. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Blue Bird Inn was a Detroit hot spot known to entrance and entertain. 

As one of Detroit’s premier jazz clubs, it helped usher in the jazz subgenre of bebop. Jazz greats like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker graced the club’s stage and the west side venue became a place of Black joy for the community. 

Long after its heyday, the Blue Bird had its final curtain call in the early 2000s. But a music archive nonprofit is working to open the doors once again and bring back the energy and excitement the club was once known for to a new generation of Detroiters. 

The Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC), which documents and collects artifacts from Detroit’s musical history, purchased the Blue Bird in 2018 and will soon start the process of rehabbing the building at 5021 Tireman Avenue. DSC will host a groundbreaking ceremony and barbecue from 2-5 p.m. Sunday outside the building. Some of the club’s past musicians are expected to attend and local jazz and electronic artists Jon Dixon and Sabetye will provide the tunes, while The Cardinal Foundation, a food distribution group, will serve the ribs. 

The Blue Bird Inn wall
The Blue Bird Inn closed in the early 2000s. It was purchased in 2018 by the Detroit Sound Conservancy. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Part of DSC’s mission is to conserve and educate people on Detroit’s music history, so it was important to save a historic landmark like the Blue Bird, said DSC Director Michelle Jahra McKinney and the nonprofit’s Operations Director Jonah Raduns-Silverstein.

“In those days, the dividing line between the Black and white neighborhoods was Tireman,” McKinney said. “The Blue Bird was on the right side of the street for Black people. So there’s all of that heritage and legacy of it being a haven and a safe place, as well as a place where we can continue to preserve so we can establish the music archive. The Blue Bird Inn is very important.” 

McKinney said that her late husband, jazz pianist Harold McKinney, grew up in the neighborhood, and that it was a place where residents looked out for each other. She hopes to bring that same spirit back to the community when the venue reopens. The building is being rehabilitated by Detroit-based Wilcox Business Consulting (WBC) and is projected to be completed in the next 12 to 18 months. 

“I really want to make sure that people know that it’s going to return to that kind of community, family vibe because that’s what it started out as,” she said. “I’m very excited to see how the community engagement is going to shape this place.” 

Preserving a piece of Detroit’s musical history 

Restoring the Blue Bird Inn has been a project years in the making for DSC, with talks happening all the way back in 2012 when the organization was founded, Raduns-Silverstein said. Four years later, members decided to salvage the club’s stage from the abandoned building and rebuild it. In 2018, DSC received a $35,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to buy the building from the city, which was $8,500, Raduns-Silverstein said. 

Blue wall with the numbers "5021" on it
Rehabilitation work at the former jazz club at 5021 Tireman on the city’s west side is expected to take 12 to 18 months. The project aims to preserve the historic building and reopen it to performers as well as the community and students. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

To help cover renovation costs, the organization has relied on fundraising campaigns and grants. Last year, the DSC received another Kresge grant for $150,000, as well as $100,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and $30,000 from the Detroit Regional Chamber. With the grants, DSC has raised about $400,000 but needs at least double that amount to make the Blue Bird a world-class venue, Raduns-Silverstein said.

“We’re hoping that this groundbreaking also begins to kick off the next phase of capital fundraising that we will be doing to not only open the doors up, but really open the doors up as the world-class venue that we believe it should be and that the city deserves,” he said. Donations can be made on DSC’s website. 

Raduns-Silverstein said the Blue Bird will remain a music venue, but also serve as a community and cultural education center and archive. McKinney said she would like to implement an after school program that focuses on music heritage preservation, such as archival techniques. DSC plans to host educational workshops, lectures and musical performances, Raduns-Silverstein added. 

From bar and restaurant to a premier jazz club 

Originally having two separate addresses at 5019 and 5021 Tireman Avenue, owner William DuBois combined the two storefronts to open the Blue Bird Inn as a bar and restaurant in 1937, according to a report from the city of Detroit. But the celebration of his new business was short-lived. Later that year, he was shot and killed by his son, Robert “Buddy” DuBois, who pleaded self-defense and was sent to the Michigan State Prison in Jackson. 

The club stayed open with a revolving door of managers. DuBois’ wife Pinkie purchased the Blue Bird in 1943 and when Buddy was released from prison three years later, he became the manager, along with his sisters Gertrude Bukley and LaJean DuBois. 

To attract a younger audience, Buddy installed a TV, a new technology at the time. He changed the exterior of the building to its famous blue facade and assembled a house band specializing in a new type of jazz–bebop. The Blue Bird quickly became a popular spot for jazz musicians in the city and regular coverage from Black newspapers like the Detroit Tribune and The Michigan Chronicle. A 1943 advertisement from The Michigan Chronicle proclaimed the Blue Bird as the “west side rendezvous where families and friends have their parties,” and a place that specializes in American and Chinese food. 

1943 ad
An advertisement from a July 1943 issue of The Michigan Chronicle promotes the Blue Bird Inn as the place to go for drinks and American and Chinese food. The club was also a popular jazz venue for local and national artists. (Courtesy photo from The Michigan Chronicle archives)

During the summer of 1939, The Michigan Chronicle reported 400 people were hanging out at the venue during an afternoon party, showing that it was the hippest place to be. Emcee Bob Perarson brought an intimate atmosphere to the party, making people in the audience feel like the event was just for them. And the entertainment that day consisted of local acts like singer Ella “Black Beauty” Lee, Peggy “Love It” Joyce, and Knee High Berry. Husband and wife duo Butterbeans and Susie provided the comic relief.

By 1949, artists like Parker were playing at the venue. This ushered in a new era for the Blue Bird and new owner Clarence Eddins made sure to keep people coming to the club by bringing in national artists such as Davis, John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughn. Detroit musicians were given a chance to shine too, like Terry Pollard, Thad Jones and Donald Byrd. 

But by 1960, the Blue Bird was no longer the center of bebop music, with other jazz clubs in the city like Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and Minor Key attracting popular acts. In the 1970s, live music was no longer a regular feature at the Blue Bird, but the club managed to stay around for another thirty years. 

In 2007, the Blue Bird was listed on the Wayne County Real Estate Auction. The vacant building had several owners and suffered from deterioration and neglect, the city report notes. Wayne State University uncovered artifacts from the building in 2015 during an archaeological survey and two years later, the Blue Bird was listed on the Michigan Inventory of Archaeological Resources. The city designated the building as a historic district in 2019.  

Looking to the future 

Now that the Blue Bird is in the hands of DSC, Raduns-Silverstein said the organization will maintain as much of the original space as it can, from the layout of the interior all the way to the acoustics. 

“The aspect of historic preservation that is most important to preserve is actually the way that it sounded,” he said. “That is both building with historic materials, but also building using the tools that we have now. We’re going to do our best to recreate and restore the interior in the way where the look and feel would have felt while also integrating the new uses.” 

Raduns-Silverstein is also thinking about the sonic impact of the Blue Bird and its contribution to jazz on a global scale. 

“The players who played there that were from Detroit impacted the world,” he said. “Not to mention, the national, international touring acts who would come play at the Blue Bird like Miles Davis or John Coltrane. The Blue Bird had this spirit of both being very grounded in community and also nationally and globally connected, which to us, in many ways, is kind of a quintessentially Detroit story. Blue Bird, to us, kind of tells that story in a physical, tangible way that we can grow into the future.” 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *