Rendering of the Blue Bird Inn Courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy.
"Detroit is afrofuturism"
A friend tweeted this a couple days back and I've meditated on the notion ever since I saw it. When a city has been perceived as destitute for so many years, it becomes difficult painting just how influential and eclectic it is. On one hand, the city has been perhaps the most significant home for industry, but on another, Detroit also been the Midwest's vanguard for creative innovation. Our ancestor Barry Gordy even taught us that these ideas can be one and the same.
That's the very history that we find in the Blue Bird Inn, a historic site at 5021 Tireman that once served as one of the country’s hippest jazz night clubs for both homegrown and traveling musicians. The club often invited regulars such as Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Barry Harris, and Thad Jones but also held space for jazz legends like Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, and Charlie Parker. Davis is even said to have been a frequent visitor from 1953-1954 while staying in Detroit.
Blue Bird Inn, Detroit, 1958. Miles, Cannonball, Bill Evans, Coltrane.
The Blue Bird was afrofuturism in a few ways. Firstly, it served as a gathering venue for the “Old Westside” district during a time when other venues only invited Blacks in on select nights. But also the sensitivities formed from having a community jam-space would foster new relationships and new sounds from the city of Detroit, well into the 2000s.
Thad Jones wrote a composition "5021" about the Bird, referring to its address and Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Burrell paid tribute to the location in the title track of their 1990 album Beyond the Blue Bird.
The venue gradually slowed to a crawl over the span of the 20th century, with some flares in the 90s but was largely empty by the early 2000s. Eventually the Blue Bird Inn would be rumored for demolition, during a period where Detroit would be making this hard decision for several historic locations.
This demolition would be both disputed and eventually defeated by the work of the Detroit Sound Conservancy.
The Detroit Sound Conservancy aims at enhancing Detroiters' quality of life through "preservation, education, performance, and placekepping" per their mission statement. Securing the Blue Bird Inn from the Detroit Land Bank and restoring the building has been integral work to the organization's mission. Founded in April of 2012, the DSC now reaches is 10 year anniversary, making this a perfect time to celebrate both the work they have done for the Blue Bird Inn and also what lies ahead for the venue.
In Spring of 2018, DSC with support from The Kresge Foundation, secured the funds necessary for community engagement and initial design for the redevelopment of the Blue Bird Inn.
After fulfilling a process that would go through both the Planning and Economic Development Committee and Detroit City Council, the purchase of the Blue Bird Inn would be completed on April 24, 2019.
The Blue Bird with residents and community partners of Detroit Sound Conservancy, Labor Day 2019
The Blue Bird Inn would also be designated a Historic District by the City of Detroit on October 6, 2020 with a 8-0 vote from Detroit City Council, amending Article II of the Detroit City Code.
Since then, the DSC has continued its capital campaign to carry out a roof replacement and complete construction documents. In 2021, the new roof for the Blue Bird was completed.
So what are the next steps for the Blue Bird Inn?
I talked to Michelle McKinney and Jonah Raduns-Silverstein who both joined the Conservancy in 2012 and 2017 respectively. Michelle McKinney is a griot and singer who was named leader of DSC in 2020. Her late husband Harold McKinney was a regular pianist at the Blue Bird Inn who played with many giants including Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and John Coltrane. Jonah currently works as in Operations for the Detroit Sound Conservancy and is a musician himself.
Completed Roof of the Blue Bird Inn
Courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy.
The Bird will be a cultural hub in the neighborhood once again by sharing music archives, conducting workshops, and restoring the performance space. This means restoring the stage and opening the doors to the community. Silverstein describes an experience of “flexibility” and “consciousness shifting” and these groundings are exciting for a community that is looking to come back stronger.
The Blue Bird Inn is envisioned as a potential catalyst for other placemaking initiatives and engagement of Detroiters of all ages. The venue is proximal to both Sampson Middle School and Northwestern High School, something that McKinney was sure to mention. This is no mistake; the Blue Bird Inn will be a resource to Detroit youth where they can learn more about their musical lineage and also participate in it. Youth interested in learning more about archiving and looking for a space where they can perform will also have a tangible place to do it right in their community.
Interior rendering of the Blue Bird Inn by American Institute of Architecture Students Lawrence Tech University Freedom by Design, based on designs by Quinn Evans Architects.
Floorplan for the Blue Bird Inn, Courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy
Michelle continued. "Young folk are thinking of the future and it's my job to study and educate about the past."
Her words brought me back to the idea I prefaced this piece with. Afrofuturism is not merely a set of criteria that should be met in our work; it can be aspirational and eclectic. But most importantly it can be a relationship between eras with reciprocal duties.
The parameters set by the past should be opportunities-- not a barrier. In my field of work, this is what we call 'positive freedom'. The freedom to choose from a non-restrictive set of possibilities.This is why McKinney described music as an “inter-generational conversation”. Music is a tradition, but integral to that is mutual education about what came before and what might come next.
The Detroit Sound Conservancy has a constituency of music professionals, historians, and educators— being both vast and diverse. But it does not stop there.
Silverstein stated “if you make music in Detroit, you’re a part of the conservancy”. And this holds true for the vision of the Blue Bird Inn they shared. DSC’s archives available to the community are not genred; they are a diverse catalog, modeling Detroit’s many sounds.
We often talk here on our site about the many genres with strong origins here in Detroit like techno, funk, punk, pop, and lofi hip-hop just to name a few. Resources spanning across genres are both grounding this community space and will also be made more accessible through it.
And so that leads us to the question of how you can get more involved in the Detroit Sound Conservancy and this powerful project. There are a few ways.
First, learn more about the Conservancy and the resources they have made available to us. On just their site alone, there are expansive archives of varying genres that took place right here in Detroit— we have linked a few of our favorite artifacts below.
Join their Mailing List. Sometimes it’s a bit hard keeping up with news when it doesn’t come right to us. Luckily for you, the DSC has a mailing list, which you can join. Altnubian will also be adding updates from the DSC to our RSS Feed here in our digital library—linking you to their site.
Volunteer- the Conservancy currently has a volunteer base of approx. 30-40 volunteers that are actively engaged in the work of the organization. But are you looking to learn more about archiving and storytelling? Would you like helping restore a historic venue here in Detroit? If so, we’ve linked their volunteer page here.
Donate. If you would like to donate to the capital campaign, we have linked the donation page here.
Invest In, Advocate for, and Value Detroit Work- This one’s a little less concrete but it holds true. I’ll reiterate that if you make music here in Detroit, you are a part of the Conservancy. Share art and projects that enhance our community. Share the work being done by the Detroit Sound Conservancy. They would love to hear from you about what you’re working on and what you’d like to learn more about. After all, they are educators. That is how we can move towards consciousness shifting.
And so this is exciting. Preservation is integral, and where we can start to foster what McKinney referred to as "youth griots"-- young people with a connection to both history and future space-- where we can actualize a creative community of possibility. Much like afrofuturism.
Click on to the links provided below to see some of our favorite artifacts available on the Detroit Sound Conservancy site, and as we always say...get on the floor and let's grab crayons!
Peace & Love,
Our Fav Archives