Seattle Now & Then: Birdland, 1961

Update: poster for May 23, 2023, event in Tacoma

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN1: In this view looking southwest as pedestrians with umbrellas cross East Madison Street, the Birdland neon sign oversees the arterial’s intersection with 22nd Avenue, circa 1961. When the city rezoned the Birdland property in 1963, the landowner’s attorney, John Ehrlichman, later the infamous counsel to President Richard Nixon, said the neighborhood needed a supermarket, noting that Birdland would “definitely go.” In 1965, Birdland was razed, and an Albertsons rose in its place. (F. Herrick, University of Washington Special Collections)
NOW1: Standing in East Madison Street next to the Summit at Madison Park complex to match the “Then” view are (from left) award-winning Seattle percussionist D’Vonne Lewis, displaying a cymbal, and Seattle’s Dave Lewis Jr., holding an umbrella —grandson and son, respectively, of the late pianist and organist Dave Lewis (1938-1998), whose Dave Lewis Combo played Birdland throughout the club’s 10-year run. At right, holding tenor sax, is Barney Hilliard, who played in the combo from 1953 through 1959. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on March 9, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on March 12, 2023

Seattle’s midcentury rhythm-and-blues crowd flocked to Birdland
By Clay Eals
NOW2: Barney Hilliard displays his tenor sax, which dates to 1965. He retired from performing 10 years ago. (Jean Sherrard)

Barney Hilliard stands beside the imposing, six-floor Summit at Madison Park, a self-described boutique retail-residential complex. Signs for Safeway and Starbucks hover above while cars whiz by on the adjacent arterial, freshly paved for the pending installation of a new RapidRide G bus line.

Any visible residue of history at 22nd and East Madison seems to have vanished.

But to Hilliard, 85, a lifelong tenor-saxophonist from Renton, it still feels like home. His school buildings — Horace Mann Elementary, Edmond Meany Junior High and Garfield High — are mere blocks away, as are YMCA and YWCA branches and churches. Likewise is true for the sites of long-gone restaurants, a pharmacy and a shop that sold rhythm-and-blues records that were banned from radio airplay.

And on this very corner stood the hub. “This was the place to be,” Hilliard says. The place was Birdland, also known as Club Birdland.

The cover of Peter Blecha’s new book “Stomp and Shout” (University of Washington Press)

Named after legendary saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and New York’s Birdland club, the Central District incarnation drew national acts from Cal Tjader to Big Jay McNeely for 10 years. The hot spot, razed in 1965, is a focus of Peter Blecha’s new Northwest music-history book “Stomp and Shout.”

THEN2: Facing east, with streetcar tracks in the foreground, this 1937 view is of Birdland’s early predecessor, the Gala Theatre moviehouse, with blank marquee, one year after it closed. (Courtesy Peter Blecha)

Formerly the Gala Theatre moviehouse in the silent 1920s and into the early sound era (it screened “Frankenstein” in 1932), the two-floor building later hosted Democratic and Republican rallies and other gatherings. In 1942, soon after the U.S. entry to World War II, it also was a “civil control station” to register Japanese residents for forcible evacuation from Seattle.

THEN3: Facing east, this 1951 view shows the building’s conversion to Eastside Hall, formerly the Savoy Ballroom. A barely visible “Aframerican” sign hangs in the shade beneath the overhang. (Courtesy Museum of History & Industry)

It became the Savoy Ballroom, then Eastside Hall, when the city council, seeking to better serve Seattle’s Black community in 1946, relaxed its “unwritten but rigid policy” forbidding cabarets east of Eighth Avenue.

The Dave Lewis Combo, May 1957, at Birdland. Second from left is Barney Hilliard. (Courtesy

By the time the $1,000 Birdland neon sign went up in 1955, Barney Hilliard and friends had formed what became the influential Dave Lewis Combo, playing teen dances “from West Seattle to Ballard and all the high schools in-between.” Because the integrated Birdland stayed open until 3:30 a.m., the versatile “covers” band could finish a gig elsewhere and return to the club to enjoy late shows. In late 1956, the Lewis troupe landed a prime perch: opening act for the house.

THEN4: In this view looking northeast along East Madison Street, the Birdland neon sign (right) anchors a busy East Madison Street, circa 1958. (University of Washington Special Collections)

Hilliard left the combo in 1959. For decades, with a law degree he assumed noteworthy, Seattle-based business, nonprofit and governmental roles. But he kept soaring with his sax, retiring only 10 years ago. He traces everything back to Birdland. With a hearty smile and laugh, his emotion for the era is right in tune:

“It was labor of love, but it was mainly love. We just loved what we were doing.”

NOW3: Chatting in front of the Summit at Madison Park complex, former site of Birdland, are (from left) D’Vonne Lewis, Barney Hilliard and Dave Lewis Jr. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW4: A portrait of percussionist Donovon D’Vonne Kranzler-Lewis, 10-year-old great-grandson of the late Dave Lewis. He regularly performs with his father, bolstering the family tradition. (Courtesy D’Vonne Lewis)


Special thanks to Barney Hilliard, D’Vonne Lewis, Dave Lewis Jr., Molly Woolbright, Kait Heacock and Peter Blecha for their invaluable help with this installment!

Events for “Stomp and Shout” are scheduled April 19, 2023, at Town Hall Seattle, with music by the D’Vonne Lewis Combo, and May 23, 2023, at McMenamins Elks Temple in Tacoma, with music by Girl Trouble. For more info, click here.

To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.

Below are an essay, a video interview and, in chronological order, 40 historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Click the image above to read a reflective Feb. 9, 2023, essay on Birdland by Barney Hilliard.
VIDEO (15:29): Click the image above to see a video interview conducted Feb. 4, 2023, of tenor saxophonist Barney Hilliard at the former site of Seattle’s Birdland club at 22nd and East Madison. (Clay Eals)
June 19, 1926, Seattle Times, p13.
Oct. 8, 1926, Enterprise.
Feb. 25, 1927, Enterprise.
May 10, 1928, Enterprise.
Dec. 20, 1928, Enterprise.
Dec. 8, 1932, Enterprise.
Feb. 3, 1933, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p14.
July 20, 1933, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p4.
March 6, 1936, Enterprise.
Feb. 28, 1941, Enterprise.
Sept. 15, 1945, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p16.
May 10, 1942, Seattle Times, p11.
March 1, 1946, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p4.
Feb. 19, 1946, Seattle Times, p24.
March 1, 1946, Seattle Times, p21.
Oct. 29, 1952, Seattle Times, p2.
July 6, 1951, Seattle Times, p14.
May 24, 1955, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p32.
June 19, 1955, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p66.
July 7, 1955, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p5.
July 30, 1955, Seattle Times, p20.
Aug. 25, 1955, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p14.
April 19, 1956, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p8.
June 21, 1956, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p13.
Aug. 8, 1956, Seattle Times, p2.
Aug. 9, 1956, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p38.
Dec. 28, 1962, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p44.
Aug. 16, 1963, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p34.
Aug. 16, 1963, Seattle Times, p21.
Oct. 6, 1963, Seattle Times, p31.
Nov. 13, 1963, Seattle Times, p65.
April 14, 1964, Seattle Times, p4.
Feb. 26, 1965, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p22.
Sept. 1, 1965, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p31.
Sept. 1, 1965, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p34.
Dec. 7, 1969, Seattle Times, p71.
March 23, 1967, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p7.
Dec. 6, 1970, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p82.
Nov. 18, 2007, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p109.
Nov. 18, 2007, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p114.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Birdland, 1961”

  1. Greetings. Thank you for this amazing history of this corner, the Madison Street sector with Gala Theater/Birdland. I’m always thrilled to obtain ANY history of Gala Theater. But I haven’t been able to find much. Your fascinating “theater news” samples from the late 20s to the “Frankenstein” posting list “Enterprise” as the source. Obvious question: was that a newspaper? I do know of only one Capitol Hill newspaper saved at the UW on microfilm from the time before the end of WW2, and only one reel, maybe 2, covering late 1939 to Feb 1940 is available (incredibly no movie ads despite the area having 3 cinemas, 4 if you include Venetian).
    I’ll wrap this — I value ANY old “suburban” (relative term) newspaper from before the end of WW2 that covers Capitol Hill. Please let me know if you’ve found another.
    Many thanks!
    Bruce Gilbert

    1. Bruce, here is the archive for many Washington state newspapers besides the Times and P-I: Therein, here is where you can search the titles of those papers:——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-. And thus, here is background on the Enterprise:——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-. Hope this helps! –Clay

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