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Yardbird: Edmonton's jazzy gem still sparkles

Edmonton’s Yardbird Suite celebrates 65 years of jazz music, and those who keep it alive in the city.

When Edmonton’s Yardbird Suite jazz club first opened its doors, some of the top hits on the radio were All Shook Up by Elvis Presley, Love Letter In The Sand by Pat Boone, Little Darlin’ by The Diamonds and Young Love by Tab Hunter. 

The year was 1957, when the soon-to-be popular TV music show American bandstand made its U.S. national debut and Wham-O released the very first Frisbee toys for retail sale. 

The Yardbird Suite, which celebrated its 65th anniversary in 2022 with a number of jazz events, first opened in the basement off a back alley adjacent to where the old Army & Navy department store sat for decades on Whyte Avenue and 104 Street. 

The volunteer-run club was started by a half-dozen musicians and jazz fans, who named it Yardbird Suite after a tune by jazz legend Charlie Parker. It generally opened after midnight, despite legal restrictions for years on selling alcohol, serving primarily as a haunt for musicians and friends seeking a place to go after performances elsewhere. 

“Back then, it was run entirely by musicians and their wives or girlfriends,” recalled one of the first patrons, the late former senator and Edmonton jazz pianist/bandleader legend Tommy Banks, in an interview with the Edmonton Journal marking the club’s 60th anniversary. “We divided up the work so one weekend it would be my turn to clean out the toilets.” 

For a time in the 1960s, the club moved onto Jasper Avenue, and then operated out of a number of temporary locations. Eventually it opened in September, 1984, in a former warehouse on its current site, 11 Tommy Banks Way off Gateway Blvd. and 86 Ave. For years, the Edmonton Jazz Society has operated the club as a non-profit, employing hundreds of jazz fan volunteers that keep things going.

The club remains a source of pride for jazz afficionados, if not the entire city: it is, after all, the oldest volunteer-run jazz venue in Canada and one of the oldest in North America. 

The list of greats who have played at the club reads like a who’s who of the genre, says Todd Crawshaw, the current executive director for the facility. Besides homegrown talent like Banks and saxophonist P.J. Perry who became big names in the broader jazz world, the club has hosted legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield and Big Miller. 

“Cats like that, to me, they’re the jazz royalty,” said Crawshaw, noting the club’s so-called Green Room has thousands of signatures scrawled on the walls, which he hopes will someday be preserved.

Crawshaw didn’t start out as a jazz fan, preferring punk in his younger years. But he became a jazz follower, at least partly thanks to his parents. He remembers sitting on his father’s shoulders when he was five years old, taking in a Tommy Banks show, so it was probably meant to be that he wound up here.

Hosting regular show during its September to June season, the 150-seat club is also home to a unique Littlebirds program for budding jazz musicians. The program has taught hundreds of music students ages 14 to 21 since it started in the late 80s, each who audition for a chance to play big band and smaller combos.  

Joel “Spanky” Gray, the Littlebirds director who played for years with the Tommy Banks orchestra, says competition to get into the program can be intense, with up to 50 applicants from the Edmonton region vying for one of the 23 big band and small combo positions. 

“It’s also a great opportunity for young musicians to work with some prominent musicians coming through town,” Gray said. 

During the pandemic, Gray put out a call to gauge interest in having the bands play outdoor driveway-type concerts. They ended up doing about close to 80 shows in the last three years--'Unbelievable," said Gray.

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