Story and photos by Murray Schneider
What if you gave a party and everyone came?
Eric Whittington found himself in this enviable situation on October 26 when dozens of professional musicians flocked to Bird & Beckett, a venue that has supported them for 14 years.
On a sunny Glen Park Saturday, Bird and Beckett’s owner threw himself a “rent party,” packing his independent book store with book and music lovers who came to help him pay some “looming bills” and to hear the likes of bookstore regulars Jimmy Ryan, Scott Foster, Dorothy Lefkovits, Don Prell, Bishu Chatterjee, Chuck Peterson, Rick Elmore, Henry Hung and Howard Dudune.
“All of the store’s rent for November was covered by straight-out donations and substantial sales on the day of the party,” said Whittington, who billed his fund raiser ‘Bebop for the Bookshop.’ Throughout the day he watched neighbor after neighbor mosey up to a Mason jar labeled “Help pay the rent” and stuff it with a suggested $20 donation.
From 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., local jazz luminaries played music before hundreds of neighborhood fans, each artist hard wired to Lyndon B. Johnson’s familiar chord, “You always leave the dance with the one who brung you.”
After all, hadn’t Eric Whittington loyally escorted the jazz players to his Chenery Street prom for over a decade?
Now it was pay back time.
Completing his set with a rendition of “Black Velvet,” drummer Jimmy Ryan, a Friday night bookstore veteran, laid down his sticks and leaned over his drums.
“We appreciate the opportunity to play today,” he said, “showing our support of Eric who lets jazz musicians perform before such appreciative audiences.”
Ryan and his ad hoc ensemble, pianist Michael Parsons and bass player Ollie Dudek, performed gratis, tendering their thanks to impresario Whittington for lending them his stage each Friday evening and often on Sunday afternoons.
Said Whittington, “The money can be used to cover pretty comfortably all the rest of our bills and get us caught up again.”
“It’s like playing in our living room for friends and family,” said Ryan, who met his wife Rory at the bookshop a decade ago when it was on Diamond Street in the space that now houses Manzoni Italian restaurant. “This is the best jazz club in the city and one day it’ll be remembered with the likes of the Blackhawk and the Jazz Workshop.”
Guitarist Scott Foster sat on a stool, absorbing Ryan’s rhythms. Foster has a day job teaching band at Urban High School, and he has played gigs at Bird and Beckett for years.
“It’s essential we keep a cultural Mecca such as this available,” he said, edging toward the stage, guitar case in hand. “You can’t begin to understand how important a venue such as this is for musicians.”
Chiming in, Whittington added, “We’re really proud to be creating an example here – giving dedicated musicians and writers a place to connect intimately with people over an extended period of time.”
“Their willingness to turn out today, performing for free indicates how much they appreciate our respect for them,” he continued, “as well as our efforts to give them a good venue.”
This wasn’t the first jazz marathon at Whittington’s “little shop around the corner.” A few years ago he raised $2,500 in several hours to buy the piano that now sits atop his stage only feet from travel, humor and cook books for sale.
Over the years, since 1999 when Bird & Beckett opened its doors, a succession of pancake breakfasts and parties up at the Miraloma Clubhouse across from Glen Canyon have provided the shop with extra cash flow that’s been required to keep the store going.
In 2006, bookstore customers turned out to perform the heavy lifting of inventory to the store’s current Chenery Street location. Whittington’s has even gotten an extra mile from one of his long-time players.
Back in 2009 Whittington staged an 11-hour tribute to jazz innovator (and store namesake) Charlie Parker—aka “Bird”—to commemorate Parker’s birthday, raising a cool couple of grand in memory of Parker.
“For the Charlie Parker event, bassist Bishu Chatterjee, who was then in the midst of a ocean cruise gig, jumped ship on the Embarcadero that day. He squeezed his bass into a cab, jammed to the neighborhood and mounted the stage with famed alto player Bishop Norman Williams for a short set,” said Whittington. “Afterward, Bishu cabbed back to the waterfront and sailed away again.”
Throughout the day Whittington threaded his way through the shoulder-to-shoulder throng, introducing each set, back-announcing each player’s name. Patrons sampled treats spread across a table. Near it stood a varied array of current fiction and non-fiction books, which bibliophiles could buy, stuffing their purchases in copyrighted Bird & Beckett tote bags.
Taking a momentary respite, Whittington settled on a bridge chair, jotting down performers’ names on a note card.
“During the day renowned musicians such as Vince Lateano and Noel Jewkes passed through and donated funds,” he said. “Some like Ron Marabuto sent checks and many stalwart supporters simply couldn’t make it due to the demands of other gigs.”
Easily the most thrilling of the day’s surprises was the appearance of Benny Green.
“Gary Mankin who runs a recording studio in Glen Park dropped by in the late afternoon and said he and Benny were working together, cleaning up some pieces of a live recording for an upcoming CD,” Whittington explained.
Green, who just recently turned 50, grew up in Berkeley and was well schooled in jazz at Berkeley High School. He toured with Betty Carter and followed by joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and has more than a dozen albums as a leader and countless recordings as a sideman for many of the top artists in jazz.
“When Gary asked me if I’d like Benny to play, I could hardly say no,” Whittington smiled. “So there he was at Bird and Beckett, ‘just one of the cats,’ playing along side Don Prell and Jimmy Ryan, two veterans who started their careers in music more than a couple of decades before Benny was born.”
“I’d been fretting we were hitting a spot during the day without a piano or guitar and it was going to be a challenge to get through it, and then here’s Benny Green!”
Maybe best of all, though, accenting the neighborhood’s intimate village feel, Green, Ryan and Prell got some horn help from the ‘hood.
“Astrophysicist and trombonist Stu Pilorz from up on Congo Street sat in.” added Whittington.
“One day, maybe all the world will catch on to the value of working consciously to maintain a healthy center in all the little neighborhoods we inhabit,” said Whittington. “Glen Park’s outpouring of support indicates its appreciation for the culture they find here at the shop, and I only wish everyone ‘feeling the pinch’ could garner such assistance from those close by.”
Standing next to Whittington, tenor saxophonist Ray Loeckle prepared to take the stage for a set.
“We gotta’ keep it going,” he said, hitting the right note. “We have to keep independent book stores open.”
Ready to close his shop after his customers had opened their wallets and purses for him, Wittington added some heartfelt harmony:
“I realize how lucky we are to be in a position to ask and receive such massive help in a difficult time,” he said. “A day that yielded $3,500 or so to get our rent paid for another month plus a whole lot of donations.”
Maybe it wasn’t exactly business as usual. But then, maybe it was.
“Just another day at Bird and Beckett,” said Eric Whittington.