CITY OF BERKELEY SHUTS DOWN BIRDLAND JAZZISTA SOCIAL CLUB AND FILIPINO AMERICAN JAZZ FESTIVAL(on the day of the festival)
On July 29, 2011, the informal garage-band venue known as Birdland Jazzista Social Club was preparing to present its first annual Filipino-American Jazz Festival, the first such event of its kind celebrating the cultural and musical contributions of local Pinoy jazz artists. Instead, Birdland received a Notice of Violation from the Office of the City Manager’s Code Enforcement Unit. This notice alleged a “failure to comply” with a previous notice of violation, dated January 11, 2011, yet failed to document, list, or detail a single new infraction during that six month period. Most egregiously, the Code Enforcement Unit threatened a fine in the amount of $5,500 daily – an 1100% increase over the $500 initially mentioned – which is hardly a show of good faith. Indeed, this latest action by the Code Enforcement Unit appears to be nothing more than a retributive vendetta against a place which has brought nothing but positive attention to the city of Berkeley.
On August 2, 2011, the Code Enforcement Unit trumped-up yet another list of code violations which again reiterated the same complaints as in January, this time with one infraction which hadn’t previously appeared: the charge that a garage with couches and a music stage somehow constitutes a “habitable space.” Since no one is currently living in the space, which does not have plumbing or restrooms, this allegation is without merit. It is becoming obvious that the Code Enforcement Unit is engaging in a war on fun—which is in direct proportion to the amount of media attention Birdland has received–and thinks that by issuing citations without merit, it can accomplish its goal.
What makes this latest action so puzzling is that Birdland has made concerted efforts to be in compliance with city code—at least the parts of it which are clearly-definable and not based on subjective criteria. Technically, while there is amplified sound inside the garage, it does not impact surrounding residences due to thick curtains which provide effective soundproofing, so it cannot be considered a public nuisance. It should also be noted that jazz, world music and blues –which relies equally or moreso on acoustic elements as electric instruments –does not draw rowdy audiences, and that Birdland attendees have been very respectful of the neighborhood; in fact, many of them are neighborhood residents. Additionally, following the initial Notice of Violation, this past March, Birdland discontinued the practice of serving free food to passers-by and reorganized as a private social club requiring membership to attend. Since then, we have signed up over 5,000 members, the overwhelming majority of which are both Berkeley residents and Berkeley voters. It is Birdland’s belief that these actions alleviated the majority of compliance issues; an email notification March 15, 2011 by Birdman Mike Parayno to city council members and city officials informing them of this step received no response.
Birdland is willing to show good faith toward the City of Berkeley and take further steps (within reason) to ensure compliance with city codes, however, we believe the initial complaint as stated was a) not an accurate description of what was actually taking place and b) the second Notice of Violation is essentially unchanged from the first, which raises questions as to whether the Code Enforcement Unit’s wrath was unleashed by the media attention Birdland has received. As noted above, the amplified sound violation which the Code Enforcement Unit alleges is a non-issue since: a) the music is not at nuisance levels; and b) there is not and has never been any “amplified music…outside of the building,” as the initial Notice of Violation erroneously stated.
Furthermore, let the record state that Birdland benefits the community, supports local jazz musicians, symbolizes the ideal of locally-sustainable culture, upholds the spirit of generosity, creates neighborhood identity, and furthers the idea that Berkeley is a hip and happening city. It has generated a word of mouth buzz which has garnered local and national attention. It’s been called a “veritable institution” and a rare treat” by the East Bay Express, which proclaimed Birdland the “Best After Hours Spot” in its 2011 “Best of the East Bay” issue. Other positive media mentions have come from the Bay Citizen, BerkeleySide, KGO-TV, KPFA, KCSM, Fast Company, and Forbes Magazine. Comments from both first-time attendees and regular visitors—the “flock”—have consistently and independently made it plain that Birdland is the best thing to happen to Berkeley in a long time. There are few, if any, places which welcome both high-school students and senior members of our community equally; in addition to being multigenerational, Jazzistas are also multicultural, and have made Birdland a warm, supportive and friendly environment for people from any and every type of social, economic, and ethnic background imaginable.
But perhaps the greatest measure of Birdland’s contribution has come from the musician community, who have wholeheartedly embraced the venue as their favorite place to play in the East Bay. Among the musicians Birdland has featured include Grammy-nominee John Santos, Latin jazz master Ray Obeiedo, bluesman Lloyd Gregory, guitarist Calvin Keys, andBerkeley High School alumni Dayna Stephens, Billy Buss, and Josh Jones. In addition, Birdland has been a consistent platform for up-and-coming musicians in the BHS jazz program, and has spotlighted diversity, whether Afro-Latin, Brazilian bossa nova, Cuban son, klezmer, and gypsy variants on jazz or Tahitian and Middle-Eastern dance.
So, why would the city of Berkeley want to put an end to something so vibrant and universally-loved? That seems like a brain-dead move, especially considering the city’s flagging nightlife scene, which is unable to support even a single dedicated jazz venue. In fact, in recent months, Berkeley has seen numerous live music venues close, including Anna’s Jazz Island, Blakes on Telegraph, Becketts, and Downtown. Additionally, Jupiter has been told it cannot play live music past 11 p.m. due to noise issues. Birdland has no such issues, because its immediate neighbors are Ohlone Park and North Berkeley BART; rather than complain, residents of the block which Birdland inhabits are all regular attendees; some, including Paul Lynch and Michael (last name) are musicians who regularly play there.
Would the city of Berkeley on its own have been able to envision, much less book, something like the Filipino-American Jazz festival? Doubtful; the city’s only festival which recognized Berkeley’s cultural identity, How Berkeley Can You Be? Is no longer being produced because the city just didn’t have it together.
Another point which must be brought to light regarding Birdland is the home it’s provided for members of Berkeley High School’s renowned jazz program. For these up-and-coming musicians, there is simply nowhere else for them to play. Being able to gain valuable live playing experience while still in high school—restaurants and bars typically ban underage musicians—has been a godsend for this next generation of talent, which has continued the legacy of such musicians as Joshua Redman, Benny Green, and Dave Ellis, who came up in Berkeley at a time when there were music programs which supported young musicians.
One only need take a look at Oakland, a city which is undergoing a cultural renaissance thanks in part to such organic, independently-run events as the Art Murmur. Recognizing that the Murmur was a positive happening, the city is now listing it on their Economic Development page and has played an active role in expanding First Friday events to other parts of the city.
Birdland thusfar has not asked for a dime in city money and is in and of itself not a for-profit venture: all donations go to the musicians, and food is provided by a rotating group of volunteers. Michael Parayno does not receive a cut of the donations and all Birdland staffers are volunteers, who assist with such tasks as grilling, clean-up, recycling, photography, and website-building.
Therefore we ask for a public hearing from the city council. We believe that Birdland is a special and unique place which provides a valuable service to the residents, citizens, and neighbors of Berkeley. It’s creating a space where 17 year olds feel as welcome as 70 year olds. It provides a space where strangers and neighbors can get to know each other more. It supports local jazz and the Berkeley High School jazz program. It also provides affordable entertainment for low income families and individuals in Berkeley. And it’s had a beneficial effect on the local economy, boosting the revenues of nearby convenience stores, providing a place for people to go for low-key après-dinner or post-club entertainment.
We would like the City Council to grant a variance to alleged violations of section BMC Section 12.44.010.A, BMC Section 13.44.040.A, 13.44.040C, BMC Section 13.40.100, BMC Section 23D.32.030, BMC Section 23B.56.010, BMC Section 23B.56.020, and BMC Section 23B.56.030. We recognize that Berkeley’s municipal codes are only designed to administrate public nuisances, and currently have no provisions for recognizing a private event with is beneficial to the general public. But in Bridland’s case, the city can and should make an exception, and work with Birdland Jazzista Social club to continue to develop a culturally-vibrant community space which has great potential to expand into an educational, cultural, and culinary resource, and draw visitors to Berkeley.
The long-term vision of Birdland is to tun it into a 501c.3 non-profit foundation which promotes and supports the development of jazz culture, food, and other cultural arts, such as photography. Birdland can be a center for music, food, and art workshops, with a charm that is simply not possible in a commercial retail establishment or anywhere other than a private residence. We believe it is in the best interest of the city of Berkeley to support, rather than attempt to close, the Birdland Jazzista Social Club, and organically-grown, grassroots cultural events.
Reaction from the jazzista and musician community has been that the city of Berkeley has declared a “War on Fun.”
What Can We Do?
Email/Call these Berkeley Politicians every day until they hear us and give us our “fun” back. Here are the contact numbers.
|District||Incumbent||Term Expires||Phone & Fax|
|Mayor||Tom Bates||11/30/2012||(510) 981-7100 P
(510) 981-7199 F
|District 1||Linda Maio||11/30/2014||(510) 981-7110 P
(510) 981-7111 F
|District 2||Darryl Moore||11/30/2012||(510) 981-7120 P
(510) 981-7122 F
|District 3||Max Anderson||11/30/2012||(510) 981-7130 P
(510) 981-7133 F
|District 4||Jesse Arreguin||11/30/2014||(510) 981-7140 P
(510) 981-7144 F
|District 5||Laurie Capitelli||11/30/2012||(510) 981-7150 P
(510) 981-7155 F
|District 6||Susan Wengraf||11/30/2012||(510) 981-7160 P
(510) 981-7166 F
|District 7||Kriss Worthington||11/30/2014||(510) 981-7170 P
(510) 981-7177 F
|District 8||Gordon Wozniak||11/30/2014||(510) 981-7180 P
(510) 981-7188 F
Email Phil Kamlarz, City Manager, who controls Code Enforcement. City Manager’s Office at (510) 981-7000, or by email at manager@CityofBerkeley.info.