Local Nonprofit Breathes New Life Into Historic Blue Bird Inn

Detroit Sound Conservancy is hoisting a piece of Detroit history from the ashes.
Locals and Detroit Sound Conservancy community partners gather outside the Blue Bird Inn to celebrate Labor Day 2019. // Photograph courtesy of the Detroit Sound Conservancy.

The modest one-story building at 5021 Tireman Ave. was prime real estate when Alabama migrant William Dubois purchased it in 1937 with wages he’d saved up working on the line at Ford Motor Co. Situated in a vibrant Black neighborhood known as Detroit’s Old Westside, it was the perfect place to open his humble neighborhood bar — the Blue Bird Inn.

Dubois died just three months later, but his establishment would endure as a touch point of music history. Under his family’s management, the Blue Bird became one of the city’s go-to jazz joints.

Throughout the 1950s, it hosted some of the genre’s most influential musicians — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker among them — and was a showcase for local talent like Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Curtis Fuller. It would come to be known as a birthplace of the bebop style and an epicenter of the Detroit sound.

But the business began to decline alongside the popularity of jazz music in the 1970s.

These days, an uninitiated passerby might never guess the dilapidated structure’s legacy. Abandoned in the early 2000s, the building’s art deco brickwork has since discolored from years of water damage, and one of its large front windows has given way to a sheet of plywood. A gray tarp meant to insulate the crumbling roof has been pulled down over the edges of its facade. The words “The Blue Bird Inn,” painted in pink across a bright blue marquee, are the sole reminder of its glory days.

But as far as the Blue Bird has fallen, the folks at the Detroit Sound Conservancy believe it can rise again. The nonprofit, which aims to preserve the city’s musical heritage, is developing the building into a multi-use space. Among its primary functions will be housing DSC’s archive, which extends across all genres and aspects of the music industry.

In addition to roughly 1,000 books, the collection encompasses audio recordings, photographs, flyers, and other physical and digital artifacts.

Patrons dance to the sounds of a live jazz band one typical evening at the Blue Bird Inn in 1959.// Photograph courtesy of the Detroit Sound Conservancy.

In 2019, after the Blue Bird had fallen into tax foreclosure, DSC resolved to save it once and for all. It purchased the 1920s structure with an $8,500 grant from The Kresge Foundation and successfully lobbied the city to designate the property a Historic District.

From there, the nonprofit recruited Quinn Evans, a Detroit design firm with a penchant for historic restoration, and swiftly replaced the aging roof. By the time this story reaches readers, DSC expects the front windows and doors will be fully restored to their 1950s appearance. The group estimates the Blue Bird Inn will reopen by the end of next year.

The site will also serve as a music venue, gathering space, and cultural education center, offering an array of community programs, such as the Youth Griot Society, which will train local youths as apprentice archivists.

DSC’s connection to the spot dates back to its inaugural meeting in 2012, which was held just outside the Blue Bird’s doors. Ever since, the organization has worked, through various salvage and rehabilitation projects, to recover this tangible vestige of history.

“Our work at the Blue Bird is inextricably linked with our mission of preserving Detroit music history,” says DSC Director of Operations Jonah Raduns-Silverstein. “They go hand in hand.”

The Blue Bird Inn holds a special place in the heart of DSC Executive Director Michelle McKinney, who lived in the Old Westside through the ’80s and frequented the club with her late husband, Harold McKinney — a pianist and longtime mainstay of Detroit’s jazz scene.

“I’ve always known the Blue Bird as a community hearth,” she says. “It was the place people would go to for birthday parties and Sunday dinners with their families. I almost can’t express how deeply this building is rooted in the community.”

Her words echo a prevailing theme in the Blue Bird’s story. Beyond its musical significance, the establishment served as a crucial haven for the Black community in a racist and heavily segregated post-World War II Detroit.

“We hope this benefits not just our organization, but also, more importantly, the city,” says Raduns-Silverstein, who feels Detroit deserves more recognition as a major hub of musical innovation.

“We hope this draws attention to Detroit music and generates support and resources for local music artists, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals.”

This story is from the December 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition