Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 113 - Debbie Gifford at Birdland
Story filed May 1, 2007

She had been performing almost all her life but didn’t start singing jazz until 1999. Just eight years later, she was performing at one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs, New York City’s Birdland.

For Debbie Gifford, an elementary school teacher from Painesville, Ohio, it was a dream come true. "To me," she said, "it was like the epitome of where a musician would want to be, the famous Birdland jazz club in New York City. It was so much fun."

Birdland was packed when the Cleveland singer took the stage Friday evening, February 16, 2007 and sang with the Birdland Big Band directed by drummer Tommy Igoe. She took her own charts with her and said the band "played them like they had played them a million times." They included arrangements Clevelander Paul Ferguson had written for her in an earlier performance with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra.

Among the charts was an arrangement of a song Debbie had composed, "So Many Songs About Love." She remembered the first time she heard Ferguson’s arrangement of her song. "Oh, My God," she thought, "these are the notes I wrote down on the paper! Look what Paul made of this! It’s phenomenal!"

Facing the biggest gig of her brief jazz singing career, at New York City’s famous Birdland, Debbie admitted she was a little nervous. She said she wasn’t worried about going on stage and facing New York jazz fans, but said, "I was a little nervous about remembering the words to the songs. And the song that I actually messed up on a little was my own composition. Nobody knew that except for me."

Gifford said she got the gig at Birdland through a friend, Mary Alford, whose husband plays trombone with the Birdland Big Band. She told Alford she had sung with several big bands including the Chicago Skyliners and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and would like to sing with the Birdland band. Later, when Gifford called bandleader Igoe, he replied immediately, "Oh, I’ve heard of you." She said she planned to be in New York in February. "Okay, great," he said. "Pick a date and come on out." She was flabbergasted.

When she got to the famous jazz club, there was a standing-room-only crowd for the early evening performance. In the audience were members of her family, some students from home and friends from New York.

After her performance, she talked with many of the paying customers and members of the band. "One couple came up," she recalled, "and asked, ‘where have you been hiding?’" She said pianist Kenny Asher told her, "You gotta come back, we love your charts."

"So I talked to Tommy," said Gifford, "and he said, ‘For sure, you come on back." She says she might return to Birdland in the fall after a summer trip to Europe.

The current Birdland, opened in 1996 on West 44th Street just off 8th Avenue, is not really the same club where, beginning in 1949, players like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and John Coltrane performed. That Birdland was on Broadway near 52nd Street. For ten years, Birdland moved uptown to 105th and Broadway. But the current Birdland still presents today’s best available jazz players.

And for Cleveland area jazz singer Debbie Gifford, the current Birdland still has the mystique and magic of the earlier Birdland. "It was just phenomenal," she said. "A musician’s dream come true to think that I was singing in the same place as Ella Fitzgerald and all the greats. It was like being in heaven on earth."

Copyright 2007 Joe Mosbrook

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