Musician Jonah Raduns-Silverstein leads effort to restore historic Detroit jazz club.
For those who aren’t in the know, it would be easy to drive past The Blue Bird Inn on Tireman on Detroit’s west side without giving it a second glance. The building, with an old beer and wine store on the left and a towing shop on the right, has boarded up windows and bars on the door. The sky-blue façade contains hints of the structure’s musical past, but you’d have to look closely to notice the hand-painted musical notes and silhouettes of musicians that sit frozen in time. These days, the rhythmic flow of city traffic is the only “music” around.
“The Blue Bird is one of the most important music venues in the city of Detroit, which in our mind, makes it one of the most important music venues in the world,” says Jonah Raduns-Silverstein, a 31-year-old Detroit transplant by way of New York City, Los Angeles and Miami. He is the director of operations for Detroit Sound Conservancy, a nonprofit community-based music archive that advocates for and preserves Detroit music history. The Blue Bird Inn is its flagship project.
“From the 1940s to the 1970s it was a very important place for jazz, specifically bebop jazz. The Blue Bird is considered to be one of the birthplaces of bebop,” he explains. “But, more importantly than the music history, is the community history. When you talk to folks who have lived in the neighborhood, this was a place of magic. You’d walk in and there was a fire that was burning in terms of music and in terms of community.”
Legends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane once played there, but the club closed in the early 2000s due to neighborhood disinvestment. Now Raduns-Silverstein and his team are leading the effort to restore The Blue Bird Inn and bring the abandoned gem back to life.
In 2016, Detroit Sound Conservancy worked with Wayne State University and the previous owners to salvage the building’s historic stage (which will be reinstalled in the future). In 2018, with a grant from the Kresge Foundation, they purchased The Blue Bird after it fell into tax foreclosure. Over the next two years, the nonprofit worked to get the building designated as a Detroit historic district, saving it from the wrecking ball. Today, it has a new roof and a new lease on life.
“We are hoping by the beginning of 2024 that the building will be open for use for our organization and for the community,” Raduns-Silverstein says. “We have raised nearly $300,000 in capital funds with grants from several organizations.”
Drawn to the D
So, what’s a nice Jewish boy who grew up in the Bronx doing in Detroit helping to keep its music history alive? It’s that very music history that drew Raduns-Silverstein to the D in the first place. Jonah is a musician, producer, audio engineer, guitarist, promoter and a DJ with wild, wavy hair and a welcoming smile. He writes, records, produces and performs his own music as “Jo Rad Silver” and releases it on his record label “Akka & BeepBeep.”
“I practice guitar daily, playing jazz standards, classical and American fingerstyle,” he says. “I love digging for and sharing records. I DJ these records any chance I can. I try my best to honor and build in the spirit of Detroit music and specifically Detroit Techno through all of these musical endeavors.”
There’s also a family connection. His grandmother, Elaine Silverstein, was born in the Dexter-Linwood area and attended Central High School. Her father’s last name was Madorsky and her mother’s last name was Korash. There is still a flower shop, Korash Florist, on Gratiot Avenue that bears the family name.
“The family also lived and worked on the east side by Belle Isle off Kercheval. I often bike by the empty lot that the family house was on,” Raduns-Silverstein says. “One side of the family operated a schvitz hotel in Mount Clemens at the sulfur hot springs. Detroit Jews would come for time to sweat, eat, walk and repeat. They ultimately took the hospitality business down to Florida.”
Raduns-Silverstein had precious few memories of Detroit before he moved here six years ago after graduating from Pomona College in LA and moving to Miami where his extended family lives. He just recalls the “frigid winter air with snow all over the place” when he once attended a friend’s bar mitzvah. But he has made Detroit his home. It’s the music and the people that keep him here.
“Detroit is a gem of the world, and that brilliance shines through our music,” he says. “The immense range and depth of music styles here is constantly inspiring both as a musician and a listener and dancer. And in this city, this incredible culture is just what it is here. It’s special and commonplace. It’s in the mind, body and soul of the people. It’s intergenerational and fearless. The music speaks from a sacred place of deep listening and liberated dancing.”
Jonah is a member of Congregation T’chiyah in Ferndale and Detroit Jews for Justice.
Buoying The Bird
Back to The Blue Bird where Jonah will be spending a great deal of time over the next few years. The Detroit Sound Conservancy website says African American migrant, laborer, grocer, machine operator and entrepreneur William Dubois and his wife, Pinkie Dubois, first opened a bar and restaurant that featured live music there in 1937. In the 1950s, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Elvin Jones are among those who played at “the hippest modern jazz nightspot in Detroit.”
Future plans are to return it to a neighborhood hangout, listening and learning space with a music archive, café, bar, the return of the original stage and live music, a DJ booth and outdoor seating. A live jazz and community barbecue recently took place on the sidewalk outside.
“It started out as a neighborhood gathering place; we’re hoping it will return to that gathering place,” Michelle Jahra McKinney is quoted as saying. She is the Detroit Sound Conservancy’s director. “Our children will learn new ways of being in a community, connect with Detroit artist mentors, access archival collections and hear great live music in our neighborhood.”
“[The renovation project] is uplifting because it brings back good memories,” adds Blue Bird Inn neighbor Ronald Cannon. “The Blue Bird Inn belongs to the neighborhood as well as the entire city.”
Funds for the ongoing construction project are still being raised. Amazon is among the most recent contributors to the project along with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Kresge Foundation, General Motors and the Detroit Regional Chamber’s NeighborHub grant program, Mellon Foundation and others.
“Any dollar that goes to this project gets us one step closer to serving the neighborhood and the community in a real tangible way,” Raduns-Silverstein said.
When the next chapter of The Blue Bird’s history is written, a young, Jewish musician with a passion for preservation and a love of Detroit’s music and its people will be among those noted for bringing The Blue Bird back.
To support Detroit Sound Conservancy and The Blue Bird Inn renovation