Detroit Sound Conservancy secures $280K in grants to help restore historic Blue Bird Inn

What’s happening: It’s been a productive summer for the Detroit Sound Conservancy. The nonprofit dedicated to preserving the legacy of Detroit music has received three significant grants in the past few months, pushing them even closer toward their goal of reinvigorating the historic Blue Bird Inn on the city’s west side, which is set to become the main hub for the Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC).

Why it’s important: The Blue Bird Inn first opened in the 1930s and became a go-to spot for what would become legendary jazz performances. Many of the greats of the mid-20th century performed at the Tireman Avenue club, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker, to name but a few of the most recognizable artists. The club closed in the early 2000s and would sit vacant and in disrepair until being purchased by the DSC. The organization is restoring the building, redeveloping it as a music venue, community and cultural education center, and home to the DSC archive.

Money well spent: Grants announced this summer will help the DSC fund several projects key to their mission. These include a facade and exterior renovation project — this thanks to a $30,000 NeighborHUB grant from the Detroit Regional Chamber and General Motors; interior design and restoration work, including the redesign of the DSC archive, which will now be housed in a temperature-controlled addition built on the back of the building — this thanks to a $150,000 Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit (KIP:D) grant from The Kresge Foundation; and infrastructure projects like HVAC, electrical, and plumbing work that will bring the building up to to white box conditions — this thanks to a $100,000 grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Michelle Jahra McKinney, Executive Director of the DSC, in front of the Blue Bird Inn. (Courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy / Photo: Iian Tarver)Lessons learned: “The work we’re doing would not be possible without these grants. When we first started out to fix the Blue Bird, we would get turned down flat (when asking for funding). We had to learn how to break the project into pieces; it made a world of difference to do it in phases,” says Michelle Jahra McKinney, Executive Director of the DSC. “These new stakeholders will help make us a sustainable organization in Detroit. We’re deeply grateful to all the organizations that believe in us, helping us become real players in the repository world of Detroit.”

[Related: Read “Michelle Jahra McKinney on preserving Detroit’s musical legacy and building the future” as part of the Model D Explorer Series.]

What’s next: While the grant-related projects will take some time yet, efforts to restore the building’s front windows and doors to resemble a 1950s-era Blue Bird Inn should happen as soon as this September or October, says Alyson Turner, Vice President of the DSC. A neighborhood barbecue and concert is planned for Sept. 10. The organization hopes to have the Blue Bird Inn itself open by the end of 2023.

More work to be done: After the aforementioned grants helped the DSC raise $280,000 in capital funding this year, the organization turns its attention back to a $30,000 fundraiser that will further help the DSC meet its goal to restore the Blue Bird Inn. Architect Saundra Little of Quinn Evans Architects is currently working on an updated design to send to contractors for bid, Jahra McKinney says.

“We’re still doing this in phases. And we have more fundraising to do,” she says. “We still need things like a sound system, and we’re developing educational programming. We’re going to start a Youth Griot Society, where we’ll have kids from the neighborhood apprentice as archivists, and we’ll teach them to go out into the field.”

The Blue Bird Inn is located at 5021 Tireman Ave. in Detroit.

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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.