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Baker's Turn 75, Fighting For More

Of the Oakland Press

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One of Detroit’s music landmarks, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, celebrates its 75th anniversary this weekend. But it’s unsure how long the beat will go on after that.

Owner John Colbert, who bought the 100-capacity club in northwest Detroit with its piano-shaped bar from the late Clarence Baker in 1996, is correct in calling Baker’s “the oldest continually operating jazz club — mainstream and traditional jazz — in the world.” It’s hosted a who’s who of musicians over that time and is spoken of with the kind of reverence reserved for historic theaters and concert halls.

But it’s also in trouble.

Colbert estimates that business is down about 40 percent after a “brutal winter,” and the city’s declining economy certainly isn’t helping. “I’m trying to maintain a legacy here,” Colbert says. “But it’s hard, and it’s getting harder.”

He’s hoping, however, that the 75th anniversary celebration — which includes concerts, an after-hours jam session, the regular Sunday Jazz For Kids program and a reunion of the Claude Black Trio — which was Baker’s house band during its heyday of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — will be a “rallying call” for the club’s preservation drive.

“When it became apparent Baker’s was in trouble financially,” Colbert says, “there’s been a real rallying of support ... a very diverse concern from all over the world as to ‘What is the status of Baker’s?’ and ‘How can we help? We don’t want to see it go.’

“I’m cautiously optimistic that there’s going to be a support group gearing up to save Baker’s after the 75th anniversary. I’ve certainly got some ideas in terms of offers that are ... I wouldn’t say on the table, but in consideration.”

Colbert has been proactive as well. He has a proposal in front of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation for another club, bearing the Baker’s name, in a more readily accessible area of the city. He’s also talking to a real estate developer who’s interested in the site but probably not to maintain the club on it. Colbert has also created a variety of Baker’s merchandise — including T-shirts and a commemorative booklet — and will be taping this weekend’s performances for a 75th anniversary CD in order to raise funds.

He’s also expanded Baker’s programming to include comedy, poetry reading and music other than jazz, “dibbing and dabbing in some of those entertainment modes.”

“But,” Colbert says, “that’s not what I want to do. I want to move forward with it, maintaining its integrity as a traditional jazz house. I’d rather turn out the lights than turn it into a dance joint or an adult entertainment house.”

Baker’s did not start as a jazz club. Chris Baker opened it in May 1934 as a restaurant, serving mostly sandwiches and beer, but five years later, after he suffered a stroke, his son Clarence took it over and began booking jazz music. As Detroit grew and the area around Eight Mile and Livernois roads transitioned from barren fields to middle class neighborhoods, he found a ready audience for entertainment and began expanding the menu and bringing in solo jazz pianists, primarily Pat Flowers.

The Baker’s Keyboard Lounge name came in the mid-’50s and the club became a tour spot for national and international talent. Art Tatum hand-picked a seven-foot Steinway piano as Baker’s signature instrument (it’s currently in storage awaiting refurbishing), and it was played, often by Claude Black, behind artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, Cab Calloway, Miles Davis, Betty Carter and virtually every other important jazz artist of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Baker’s was one of just two places British pianist George Shearing would play in the United States, and it was reportedly the site of Tatum’s final public performance.

It also hosted many late-night jam sessions, and Liberace once came by and was so taken by the bar that he had a piano-shaped swimming pool built in the back yard of his Beverly Hills, Calif. mansion.

“It was a very special place,” recalls Bert Myrick, 79, the Detroit drummer who played in Black’s trio. “(Artists) would come in from New York and all over the world and hire a Detroit rhythm section to play with them. And there were so many, it seemed like we were living (at Baker’s) sometimes.”

Detroit-born saxophonist James Carter, who released a live album recorded at Baker’s in 2004, says that, “Baker’s is history, man. It’s American music history. It’s everything a jazz club should be. It’s a great sounding room where the people are right on top of the band, and everybody can just soak in the music.”

Colbert hand-picked this weekend’s 75th anniversary acts to honor that legacy. And whatever fate awaits Baker’s afterwards, he hopes the next few days will be a time to revel in the unique history at hand.

“I don’t think Clarence Baker, God bless him, had any idea that Baker’s would be around in 2009 and celebrating this day,” Colbert says. “These kinds of places are a rare breed. They’re dying out. But this one’s still alive right now, and that’s an incredible thing.”

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge will celebrate its 75th anniversary this weekend with four days of special performances. The lineup includes:

Friday (May 1): Tony Frank & Company at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Cover is $10. An after-hours jam session begins at 2 a.m. Admission is free.

Saturday (May 2): The Dan Cray Trio with Kirsten Gustafson at 8 and 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Cover is $10.

Sunday (May 3): Three hourly Jazz For Kids programs from 2-5 p.m. Johnny Trudell & Friends at 6 p.m. Cover is $10 for reservations, $5 general admission at the door.

Monday (May 4): The Claude Black Trio and special guests at 6 p.m. Admission is also $10 for reservations, $5 general admission.

Baker’s is at 20510 Livernois just south of Eight Mile Road, Detroit. Call (313) 345-6300 or visit www.bakerskeyboardlounge.com.

Web Site: www.bakerskeyboardlounge.com

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