Goodbye Baker’s Keyboard Lounge?

The Core Belief

While at NYU, I took at jazz appreciation course taught by Marc Crawford. Of course, I figured the class to be an easy A – show up, listen to some tunes and leave. Marc had other ideas.

Marc Crawford was Miles Davis former press secretary (mentioned in several times in his autobiography Miles) as well as a Black Jew from Detroit. There was another Detroit expat in the class, a Black guy named Bob. Bob and I showed up for the first two classes dressed in our ripped t-shirt and jeans finest. This didn’t sit well with Crawford.

Before our third class of the semester began, Marc called Bob and I into the hallway and ripped into us. “Do you know what the world thinks of Blacks, Jews and Detroiters,” he spat. Before we could answer, Crawford wagged his finger in our faces and continued. “We are considered the garbage of this country and you two dress like this? It gives them ammunition. From now on, you’re in suits and ties or nice slacks and shirts and ties. Pressed. On time. You will ask questions of the performers. If you don’t like it transfer because you will fail this class otherwise.”

Marc stormed into the class, his flowing colorful African shirt almost hitting my nose. Bob and I stayed in the class and would spend five or so minutes outside the classroom making sure we properly attired, ties straight, shoes polished. And what an education we received! Jazz greats Dakota Staton, Benny Golson, Barry Harris all performed and told us about America’s classical music – how it was created, what the standards were, what the life was like.

Marc died in the mid 1990’s. However, I fortunate enough to have him tell me a bit about Detroit’s old, once great Jazz clubs on afternoon in his office at NYU back in 1992. They were the places Paul Chambers came up and Miles, ‘Trane and Bird worked on new material before they brought it to New York.

Detroit, which has lost nearly everything else, is set to lose part of its Jazz history as well.

From the Detroit News:

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge — which boasts it is the oldest running jazz club in the nation dating back to the 1930s — is in danger of closing in a bankruptcy sale at the end of the month.

John Colbert, owner of the lounge, told The Detroit News that Baker’s could be auctioned off in a sale set for Jan. 31 and that the venerable jazz landmark that has featured the genre’s best musicians could fall into the hands of a non-jazz enthusiast.

“It is my intent to sell Baker’s to a buyer who is interested in keeping the legacy of the jazz tradition here,” said Colbert, who purchased the club on Detroit’s northwest side from original club owner Chris Baker in 1996. In recent years, Colbert said he struggled to find financial backers to help restructure debt and remodel the lounge, which has changed little since 1957.

“It might be the end of Baker’s,” Colbert said.

The club, on Livernois just south of Eight Mile, opened in 1934 and over the last several decades has featured jazz royalty, including Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane and Oscar Peterson.

In 2009, Baker’s celebrated its 75th anniversary and is set to be featured in a documentary by a California-based production company.

But in recent years, a slumping economy and drop in acts making concert stops in Detroit pushed the venue to the brink.

Last summer, Colbert filed for Chapter 13 but has not been able to find investors to help spruce up the club, which features historic artifacts such as jazz legend Art Tatum’s piano.

Local artists who have made it big like saxophonist James Carter still perform at Baker’s when they breeze through the city.

Jim Gallert, who co-authored the book “Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit,” said Baker’s “business model is not viable” in the current economic environment with its limited, fixed seating and rising costs of attracting musical talent.

“It’s really tough to make it and some (jazz club) owners realized that and got out of the business,” Gallert said. “It’s been a real heartbreaker just to watch it slide down, to struggle more and more. You can only get 100 people in there.”

Colbert said that although he has the discretion to accept or reject an offer — there are already two letters of intent to purchase — he is still at the mercy of the bankruptcy process because the creditors want to get paid what is owed.

Gallert said that it would be a shame for Detroit to lose one of its jazz treasures, which began a decade after the city featured two cutting-edge jazz orchestras in the 1920s.

“The golden age of jazz in Detroit was in the 1950s,” Gallert said. “You would be hard-pressed to find an album that didn’t have a local jazz artist on it.”

Larry Pryce, a retired English teacher who has been going to concerts at Baker’s since the mid-1960s when he worked across the street from the lounge, said he was sad to learn of the auction.

Pryce said he recalls seeing acts over the last several decades ranging from Roberta Flack to George Benson and George Shearing at the club. Its history as a jazz trailblazer is unmistakable, he said.

“It’s just one more major jazz club that will be shuttered in tough times,” Pryce said.

“I know the economy is not kind to small clubs. We just hope the club falls into the right hands.”

Another sad moment in the criminal decline of what was once the city that drove America.

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