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Old 05-02-2014, 12:36 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Baker's Keyboard Lounge--world's oldest surviving jazz club

The oldest continually-operating jazz club in the world, Baker's is located in Detroit on Livernois between 7 and 8 Mile Roads, closer to 8 Mile. Listed as a Historic Site by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, their listing reads:

Baker's Keyboard Lounge has significance as Michigan's jazz mecca and Detroit's oldest jazz club in continuous operation. Founded in May 1933 by Chris Baker as a restaurant and piano bar, the present jazz orientation of the club has been firmly in place since 1939. Baker's Keyboard Lounge has hosted the greatest names in blues and jazz since that date. Some of the musicians who have played the club include: Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Sarah Vaughn, Joe Williams, Maynard Ferguson, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, Modern Jazz Quartet, and Nat "King" Cole; to name but a few. In 1984, Baker's Keyboard Lounge celebrated fifty-years of the sound of jazz in Detroit and Michigan.

The place opened as a sandwich shop in 1933 under the ownership of Chris and Fannie Baker. The following year, their son, Clarence, began booking jazz pianists to entertain the crowd when jukeboxes and piped-in music were not yet a norm. The place was not yet touted as a jazz venue nor was consciously trying to be one. They just wanted music to give the place some atmosphere.

By 1938, Chris suffered a stroke and Clarence took over the business and began booking jazz pianists from all over the country as well as the local talent. From there, they began booking jazz combos. Many jazz artists made their debuts in Detroit at Baker's while others were discovered there. Mingus credited Baker's as the start of his comeback when he played a series of shows there in 1969. Billie Holiday practically lived in the place in the 50s because she spent so much time there even when she wasn't on the bill. My uncle's jazz combo played there a lot from the early to mid-50s.

There is a story that Miles Davis quit heroin after an embarrassing incident in Bakers when he interrupted a set by Billy Mitchell's all-star combo that included Yusef Lateef, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Elvin and Thad Jones, Donald Byrd and others. Davis insisted throughout his life that the incident never happened although he did show up at Baker's to play with the group at their request (he was appearing at the Blue Bird Inn, a Paradise Valley club).

I should point out that despite the Paradise Valley jazz history of Detroit, Baker's was not part of it simply because it was not in Paradise Valley.

In the 50s, Baker's was remodeled into an Art Deco style that has remained to this day. Surprisingly, Baker's in a small place. It only holds 100 people in the seating area. The piano-shaped bar is in an a-joining room with a TV monitor so that patron's can watch the stage from the bar. It is a true jazz nightclub with the proper atmosphere. The piano-shaped bar inspired Liberace to create a piano-shaped swimming pool.

Baker's layout.

There is a Steinway piano in the bar next to the stage. Nobody plays it because it is beat up. It was brought in by the great Art Tatum when he was hired as the house pianist. Tatum's last live show was at Baker's and then he flew off to California to do some recordings and died there that weekend. McCoy Tyner played the hell out of that piano to the point where the hammers are bent. It needs a complete rebuild to be playable again but thus far, this has not happened. Bands use it to hold small equipment, cases and CDs for sale.

With the marginalization of jazz since the 60s, Baker's has been hard-put to survive. Several times, it has come close to closing. The new owners vow to keep it a jazz venue and, so far, they have. Part of the problem is location. While the place is not in the worst part of Detroit, it's still a somewhat questionable area although I've never had any problems there. Singer Eddie Jefferson was shot to death in the parking lot there back in the 70s but the killer turned out to be a dancer he had fired for alcohol, drug and punctuality issues. The food is great and they serve the best fried chicken and hot sauce around.

Baker's Keyboard Lounge is not only a Detroit institution but a world institution. Hopefully it will remain open forever and book exclusively jazz acts forever. If either condition ever changes, on that day I shall mourn.

I took this photo of the marquee back in March when I went to see my bass instructor's band, Swingin' Chopin. He's played there quite a lot.

The stage area showing Art Tatum's piano.
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Old 05-02-2014, 02:03 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Haven't heard of it before. Looks awesome.
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And I actually am taking out a restraining order for you Batlord.
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Another one for the collection.
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Old 05-16-2014, 03:16 AM   #3 (permalink)
Join Date: May 2014
Location: Melbourne
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What's the vibe like these days there? Looks like a fair bit of a history in that place.

When I was in Shanghai I think there was a Jazz club/bar that had been open since the 30's.
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