Friday, March 20, 2009

Detroit institution turns 75, tries to stay open

Baker's Keyboard Lounge

The oldest continually operating jazz club in the world, Baker's Keyboard Lounge marks its 75th anniversary in a few weeks. Local and international artists including Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald have performed at the cozy lounge near the corner of Livernois and Eight Mile Rd. over the years.

Owners John Colbert and Juanita Jackson are now struggling to keep the club open.

Business is off 35% to 40% in the last nine months, Colbert said, and a combination of factors - the recession, road construction on Livernois, parking issues and a dramatic hike in the club's water bill - have conspired to bring Baker's to the brink of extinction.

"Nobody gets rich running a jazz club, but in the 13 years since I've owned the place, we've never experienced anything like this," Colbert said.

Baker's has been integral to Detroit's cultural identity as a jazz mecca for so long, it's hard for musicians, aficionados and even casual fans to conceive of the city without it.

If metro Detroiters have been to one jazz club, it's likely been Baker's. With its hipster vibe, cozy banquets, art deco decor, rich history and bebop soundtrack, Baker's has long been regarded as the Platonic ideal of a jazz club.

The club, which opened in 1934, runs neck and neck with the Village Vanguard in New York for the title of world's oldest jazz club. Down Beat, a leading jazz magazine, routinely names Baker's on its list of the 100 great jazz clubs worldwide.

"It's like the Alamo in a sense -- it's the last real jazz club standing in Detroit," said Jim Gallert, a die-hard fan and historian of local jazz.

Baker's Keyboard Lounge

We stopped in last night to see Ben's Friends Big Band [pictured above] and enjoy some of the best soul food and classic cocktails served anywhere. I was very pleased to see it packed, and we didn't mind a bit having to wait for a table in the bar area - with its iconic curved and keyboard patterned bar top. We'll be back with more frequency and I hope more Detroiters do as well. Baker's is one of those special places where you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel the soul of a city.

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