Jazz (re)generator

For 65 years, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge has been a premier jazz club, though to judge by the crowds lately, you’d think the Livernois-at-Eight-Mile institution was the hot new kid on the nightclub block. Despite the throngs of hipsters who pack Baker’s regularly – thanks to founder and former owner Clarence Baker’s legacy, and new owners John Colbert and Juanita Jackson’s sharp ears for the best jazz talent – the club is one of the few Detroit nightspots where you’ll find three generations of jazz lovers rubbing elbows.

Over the years, Baker booked musicians such as Philly Joe Jones, Lee Morgan, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald and McCoy Tyner, serving up the kind of jazz that sticks to your ribs. But when Baker sold the club in 1996 – after persevering through social unrest, which forced away much of the clientele, and even surviving the advent of smooth jazz – the spot’s future was in doubt.

Instead of fading into memory, however, Baker’s has found a new vitality. Under the new management of Colbert and Jackson, Baker’s rebirth as the hottest jazz club in the Midwest – and the lines out the door – owe much to the finest in local jazz musicians booked by the pair seven days a week.

"Many people had a hunger for jazz in the Detroit area, and there was no place for them to go. It seems like when we opened the doors, we also opened the floodgates, and all the jazz enthusiasts came out once they became aware that Baker’s had reopened and was providing jazz every night," says Colbert.

"We honestly didn’t know the success would be as strong as it is. It just goes to show the strength of the jazz community in Detroit. The level of jazz musicians in Detroit is outstanding."

By the time Colbert and Jackson purchased the club, its heyday had come and gone. It was open only on the weekends and had lost most of its core audience. The whole proposition was a risky business. And the big challenge was combining a new vision for the club with the tradition of excellence that Clarence Baker had established.

"We knew that the day had since passed when a club that seats a hundred people could afford to bring in national acts. That is a thing of the past. It’s cost prohibitive. You will really be squeezed out of the market for national acts because of your size," Colbert explains.

"We work hard to develop a relationship with the local artists, and they work with us in terms of accepting the budget that allows us to bring them in, and allows us not to have a cover charge, which is a key factor to our success."

Sweat and passion have gone into rebuilding the club. Colbert and Jackson have done it not only by investing their faith into local jazz musicians, but by extensive remodeling. They’ve put in a new sound system, ripped out the stage and expanded the jazz room. Nevertheless, Colbert says he was still worried whether the local artists could capture and keep the attention of the club’s clientele – not to mention expand upon the established patronage.

"It’s a hard sell, you have to be careful. You can get yourself lost out there trying to provide steady work for these musicians."

The hometown musicians not only have become the backbone of the club, but also have attracted a younger audience. Colbert says that he’s surprised by how popular the club is with the younger generation. Although historically its audience has been a mature following of jazz enthusiasts, now the club is packed with young listeners looking for new and exciting ways to fill their quality time.

"The young folk who are coming to Baker’s are getting for the first time an experience of knowing that Baker’s has been around for 65 years. That is truly enlightening to know. And it’s a traditional jazz club of the highest level," says Colbert.

"Right now Baker’s is being compared to how it was in its best days because of the high quality jazz we’re maintaining night after night. The crowd likes the club because of the daily exposure to jazz, and no cover charge makes the music more attractive – and then they become acquainted with it as something they can identify with because it is part of our cultural roots."

Each night the club has a different vibe. The Monday night big band has the same spirit and energy that Count Basie’s band used to bring to town. By midweek, pianist Alma Smith has the house piano floating, and vocalist Phillis Causey has the entire room feeling each note. On the weekends, when jazz masters such as Donald Walden, George Goldsmith and Phil Lasley play, you have to camp out to get a good seat. The club can get noisy at times, but when the music starts, the only noise is the music getting inside somebody’s spirit. The different artists who play at Baker’s give it the feel of a jazz festival. And this keeps people knocking down the door to get inside the club.

"The best local talent performs here every night. People are in awe because Baker’s is not being overshadowed by all the development that is going on in the city. You can find that most nights there’s large crowds. They are not all standing over the new gambling tables," says Colbert.

Colbert and Jackson have shown that passion and an unyielding commitment to excellence are what it takes to build a successful jazz club. Along with saving a cultural landmark, they have given local jazz artists an opportunity to play, and they attribute the success of the club to those artists.

"The new musicians are fusing that new life into the club. Baker’s is now being looked at as being at the stage it was during the ‘60s and ‘70s," says Colbert. "We have polished that place off, and it is becoming more and more apparent that Baker’s is back on top as a premier jazz club. I can’t tell you that – I can only show you. Just come up there and you will see it night after night."

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. L. Latimer writes about jazz for the Metro
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