In Detroit, telling the story of a legendary jazz club and a push to preserve its history
Clarence Baker in 1980 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
As an effort is being carried out to bring the story of a legendary Detroit jazz club to film, a state lawmaker is calling for a Michigan Historical Marker to be placed at the site.
Nancy Barber, a metro Detroit native now living in California, wants to share Baker’s Keyboard Lounge’s story which, after many years, is now in post-production.
“We have conducted many hours of interviews, gathered photos and documents working closely with the families of the original owner… and uncovered rare live musical recordings,” said Barber, who has worked for MTV, E!, Disney and Lionsgate Films and was the editor on the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks.” Barber is hoping to secure additional funding to complete the project.
Her parents had their first date seeing Jonah Jones at the club in 1958 and her father, a journalist, encouraged her to produce a history of the venue. With help from Baker’s family as well as musicians, employees and patrons, Barber has secured over nine boxes of material. She and Larry Pryce, a frequent patron at Baker’s during the 1960’s and early 1970’s are working on the project.
“While I was attending Wayne State in the late 1960s studying for my teaching degree, my hangout of choice was Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, ” said Pryce.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Helena Scott (D-Detroit) represents the community where the club is located and knows of its unique history.
“From hosting many legendary jazz performers for many decades to now being a key location in Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion on Livernois, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge is a cultural landmark in the city of Detroit’s history and will leave a lasting legacy,” said Scott. “Baker’s Keyboard Lounge should most definitely have a Michigan Historical Marker on the site.”
The maker process is controlled by the Michigan Historical Commission.
“Applicants must make the case through their application and the documentation they acquire through historical research that the historic resource or topic is worthy of a Michigan Historical Marker,” the commission’s website reads. “Applicants also raise the funds to pay for their marker and are responsible for the installation.”
An official with the state’s Preservation Office told the Advance that Baker’s Keyboard Lounge was listed in the State Register of Historical Sites in 1986 but a request for a marker has not been made to date.
However, in 2016, the Detroit City Council made the establishment a Historic District, which means that it can not be demolished and structurally altered without permission from the city of Detroit Historic District Commission.
“The architectural character of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, and its cultural significance as a center of the city’s jazz scene persists to the present day,” a portion of the report reads.
‘I bought it for about $35.’
The club opened in 1934 with Frances and Chris Baker, a white couple at the helm. Their son Clarence began running the establishment by 1937 when Livernois Avenue was a two-lane street.
“I bought it for about $35,” Clarence Baker told the Detroit Free Press in 1988.
“I went out there in 1937 to take over after my Dad’s illness. I took leave from my job as a mortgage broker downtown but never went back,” Baker told the Detroit Free Press in 1963.
It transformed from a sandwich shop to a piano bar where trios and quartets performed often. Ralphe Armstrong, a bassist who has performed with jazz legends like guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianist Tommy Flanagan at the club for nearly 50 years, remembered Baker, who died in 2003, as a kind man who paid talent well and on time. He also created an opportunity for young musicians to learn the craft on a public stage.
“Clarence would let us play on Sundays for a couple of hours,” said Armstrong about his early days as a Cass Technical High School graduate.
He also took care of the musicians. He treated everybody with respect. He was a decent guy.”
The club’s piano-shaped bar with its keys illustrated on the bar top was installed in 1956 and 1957. Pat Flowers, who attended Cass Technical High School and Julliard School in New York City, was sometimes described as “Detroit’s own ‘Mr. Piano'” and tickled the ivories there during the 1950s. So did fellow pianists Art Tatum and Erroll Garner.
Tatum, a Black man, also performed at Club Alamo, a short-lived club, next-door to Baker’s. It hosted acts from a variety of genres in addition to jazz. However, after witnessing an African American customer being refused service, Tatum walked out of the Alamo.
Baker told the Detroit Free Press in 1988 that saxophonist Charlie Parker made an appearance there during the 1950s.
“It was quite a strange experience. He knew the guys on the stand and he just got up on stage and started playing,” said Baker.
Baker also said that trumpeter Miles Davis walked in one night and played with fellow trumpeter Clliford Brown and drummer Max Roach, according to a recollection in a 1984 Detroit Free Press story. Davis confirmed his appearance there in his 1988 book “Miles: The Autobiography.”
Due, in part, to health challenges, Baker leased the club to Solly Hartstein in 1963. During the decade, comedy shows were occasionally held there; the business attracted talent like Phyllis Diller, Jackie Mason and Redd Foxx but jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, a pianist, and Kenny Burrell, a guitarist, also continued to perform as well as South African vocalist Miriam Makeba and saxophonists Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt. Vocalist Nina Simone also performed there.
Clarence Baker returned as day-to-day club owner-manager in 1974. In 1979, jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson was fatally shot as “he was leaving Baker’s,” according to New York Times reporting.
“Witnesses said that Jefferson was leaving the club with his road manager and a woman friend when a car pulled up and the driver, apparently alone in the car, fired four shotgun blasts and sped away,” the report read.
A 41-year-old assailant was later acquitted in Detroit Recorder’s Court.
The 1980s, 1990s and beyond
The business changed ownership a couple of times during the 1980s and ‘90s. Clarence Baker, who at one point opened Baker’s Uptown in Pontiac – a short-lived effort – with guitarist Earl Klugh, died in 2003 at age 93.
During the 1980s, bebop jazz giants Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson, Betty Carter, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones performed there often during the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is held each Labor Day weekend. The club closed for about 18 months between October 1988 to March 1990.
“You can’t just leave a place like this alone,” said Baker to the Detroit Free Press in 1990. I’ve had so many memories here. I’ve been here all my life. I have so many memories. This is a part of me.”
The club has been Black-owned for the last 27 years. John Colbert and Juanita Jackson bought Baker’s in 1996. Since 2011, the club has been owned by SB Media LLC, which consists of African American business partners, and continues to be operated as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. SB Media is led by Hugh Smith and Eric Whitaker.
For the last 30 years or so, the club essentially featured homegrown talent who have played throughout the world with recording headliners. They include pianist Pamela Wise, bandleaders Gwen and Charles Scales, saxophonist Norma Jean Bell, guitarist Calvin Brooks, pianist Gerard Gibbs and bassist Ralphe Armstrong, and drummer Gayelynn McKinney. In 2004 saxophonist James Carter’s “Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge” was released on the Warner Bros. label. It included music recorded at the club in 2001. It offers karaoke on Wednesdays and a full kitchen, which includes baked and fried chicken, turkey and pork, as well as yams, macaroni and cheese, greens and dressing.
“I cherish the memories that I have at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge as it has been a place known for its unique sound and lively environment,” said Scott. “It also holds a special place in my heart as an opportunity to look back and reflect on some memorable times with my family.”
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