Half a century ago, a 25-year-old pianist named Todd Barkan walked into Keystone Korner, a San Francisco nightclub named for its proximity to a police station, trying to book a gig for his band, the Latin jazz combo Kwane & The Kwanditos.
Instead, Barkan walked out with a plan to buy the club from its owner and turn the “beer joint with blues band” into one of the finest jazz venues on the West Coast. And for a decade it was, hosting everyone from Sonny Rollins to Miles Davis. Barkan closed the club in 1983, saying that “Silicon Valley was just taking over the Bay Area, and our rent was going up tenfold.”
Today, the Keystone Korner marquee resides in Baltimore, nearly 3,000 miles away from its original location. Barkan, 76, is dressed in a suit with a dapper lavender shirt and tie when I visit him on a recent afternoon at Keystone Korner Baltimore, where he books a busy calendar and presides over day-to-day operations, just as he did in San Francisco.
His office inside the 180-capacity Fells Point club is adorned with photos, records, flyers and other memorabilia from his storied career of performing and promoting live jazz. Barkan’s memory is still so crystal clear that he can recall the off-color joke that Max Roach is telling Elvin Jones in a photograph of the two legendary drummers at the original club.
Barkan spent most of the last few decades in New York City, curating Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts with Wynton Marsalis and embarking on a prolific career as a record producer, winning a Grammy in 2015 for producing Arturo O’Farrill’s “The Offense of the Drum.” All the while, he continued booking concerts under the “Keystone Korner Presents” banner at various venues, and even opening up a Keystone Korner in Tokyo in the early ‘90s. But the club he opened in Baltimore in 2019 marks the first time Barkan has run the day-to-day operations of a club under the Keystone Korner name since 1983. “It’s my legacy. I did it because I wanted to keep that legacy alive.”
Cindy Blackman Santana, a world-renowned jazz drummer who’s also backed rock stars including Lenny Kravitz and her husband, Carlos Santana, raves about her experiences performing at Keystone Korner Baltimore.
“The moment you walk into the club, you feel a release, you feel welcomed, you feel that you’re at home. You feel that this is a safe place for you to create, and you understand and you feel that wherever you go is OK,” Santana said. “Todd is also a musician, so he understands both sides of the fence. He understands the club owner’s side, obviously; he understands the musician’s side. He understands the importance of the way musicians need to feel when they’re about to create.”
The seeds for Baltimore’s Keystone Korner were planted in 2018, when Barkan was awarded a Jazz Master Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The night he received the honor at the Kennedy Center, he met Robert Wiedmaier, a Washington, D.C.-area restaurateur who hosted the awards dinner. And their friendship eventually led to a joint venture when the Baltimore location of Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar & Grille, right on the waterfront on Lancaster Street, closed down.
Jazz once thrived in Baltimore, with trailblazers like Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway performing in clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue. And Barkan, who had never lived in Baltimore before, saw a worthy challenge in trying to revive that tradition.
“I did just a little light research, and I found out there had not been a jazz club in Baltimore of any consequence or any duration or any stature here since the 1980s,” he said, while noting the important work that Caton Castle, An die Musik, The Gordon Center, and other area venues do presenting live jazz. “Opening this club and booking and promoting it has been by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my music career. But it’s also been one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.”
Trumpeter Sean Jones, like Barkan, is an Ohio native who moved to Baltimore a few years ago, hired to chair the jazz department at the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory in 2018.
“It’s funny, Todd called me when he was thinking about moving down here. I said, ‘Oh man, I just got here as well,’ ”Jones said.
The two friends have worked together to strengthen the jazz community in Baltimore and provide unique opportunities for Peabody students to perform at Keystone and meet some of the jazz greats who headline the club, like Cyrus Chestnut and Charles McPherson.
“Todd will bring various artists over to the school to speak to the students. They get to interact with the legends of the music, they get to learn firsthand what is expected of them in the field, and it’s really exciting, man. Every city needs a Keystone Korner.”
On a recent Thursday, playing at Keystone Korner was the Mike Stern Band, which featured drummer Dennis Chambers, one of Baltimore’s greatest homegrown jazz musicians. At the bar, I spoke to Gonzalo and Enrique, two friends who’d both moved to the Baltimore area from Argentina over 20 years ago. This was their first time at the jazz venue, and they’d never really expected a chance to see Chambers in his hometown, especially in such an intimate setting.
“We’ve been following Dennis since the 1990s in Argentina. To see something like this here with 150 people is unbelievable,” Gonzalo said. “I’m a drummer and he was always an inspiration,” said Enrique, who’d owned a copy of Chambers’s popular instructional home video, “In The Pocket.” “We’re amazed at this kind of chance to see these guys.”
Many would consider it bad timing to open a music venue and restaurant shortly before COVID-19 turned the live entertainment industry upside down in 2020. But Barkan is grateful that he had the good fortune to open for business in April 2019 and get the club in a groove for 10 months before the pandemic put everything on pause.
“We were lucky, that was just enough. We built up about 15,000 people on our mailing list; we had some very successful shows,” Barkan said. “It was part of surviving. And I think it even brought me closer to the audience, because Baltimore is used to things coming and being very evanescent and leaving.”
When Baltimore Symphony Orchestra salary negotiations broke down in 2019 and the BSO was locked out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall by management, Keystone Korner became a second home for many of its musicians.
“A couple representatives of the orchestra came to see me, and free of charge I provided them a place to do concerts,” Barkan said. “So we had a whole series here of Sunday brunch BSO concerts, and those concerts were wonderful.” Just three months ago, the BSO and Keystone Korner announced a new formal partnership that would bring more live jazz to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
In bohemian San Francisco, the original Keystone Korner developed a reputation for hosting an eclectic range of performers, and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was one of the first acts to play Barkan’s club in 1972. So Barkan is no jazz purist, and Keystone Korner’s Baltimore audiences have eagerly embraced celebrations of classic soul music.
“Whenever I do a Motown tribute, or the Temptations or the Stylistics or Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or Earth, Wind & Fire tributes, it’s packed,” Barkan says. He’s wary of letting pop music with broader appeal push improvised instrumental jazz off his calendar too much, but he welcomes a balance of different genres to his stage. “I have become more cognizant of, and appreciative of the depth and breadth of the American R&B songbook since I’ve been here.”
One of the most important influences on Barkan’s life and career was Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the legendary saxophonist and flautist who was also from Columbus, Ohio. One of Kirk’s most celebrated albums, 1973′s “Bright Moments,” was recorded at Keystone Korner, with Barkan playing keyboards and percussion. That album’s instrumental title track was later re-recorded with lyrics written by Barkan, appearing on the album “Kirkatron” a few months before Kirk’s death in 1977.
“Bright Moments” remains a highlight of Barkan’s musical career, a calling card which he occasionally performs with artists at the new Keystone Korner. Last summer, organist and Miles Davis sideman Joey DeFrancesco ended every Keystone Korner performance with “Bright Moments,” sung by Barkan, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of both the club and the song. (Sadly, DeFrancesco died in August, a few days after his Baltimore concerts).
Barkan had never been a singer by trade, and never got to sing “Bright Moments” onstage with Kirk himself. But in spring 2020, during Keystone Korner’s long year of COVID uncertainty, Barkan found himself strolling through Baltimore with the tune in his head.
“I was walking down this marina, nobody on the street, and all of the sudden, I started singing that song to myself. ‘Love’s a dream that appears, you can always make real …’ ” he sings, his voice suddenly warm and full of melody.
The headline in this story was updated to say that Keystone Korner started in San Francisco and the story was updated to say that Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians were locked out by management over salary negotiations.
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.