Baker’s Keyboard Lounge retains remarkable jazz tradition in Detroit

By Eric Kiska
The All-Star Organ Quartet performs at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. By Eric Kiska
By Eric Kiska
Music Writer 

Some of the most historical music venues in the world reside in Detroit; you just have to know where to look for them. Well-known places such as the Fillmore, The Fox Theatre, The Majestic, and the Masonic Temple have hosted many distinguished performers throughout the years. When talking about jazz, though, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge is the crème de la crème.

Considered by many music historians as the world’s oldest operating jazz club, Baker’s opened in 1933 by Chris and Fannie Baker as a lunch-time sandwich eatery in Detroit’s west side on Livernois Avenue. In 1934, their son Clarence Baker started booking local jazz musicians to improve the atmosphere.

Clarence took full ownership in 1939 and began hiring jazz acts from outside the metro-Detroit area while regularly featuring famed Detroit pianist Pat Flowers. It wasn’t until 1952 that Baker renovated and expanded the restaurant to a European Art-Deco arrangement that solidified the jazz club’s ambiance and attracted major acts.

Just a few of the well-known musicians who have performed at Baker’s are Miles Davis, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Sarah Vaughn and Joe Williams. With names such as that, it’s no wonder why the west-side keyboard lounge has a special spot in jazz history.

After many years of success, Baker’s took a turn for the worse in the 1970s and 80s due to tough economic times and a dying interest in jazz. It enjoyed a small resurgence at the turn of the century after Clarence Baker sold it to John Colbert and Juanita Jackson in 1996, but closed again due to the economic recession.

Hugh Smith and Eric Whitaker, a former restaurant manager and a retired General Motors engineer, took on the daunting task of revitalizing and remodeling this historic artifact by buying Baker’s in 2011. And if Saturday night’s showing was a proper survey, it appears as though they’re succeeding.

Bakers Keyboard Lounge1
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. By Eric Kiska

Jazz lovers packed the dimly-lit keyboard lounge as Detroit’s All-Star Organ Quartet put on a phenomenal demonstration of neo-soul jazz. The group consisted of Geo Davidson keeping the beat on the drums, Vince Bowen soulfully soloing on the woodwinds, Duncan McMillan holding it down on the organ, and Perry Hughes picking and strumming the jazz guitar.

Although the keyboard-styled bar is the same and the Art-Deco-inspired furnishing and art hasn’t changed, Smith and Whitaker have made some much-needed renovations to the inside and outside of the venue. The soundboards, flooring, and roofing have been updated to improve acoustics and modernize the building.

The food consists of tastebud-tingling dishes of Detroit soul food, while Baker’s still has the original 1934 drink menu that shows beer being served at 34 cents. Obviously, this is just a novelty, 34 cent beers would be too good to be true.

The organ quartet tipped their hats to their Detroit roots by covering Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” As each member tactfully traded solo’s, they added their own stamps to a hometown favorite. The crowd responded with boisterous applause. With set-lists such as last night’s, Detroit’s All-Star Organ Quartet proved that Detroit jazz is still something to behold.

Baker’s is a refreshing reminder that despite the city changing with the times, the tradition of remarkable music has stuck around. A schedule of upcoming acts is on their website, while Detroit’s All-Star Organ Quartet currently performs at Baker’s the second Friday of every month.

Stop by to breathe in jazz, soul food, and old Detroit.

This story is part of a weekly series by music writer Eric Kiska.

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Eric Kiska

Eric Kiska graduated from Northern Michigan with a BS in English and writing and minor in art and design. He’s also a former video editor at Detroit Public TV.