Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Baker's, A Hard Bop Home: A Hat Tip to Dennis Coffey

Although I savored every page of Lars Björn and Jim Gallert's scholarly and profusely illustrated Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit last year, its brief mention of Baker's Keyboard Lounge did not make a deep impression.  Ironically, it took a chat with Motown studio legend Dennis Coffey last Saturday to begin to remedy my near-nescience on this under-recognized jazz venue.

Coffey was always in my peripheral vision.  I was never a rocker, having embraced jazz in earnest only in 1971, a few years after my musical interest had shifted from the Beatles and kindred groups to Soul Music, Coffey's bread-and-butter.  I therefore had known his playing, but not as his playing.  He was "Author Anonymous" for me and for millions of others (as were all the "Funk Brothers").  His 1971 debut album, Goin' for Myself, sported this image:
At Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors' "Motor City Soul Review," it was closer to this:

I hope I'll be playing with equivalent conviction and energy when I'm pushing 70. 

As he was packing his gear, the only thing I could think of to ask him about was the Detroit jazz scene.  I broke the ice by mentioning to him that Before Motown leaves the post-1960 period a blank.  Coffey assured me that the scene is alive and well and that he plays "about once a month at Baker's."   A research assignment.

What a revelation!  Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit has been in continuous operation since 1934, and thus its claim to be "the world's oldest jazz club," which it broadcasts on its site.  It may have been in continuous operation since '34, when Chris Baker opened it as a sandwich shop, but his son Clarence (owner since '39) booked no "name" acts, only local jazz talent, until '54.  (What about The Village Vanguard?  It opened in '35 and didn't have a fulltime jazz policy until the late '50s.)  Every jazz great, including every Hard Bop giant, played Baker's.  But why not hear the story from the lips of Clarence Baker himself?

Current co-owner John Colbert proudly drives home the historical importance of Baker's in the following clip (which morphs into a rousing performance of Miles Davis' "Four" by Dwight Adams and his colleagues):

Colbert mentions that the club's original piano is being restored.  This informative Detroit News article notes that it was Art Tatum who had selected it in New York and had it shipped to Baker's!

And so this expansion of my inventory of jazz historical knowledge was occasioned by an unplanned encounter with a soul guitar master.  In a short exchange of e-mails with me yesterday Dennis Coffey recalled having seen, "back in the day," fellow Detroiter Kenny Burrell not only at Baker's but also at the Minor Key (which would have had to be sometime between Winter '58-'59 and 1963, the club's short lifespan).  Coffey also remembers catching Wes Montgomery at a club called "the Drome Lounge . . . a small club on Dexter" (he must have meant the Bowl-o-Drome, which was on Dexter) and hanging out with Joe Pass at his house in Los Angeles. 

I close this post of gratitude to Mr. Coffey (you see why I wasn't so formal until now?) for his graciousness in opening my eyes (and, yes, even my ears) over the past few days by posting a clip of his playing -- his music -- at Baker's this past February.

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