The Keystone Korner was just beginning its third week of operation in Baltimore’s Harbor East when the all-star jazz septet the Cookers took the stage on May 15. Billy Harper, tall and lean in a shiny silver shirt, erupted into a Coltrane-esque tenor-sax solo on his composition, “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart.” His lightning was echoed by the thundering drumming from Billy Hart, the brawny and balding 78-year-old D.C. native. From tables around the spacious new nightclub, shouts of encouragement egged the two soloists on into an improvised crescendo.
It was the kind of moment that impresario Todd Barkan had in mind when he reincarnated his legendary Keystone Korner club in Baltimore. The original club had flourished in San Francisco from 1972 through 1983, followed by short stints in Oakland and Tokyo. Landmark live albums by the likes of Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Freddie Hubbard had been recorded there. Barkan, one of the National Endowment of Art’s Jazz Masters, had been a programmer for Jazz at Lincoln Center from 2000 to 2012, but he was eager to run a club again.
“I have one of the rarest things in the world: a jazz pension,” the 72-year-old retiree says, “but I don’t want to sit home and watch Netflix for the rest of my life. Presenting jazz is what I’m supposed to do. People tell me I’m crazy, but I haven’t been this excited since I took over the Keystone Korner in San Francisco.”
Wearing his NEA Jazz Masters baseball cap and a dark blue blazer, Barkan fairly bubbles with enthusiasm. During intermission, he grabs a journalist and a musician to show off photographs and posters from his long career that now hang on the walls of the Baltimore club.
It was at a 2018 dinner for the NEA Jazz Masters at Marcel’s in Washington, in fact, that Barkan met that restaurant’s owner-chef, the Michelin-starred chef Robert Wiedmaier, a big jazz fan. They hit it off and were soon talking about opening a jazz club in D.C. They could never find the right site, though, and searches in Houston and Atlanta proved equally fruitless. It was only this January that Wiedmaier suggested opening the club in his shuttered Mussel Bar and Grille in Baltimore.
Previous attempts to give Baltimore an international-talent jazz club like New York’s Blue Note or D.C.’s Blues Alley have foundered. Blues Alley even made a stab at a Baltimore presence once. But Barkan is confident that he will succeed where others have failed. His partnership with Wiedmaier suggests that the food will be as good as the music. Harbor East offers a downtown neighborhood with lots of affordable parking and upscale condos. In fact, Barkan and his wife have moved from New York into a condo above the club, which faces a canal off the Inner Harbor.
“In the best tradition of my grandparents,” Barkan jokes, “we’re living over the store.” This store, however, is a sprawling restaurant with large, round, communal tables near the stage, smaller tables in back and bar stools along the long island bar off from stage left. The high ceilings reveal exposed ducts and soft, muslin-shaded lights in industrial-chic fashion.
Back onstage, trumpeter Eddie Henderson is caressing the melody from Harper’s romantic ballad, “If One Could Only See,” while Stanley Cowell supports him with rippling chords on the club’s Steinway grand piano. The sound is clear and crisp. Barkan points out that the piano was picked out for the club by Cyrus Chestnut, a pianist for everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Betty Carter.
“I rushed over to the Steinway Piano Gallery in Bethesda from Howard University, where I teach,” Chestnut explains. “My first thought was, ‘I can’t just be selfish and pick an instrument that’s good for me, because many hands are going to be playing it. So I need to pick an instrument that’s flexible.’ I played a couple of pianos, but I kept coming back to this one. It had the subtlety of a chamber group but also the ability to cut through an ensemble.”
Chestnut now lives in Jersey City, but he grew up Baltimore, playing in African American churches and studying classical music at Peabody Prep. He’ll blend all those influences when he performs with drummer Lenny White, bassist Buster Williams and saxophonist Antonio Hart at the Keystone Korner this weekend. Chestnut is proud to have inherited the New Year’s Eve gig at Blues Alley from Ahmad Jamal and Freddy Cole, but he’s excited that his hometown finally has major league jazz club.
“A jazz renaissance is happening in Baltimore,” Chestnut asserts. “You can see it in the launch of the Peabody Conservatory’s jazz department, the emergence of small clubs such as An Die Musik Live and Caton Castle, and now the Keystone Korner, with all its history. It can only do great things for the city by preserving its rich culture, even if that tradition has often been hidden by other things.”
1350 Lancaster St., Baltimore. keystonekornerbaltimore.com.
Upcoming shows include the Cyrus Chestnut Trio with Antonio Hart (through Sunday); Benny Russell Big Band (Monday); Raul Midon and Sean Jones’s Dizzy Spellz (Tuesday and Wednesday).