Baker's Keyboard Lounge seeks official landmark status

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

If nothing else, the candidate for Detroit's 194th official historic landmark proves this city's past can sometimes be just plain cool. The nominee: Baker's Keyboard Lounge, which bills itself as the world's oldest jazz club.

"It may be the first nightclub that has always operated as a nightclub and continues to do so," to gain historic status in Detroit, said Janese Chapman, planner for the city's Historic Designation Advisory Board.

City officials have started the process to have the 81-year-old nightclub declared a historic district. In Detroit, even a single place is designated a "district." The city has officially recognized other landmarks that pay homage to Detroit's musical heritage — Motown Records, Orchestra Hall and Midtown's Garden Theater are a few examples. But it's rare a working nightclub has a shot at the designation, city officials said.

Baker's the jazz club was born in May, 1934, when a local female pianist was booked at the club on Livernois, just south of Eight Mile. It was the first live gig for Baker's. The music has never stopped. The legends who've played there are too many to list. A sample: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck and George Benson.

Virtuoso Art Tatum made the lounge his home base during the last two years of his life. The black Steinway grand he had installed on the tiny stage in 1954 is still the club piano. The club's piano-shaped bar is believed to have inspired Liberace to create a piano-shaped swimming pool at his Beverly Hills' mansion. In 1961, a young, unknown Barbra Streisand sang in the intimate venue, which seats 99.

Eric Whitaker, a retired General Motors engineer, started hanging out at Baker's when he was 17. Early on, he witnessed something magical.

"I saw (trumpeter) Miles Davis show up one day and just play. He wasn't booked, he just came in, went on stage and started playing," Whitaker said. "I've been hooked ever since."

So hooked that four years ago Whitaker and his business partner, Hugh W. Smith III, bought Baker's in a bankruptcy auction for $395,000 from then-owner John Colbert.

Baker's as a nightclub began in 1934, but the building opened as a lunch restaurant by Chris and Fannie Baker one year earlier. At the time, Livernois was a two-lane street surrounded by green space, according to historical accounts. The Bakers asked their son, Clarence, to figure out a way to attract a crowd at night.

Clarence Baker, who at the time was processing mortgages for the former Manufacturers National Bank downtown, loved jazz. He bought an upright piano. He started to book local jazz acts. Thus, a white banker became a pivotal Detroit ambassador to an original African-American art form.

Jazz was good to Clarence Baker. In an interview late in his life, posted on YouTube, he talks of taking legendary drummer Gene Krupa on his sailboat and loaning pianist Oscar Peterson his Jaguar convertible.

Baker's has survived many challenges, including an aging fan base and the overall tough times Detroit has faced for decades. But it's always managed to offer live music on most nights. It also has served food through the years.

"Jazz has never died. We are proof," said Whitaker.

Clarence Baker sold the club in 1996 to John Colbert, a retired Detroit police officer. Colbert had to sell it as part of a personal bankruptcy in 2011, when the city was still reeling from the Great Recession.

The intimacy of the club has been both a blessing and a burden, the owners said. By having a bar and a kitchen, Baker's has been able to survive as a retail establishment, Smith said. But it's too small to book national acts, which has been an ongoing challenge.

"We want to be able to get up-and-coming acts," Smith said.

Baker's is regaining momentum, contend the two owners. They are in talks with downtown development czar Dan Gilbert, founder of online mortgage lender Quicken Loans Inc., about opening a second location in Detroit's central business district.

The city's historic designation is another big key to helping maintaining the energy, the owners believe. The club already has a historic designation from the state.

City officials have bigger aspirations for the designation.

"This is the first step to get Baker's on the National Register of Historic Places," said Chapman.

That would make it eligible for federal historic tax credits, a key piece of financing for development projects in Detroit.

The next step in the designation process is a Feb. 12 meeting of the city's historic advisory board at the Coleman A. Young building downtown. A formal presentation prepared by the advisory board staff will be made; the presentation given includes input from jazz historians and musicians as well as the club owners. A public hearing needs to be held and if the board approves the designation, it goes to the City Council for approval. The process could take up to six months.

To go after federal approval, the state's historic preservation office would have to join the effort. A comprehensive, detailed account of Baker's history would have to be reviewed by the National Park Service, the agency that oversees the National Register of Historic Places. The federal process could take up to a year.

The owners of Baker's are ready to fight for official national landmark status.

"We are world famous. Now, we intend to be part of Detroit's comeback," said Smith, who is a former employee of the club. "We want to include the city's history as part of that rebound."

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN