Baker’s Keyboard Lounge scores official historic status

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, which bills itself as the world’s oldest jazz club, is officially one of Detroit’s historic landmarks.

Detroit City Council approved naming the west-side nightclub a city historic district during its Tuesday meeting. In Detroit, even a single place may be designated as 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 that a working nightclub gets a shot at the designation, city officials said.

“The news is music to my ears,” co-owner Eric Whitaker said Tuesday. Whitaker said he hopes the historic status brings more recognition and investment for the intimate jazz lounge. About five years ago, Whitaker and his business partner, Hugh W. Smith III, bought the club in a bankruptcy auction for $395,000 from then-owner John Colbert.

The club’s roots as a live music venue date back to May 1934. That’s when a local female pianist whose name seems lost to history was booked at the club on Livernois, just south of Eight Mile. The music has never stopped.

Bakers Keyboard Lounge owner Hugh Smith poses at the keyboard bar with some of the food offered in this Oct. 22nd, 2015 photo.

The legends who’ve played at Bakers are too many to list but the roster includes Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck and George Benson. 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.

In 1961, a young, unknown Barbra Streisand sang in the 99-seat venue.

Whitaker, a retired General Motors engineer, started hanging out at Baker’s when he was 17. “I saw 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 in an earlier Detroit News interview. “It changed my life.”

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