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Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club

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During the 1970s, when jazz clubs all over America were folding under the onslaught of rock and roll and disco, San Francisco’s Keystone Korner was an oasis for jazz musicians and patrons. Tucked next to a police station in the city’s North Beach area, the Keystone became known as one of the most important jazz spots in the United States. It was so beloved by musicians that superstars McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones played a benefit concert just so the club could buy a liquor license. In this book, more than 100 black and white photographs and a collage of oral histories from the club chronicle the Keystone experience.

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1 Todd’s Tune

ePub

I just wanted to present the best
music that we could with the
warmest feeling that we could.

Todd Barkan

Todd Barkan

Keystone Korner was, as much as anything else, the only real psychedelic jazz club that lasted. There were a couple of little experiments in that area, and isolated experiments in the United States, but Keystone was a bona fide psychedelic jazz club that emerged out of the post-psychedelic era in San Francisco – right out of flower children and Haight-Ashbury.

I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1946 and was deeply immersed in jazz from my earliest remembered times. My family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where my grandparents were, and we had lots of jazz records in the house. I listened to jazz and became a jazz fanatic by the time I was eight or nine years old. I had literally thousands of records by the time I was in college. I used to work as a construction worker and would take every penny I had and buy jazz records. And I used to hear as much jazz as I could. I first started playing the piano when I was six years old. And it was in Columbus that I met Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who became a mentor to me later on.

 

2 Begin the Beguine

ePub

I guess it was his [Todd Barkan’s]
booking and his relationship with
musicians that made it happen. But it
was the rest of us that made it work.

Helen Wray

Flicka McGurrin

I was working at Caesar’s Latin Palace, the Latin club that Cesar Ascarrunz owned. I had started there as a cocktail waitress, but it was way out in the Mission and it was dangerous, and I was a single parent with children. I just needed a job that was no responsibility, which was quick cash, which was why I was cocktail waitressing. And so I realized that, since jazz was my first love, it made more sense to work at Keystone Korner because I lived right up the street.

So I went one night and asked for a job, and Todd’s partner, whose name escapes me, interviewed me out in the street and literally hired me on the spot. Bald guy – remember him? And so I thought, “Well, perfect. Now I’m working in one of my favorite places.” I loved working there.

Helen Wray

I came over here [from Australia] in 1976 for a skiing vacation with a suitcase and a pair of skis, and I’m still here. I went back to visit, but one thing led to another and I just stayed.

 

3 The Space Is the Place

ePub

If you came to San Francisco, there was
nowhere else to go. And the amazing
thing, the paradox of the whole thing,
is that the club and what went on in
that club [existed] next door to a police
station. This, of course, is big. This
should be on page 1: “The Keystone
Korner opposite the Keystone Kops.”

Dave Liebman

George Cables

God, the music was fantastic. I loved playing there because I could hear. The sound was great, the vibe was great, the music was live. Some rooms you play and you hear the note: pssssst. It sort of disappears or just comes to a thud, boomp, and that’s it. But in Keystone, it was live; the sound reverberated, and you could hear the piano.

David Williams

Next to the Village Vanguard in New York, Keystone Korner was one of my favorite or maybe the favorite room for sound, for the bass. I like to hear it a certain way. And some rooms just have no personality. I’ll spend all night fiddling with the amplifier. Some rooms make the bass sound out of tune. It would be in tune but the intonation would be off, and I’d be all night trying to tune the bass. So much of what we do is about the sound. It’s all about the sound.

 

4 The Backroom

ePub

Two young cute black women . . .
you can go backstage at any jazz
concert you want.

devorah major

Eddie Marshall

The backroom. A glorious room. That couch was one of the most comfortable couches in any room, I’ll tell you. And if they wanted DNA evidence about anything, they could probably get it right on that couch. [Laughs] It’s funny, I look at that couch and I can see Flora [Purim]’s little girl sleeping on there, my kids sleeping on that couch in the back, and yeah, little Ayisha. Oh man. You could call it a family-oriented place – [Laughing] – even with all the carrying on.

Most backrooms were small rooms. Like the Five Spot. I don’t know – did the Five Spot even have one? Birdland had a pretty nice one, but it was still small.

I really love Yoshi’s. I find it a very musician-friendly place. You know, they have a backroom and everything, but it could be anywhere. Either you can’t get back there, or when you get back there, it’s really small, very cold. They don’t have people’s autographs on the wall.

 

5 Ora’s Kitchen

ePub

[Rahsaan Roland Kirk] was not
going to let me say no to making
Todd a kitchen. So I did. I basically
did it as a favor to Rahsaan.

Ora Harris

Ora Harris

I came to California from Boston where myself and a girlfriend had started an organization called the Black Avant Garde. ’70, ’71 – about like that. A minister allowed us to have the basement of his church on Friday nights and Saturday nights, and we made ourselves a jazz club. We put in tables and made tablecloths; we shopped and made food; and it was just absolutely wonderful. There were many, many good, talented musicians in Boston at the time: Bill Saxton, Ralph Penland, Justo Amario. Many, many – I can’t name them all now. But we thought they were all so good that we started our little club. And it worked out well because the people just loved it. My girlfriend Mattie and I, we would make brown rice and chicken cacciatore, cornbread and fried chicken and cabbage. Good, basic soul food. We made banana nut bread and carrot cake and, of course, the word got out that there’s not only music but there’s really good food.

 

6 Taking Care of Business

ePub

I always got paid, so I have
nothing to complain about.

Flicka McGurrin

Eddie Marshall

You never saw Todd riding around in a Cadillac [laughs] or doing anything but paying rent when he could make it.

Calvin Keys

He would take chances. He would hire musicians from back east, not knowing whether he was going to make any money with them but knowing that a lot of people out here wanted to see them. Where else did Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers play in San Francisco? He must have made some kind of a living, but he didn’t make a killing. I guess the big ones paid [for] the little ones.

Eddie Marshall

People came out here and they couldn’t bring their own rhythm section. I mean, it really kills me when people say that Todd was such a shyster. A shyster from what? Hell, you know, even then, what it cost to bring somebody out here to play plus put them in a hotel? And knowing [Todd] was going to have to have some kind of benefit, or get money from his dad – or [have to face] the rent going up . . . ? He could never, never afford [all those rising costs]. There was no way, I’ll tell you. He just did it anyhow. Those people that own that building, they kept raising the rent, and they wanted that to be a commercial venue, so he was always under fire.

 

7 Rahsaan Roland Kirk

ePub

“Rahsaan.” That was really Todd’s
inspiration, I do believe.

George Cables

They wrote that song “Bright Moments”
together. Todd’s name is on that song.

Eddie Marshall

Todd Barkan

I met Rahsaan on a bus going to a Columbus Jets game in Columbus, Ohio. He was on his way to see his girlfriend by himself, just with his little stick and his roller at the end of the stick and the horn attached to it. I was about eleven years old. And he became my mentor in the music. It turned out that he lived very close to where I lived in Columbus; the area of town that he lived in, near East High School, was very close to Bexley, Ohio, which is a suburb where my folks lived. My neighborhood was mostly Methodist and Jewish, and he lived in a black neighborhood very close by. His dad owned a candy store. Rahsaan went to the Ohio School for the Blind.

Rahsaan became a mentor to me, and then later on I was able to hire him at Keystone Korner and make the recording of “Bright Moments,” which I played keyboards and percussion on. We had a wonderful, lifelong relationship. I toured Australia and Europe with Rahsaan during the time that Keystone was open. We toured in ’74 and ’75, right before he had his stroke. He passed away in 1977.

 

8 Teach Me Tonight

ePub

Working at Keystone, for me, was
like working in a musical library.

Flicka McGurrin

Todd Barkan

I’m not as free [now in New York] and the world is not as open as it was at that time. I think we’re politically way more conservative now than we were in 1972 and especially in the late ’60s, when I was really formulating where I was coming from in my musical life, musical vision, ideas about presenting that kind of music. I felt like a very important function of what I did was to educate and broaden the tastes and scope of the musical audience. And I think to this day that the Keystone Korner had an enormous impact on jazz in this country and particularly on what was presented in the Bay Area. And I think in the ’70s, I probably had a broader palette.

Steve Turre

Keystone had the commitment not only to the level of artistry and the level of musicianship and creativity but also the commitment to the acknowledgment of the source of the music and the roots of the culture of the music. There are a lot of places all over the country that just don’t want to acknowledge the facts of jazz.

 

9 Bobby and Bags

ePub

He just hits one note. He
crushed me with one note.

Eddie Marshall quoting Bobby
Hutcherson on Milt Jackson

Stuart Kremsky

The thing about Keystone, and what I think Todd’s greatest skill was, was putting together interesting combinations of musicians. Nobody else would put Max Roach and Art Blakey on the same bill, but Todd did that.

Todd Barkan

I put lots and lots of bands together. I mean, that’s part of what I do and what I’ve done for the last thirty years. I do it here [in New York] at Dizzy’s. And I did it there in the ’70s – put bands together. I’m the one that put George Cables with Charles McPherson.

Putting Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson together was something that I just wanted to do for many years. I knew [from] Bobby that Milt was his hero, number one, and I knew that Milt was often very resistant about the idea of playing with another vibes player. That took quite a long time to happen. Milt Jackson had to approve it because Milt was the boss. Bobby was only one of his children. One of his progeny. Now, Bobby is the boss and Stefon Harris and Joe Locke are his children. Generations. I suggested that [they perform together] three or four times before it happened. And even the week that it happened, it wasn’t supposed to happen. Milt said, “No.” Then, finally, in the middle of the week, he said, “Man, have Bobby come in.” And, of course, I didn’t have to bend Bobby’s arm; Bobby wanted to do it from the very beginning. So Bobby came, and it was a great thing.

 

10 Dexter Gordon

ePub

How could you not fall in love
with Dexter Gordon?

Eddie Marshall

Ronnie Matthews

When Maxine [Gordon] got Dexter to come back [from Europe in 1973], there was a group with Woody Shaw, Junior Cook, Stafford James, and me. And so Maxine put Dexter with us – the opening salvo, so to speak – just to reintroduce him to America. Then, shortly after that, Dexter got his own group.

Todd Barkan

We put things together; that’s part of what we do as jazz club owners. Or you try to do that. They don’t just put themselves together. It’s a community effort; it’s an industry effort. You work with booking agents, managers, artists. . . . It always has to be based on the music. The music has to come first for these things to work at all. You know, some bass players like playing with other drummers better. You don’t put them together like you’re putting chess pieces on a chessboard. Or like you would Parcheesi tiles on a Parcheesi board. It’s based upon the nuances and idiosyncrasies and the symbiotic relationships of one jazz musician and another. The reason that the quartet works with George Cables, Rufus Reid, Eddie Gladden, and Dexter Gordon has to do with both their personal feelings and personal idiosyncrasies as people first, as well as their ability to get along. On the bandstand, Dexter was far behind the beat, and George Cables was ahead of the beat, and Rufus Reid and Eddie Gladden would flow back and forth – and that’s what made the whole pendulum work. That was the Dexter Gordon Quartet. It was Dexter’s overall whahh that carried the whole thing forward, but the elements were based upon the tongue-and-groove of Rufus Reid and Eddie Gladden swinging so hard, George Cables being slightly in front of the beat, Dexter Gordon being behind the beat. That’s what made that whole group have so much swing and such intensive propulsiveness.

 

11 Compared to What?

ePub

They never asked Sam Rivers down
to the Vanguard, you know?

Bob Stewart

George Cables

Keystone was such a special place. There was the Both/And. There was the [Jazz] Workshop. The Both/And was probably more hang-friendly; you could hang there with people that you got to know. And Keystone, [when] you got to Keystone, that was sort of like the crown, the jewel of all the places. For me and [musicians of] my era, going into Keystone Korner was something special.

David Williams

Most club owners I’ve encountered and worked for, even the ones who knew something about the music, didn’t have the passion that Todd had. It was kind of rare for a club owner to have that. With a lot of other club owners, there’s separation; with Todd, you almost forgot that he was not part of the band.

Todd Barkan

There have been other environments in the history of the music that have been comparable [to Keystone]. There was a certain era of the Village Vanguard when that was true in New York City, and at Bradley’s in New York City, and there have been other clubs around the world, spots where musicians and the people running the club seem to be on the same page. When the musicians came to that environment, they felt that not only somebody cared but that everybody cared. And that’s part of what made the music happen on the level that it did and with the consistency that it had.

 

12 East Side, West Side

ePub

I always wore my little crazy hippie
stuff. It was California! Definitely
wasn’t New York.

Eddie Marshall

Todd Barkan

Sometimes, people had bands that got together in New York and came out, but I was able to put a lot of bands together, like the band that eventually became the Timeless All-Stars: Harold Land, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Hutcherson, George Cables, Buster Williams, Billy Higgins. That was a combination of East Coast–West Coast, and they came together at Keystone. Roy Haynes and George Cables joined forces at the Keystone Korner, with Bobby Hutcherson, and they recorded at Fantasy. Red Garland, Ron Carter, Philly Joe Jones – likewise. Orrin Keepnews really put that together.

George Cables

I considered myself an East Coast musician even though I’d been living in Los Angeles for several years. But as far as the concept of playing jazz, I felt that I was more akin with the people from the East Coast. I was born here [in New York]. The attitude in the music was a little more high energy, and I think I was very much a part of that – in my spirit, in my attitude, in my New York musical attitude – although I don’t think I wanted to be a New York pianist, or even a West Coast pianist. I don’t want to be limited by those terms. But in the positive sense, I had a New York attitude.

 

13 Orrin Orates

ePub

I remember Keystone Korner in these early
days, and, you must remember, I come
from New York; I am a jazz person.

Orrin Keepnews

Orrin Keepnews

First of all, to set the time context, I got to San Francisco in October 1972 and I came out here specifically to work for Fantasy Records, which at that time had just acquired all the masters that had originally been Riverside Records. Fantasy was a San Francisco–based, very esoteric, mostly jazz label, although Lenny Bruce was one of their biggest items. That’s where Dave Brubeck started. And that label was taken over by a guy, Saul Zaentz, who had been the office staff and sales manager there. He had decided to take a chance with the band of the kid in the mailroom: John Fogarty. The band was Creedence Clearwater, which became the biggest thing [in the music industry]. Suddenly, Fantasy found itself with all the money in the world and, possibly the first time this had ever happened, used it to further their devotion to jazz.

 

14 Bright Moments

ePub

You never went to work when you
were at Keystone. You went to play.

Carl Burnett

George Cables

There were nights – I mean, memorable nights – with Bobby [Hutcherson] and Eddie Henderson’s in the audience being Eddie, making comments on this and that. Everybody would come through there, whether they were playing or not, because it was such a great vibe. You knew you’re going to hear some music when you went to Keystone Korner. You going to hear some music! Wasn’t about half-steppin’.

And Jessica Williams, I remember her first moment there. She walked in [and asked someone] – I think she might even have asked me – “Where’s Todd?” or “Where’s the owner?” She went in the backroom, which is the office, and emerged maybe ten minutes later, stepped on the stage, which was raised, and started playing solo piano. And she just started playing solo piano on the breaks [between other musicians’ sets].

I remember Professor Irwin Corey even opening up for Bobby Hutcherson. He was on the stage: blah blah blah – ya know, talking. But he wouldn’t stop! He kept on going. Bobby went up onstage, just stood there – and [Corey’s] not stopping. So [Bobby] had to go over to him and physically, gently, move him off the stage, ’cause we needed to play the gig.

 

15 Rifficals

ePub

I was inspired by Monk because
quintessentially he was like a poet
writing in notes, in musical notes.

Jack Hirschman

Jack Hirschman

I didn’t have any dough to go to Keystone. I absolutely did not. None at all. I was here in ’73, ’74, but if [friends of mine] mentioned Keystone Korner, I would say, “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t have . . .” – what was it, six or seven bucks to go in? I just didn’t have that money. But I was very lucky that [a few years later], my girl [Kristen Wetterhahn] worked at Keystone Korner. I’m talking about the period 1977 or ’78, because I knew Keystone from that period to ’83, when it closed. Kristen got the job at Keystone and, like I say, I was pleased because I love jazz. And as it turned out, in that period my son, David, was down in Santa Cruz, and he was broadcasting jazz on the Santa Cruz station. Jazz was very much a part of our life.

Because of our jobs, we were really night people. We wouldn’t eat supper, Kristen and I, ’til 2:30 in the morning. So what would happen is, I would come out of our apartment on Kearny Street [and go] to Spec’s Café, which is where I was drinking and reading poetry; I’d be with the poets, or the folks, workers, and we’d be reading poetry, yabbering. At about a quarter to twelve [at night], I’d walk down to Coit Liquors, before they closed, and get a bottle of wine for our dinner. And then I’d walk over to Keystone, and because Kristen was working there, I was able to get in free. This was an incredible gift indeed because here were some of the great jazz musicians of the time, and I was able to hear them.

 

16 Then and Now

ePub

We were all thin.
We all had more hair.

George Cables

Helen Wray

Today, there are many wonderful, young musicians. They’re extraordinary. It’s wonderful they’re keeping that music going. But they’re emulating these people that have already done that. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older [that] I don’t hear it as strongly in the present generation, as wonderful as they are.

I think the generation of musicians of Dexter’s era definitely had it harder than the kids coming out of Juilliard and music schools today. There was something about the music at that time, when all those guys were still here – I don’t know what it is. My only thought is they did have it harder, having lived under segregation when they were traveling. We all got closest to the African American bands. They seemed to be the warmest, if you can generalize. I probably shouldn’t generalize because it wasn’t across the board like that.

I hear George [Cables] talk about when he was a young musician coming up and he was on the road with Joe Henderson and how hard it was. They had to pay their own accommodations, and Joe didn’t pay the guys very much. So they’d bunk two in a room and they’d barely have enough money to eat. And the drugs were so prevalent in the clubs then; it was hard to avoid it. Luckily, the young guys today aren’t into all the coke and stuff that was going around then.

 

17 The End of Keystone

ePub

A gauntlet has been thrown down
for generations as a way that the
music can be presented.

Todd Barkan

Todd Barkan

Well, it always had financial problems. Keystone closed because of financial problems, but also because I didn’t know where to turn in terms of financing it. Yeah, it closed because of financial problems, but as much as anything it closed because of myself: I think I ran out of steam of knowing how to keep it open. My creative adrenaline had run out.

Eddie Marshall

It lasted so long and Todd was so dedicated. You know, a lot of people would’ve folded that club in two years. I really have a hard time when I hear people try to suggest criminal activity, that his integrity was questionable. I say, “What are you talking about?” I don’t hear many musicians talking like that. I don’t hear that so much any more, but I certainly heard it – mostly about cocaine. I don’t know if they felt that they didn’t get their share or had to badmouth him. I don’t know.

 

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