Celebrating Keystone Korner’s Jazz Legacy with Todd Barkan

Todd Barkan and Charles McPherson in 1980, backstage at Keystone Korner.

Todd Barkan and Charles McPherson in 1980, backstage at Keystone Korner. (Courtesy Todd Barkan)

Ask anyone who spent time at Keystone Korner, and they’ll tell you it was far more than a jazz club.

From 1972 to 1983, the North Beach venue at 750 Vallejo Street reigned as the preeminent jazz spot on the West Coast, and many musicians felt it had no rivals on the East Coast, either. Rather than emulating New York City’s storied rooms like the Village Vanguard, Bradley’s, and Slugs’ Saloon, Todd Barkan, a 25-year-old pianist with no experience running a nightclub, created an institution that distilled San Francisco’s heady, creatively freewheeling, chemical-fueled zeitgeist to an atmosphere that was distinctly Bay Area.

A Keystone Korner program from 1981.
A Keystone Korner program from 1981. (Courtesy Todd Barkan)

A proudly psychedelic club with walls festooned by hand-painted cosmic imagery, Keystone inhabited a crossroads where Beats, hippies, cutting-edge comics, the New Left, acid rock and devoted jazzheads comfortably intermingled. A typical program might feature avant-garde patriarchs Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor on a double bill with Robin Williams and Red Foxx, “something that wasn’t happening in New York at that time,” Barkan says.

Just about every jazz giant played the room, often on jaw-dropping double bills pairing, say, drum giants Max Roach and Elvin Jones, vibraphonists Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, or pianists Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard. The creative frisson exerted a powerful gravitational pull, and “a lot of cats who felt out of sorts in New York were making a beeline to Keystone,” says Barkan, who now lives in the Bronx. “Santana and Jerry Garcia came by a lot, and poets like Bob Kaufman, Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso were at the club almost every night. It was the only psychedelic jazz club.”

A series of concerts around the region next week mark the 45th anniversary of Keystone’s closing, starting Thursday, July 6, at San Jose’s Café Stritch with Bay Area drummer Akira Tana leading a Japanese organ combo featuring Osaka-based B-3 expert Atsuko Hashimoto (Barkan helped create and book Keystone Korner Tokyo from 1990-1993). The celebration kicks into high gear Friday, July 7, at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center with bassist Ray Drummond and percussionist Kenneth Nash (who played Keystone’s opening week), saxophonist Azar Lawrence and bassist Juini Booth (who collaborated with McCoy Tyner on his classic Keystone-recorded 1975 Milestone album “Atlantis”), guitarist Calvin Keys, pianist Benito Gonzalez, and saxophonists Charles McPherson and Gary Bartz, among others.

The same prodigious cast plus Akira Tana, pianist Denny Zeitlin, saxophonist Mel Martin, and vocalist Kenny Washington hold forth Saturday afternoon, July 8, at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in Half Moon Bay, with the moveable musical feast concluding Saturday night at Pier 23 in San Francisco (minus Zeitlin and McPherson). The three primary venues are also presenting a slide show featuring Keystone photos by Brian McMillen, Tom Copi, and Kathy Sloane (whose book “Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club” offers a valuable oral history of the venue).

Todd Barkan
Todd Barkan (Photo: John Abbott)

In a marvelously Keystonish convergence, about a month after Barkan organized the 45th anniversary concerts he got word of his selection as a 2018 NEA Jazz Master, the nation’s highest jazz honor. With more than 800 albums to his credit as a producer, a productive stretch as a booking agent, and an 11-year run as the founding director of Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Barkan’s contributions to the art form aren’t bounded by Keystone. But the venue is the centerpiece of the NEA award citation, which notes that his name is “inextricably associated with one of the nation’s legendary jazz clubs.”

McPherson, who spent a dozen years with Charles Mingus and is arguably jazz’s greatest living alto saxophonist, played the last set at Keystone before the IRS shut it down, and his name remained on the marquee for years before another business took over the space. He points out that Barkan’s love of the music and its creators set the venue’s tone, from the beloved doorman Walid Rahman in the front to the soul-suffused kitchen in the back, run by Ora Harris (who managed piano great Geri Allen before her death on Tuesday).

“Todd’s club was like a perfect jazz club from the standpoint of the musicians,” says McPherson, 77. “The size and layout were perfect, with a place for people who really wanted to listen and a bar where people could chat and not be a drag. You could get a lot of bodies in, but it was small enough to maintain that intimacy that makes a jazz club special. The room attracted musicians interested in hearing other musicians play, so it became a real hang.”

Nearly every jazz artist who came of age in the 1970s took up residence at Keystone. “When Betty Carter was in town, or Art Blakey or McCoy Tyner, I’d be there every night,” Bay Area jazz vocalist Kitty Margolis once told me. “That was our school.”

Kenny Burrell & Carlos Santana. Carlos went to catch Kenny's show at Keystone Korner, San Francisco, Feb. 9, 1983.
Kenny Burrell & Carlos Santana. Carlos went to catch Kenny’s show at Keystone Korner, San Francisco, Feb. 9, 1983.
(Photo: Brian McMillen )

One reason the club’s legacy looms large is that so much of the music was documented. During the club’s existence, some of jazz’s greatest artists released live albums recorded at Keystone, most famously Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, and McCoy Tyner. But the treasures have continued to flow from the vaults, leading to more than 60 live-at-Keystone albums (see below for a list of Barkan’s favorites). Two Milestone box sets totaling 16 CDs, The Last Waltz and Consecration, cover almost every note played by the Bill Evans Trio at Keystone just days before the pianist’s death in 1980.

The club’s larger-than-life presence could make itself felt in surprising ways. In Carlos Santana’s autobiography The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light, he describes a vivid and portentous dream in which he and fellow guitar explorer John McLaughlin are watching kids play soccer when they see Barkan walking across the park with the late saxophone legend John Coltrane, carrying some saxophones and pushing a bicycle. 

Coltrane left the bicycle outside, came up with his horns and some sheet music, and Todd introduced us. “Hey, Carlos, John’s got a song that he’s working on, and I think he wants you to play with him.”

But before Santana can play the spiritual with Coltrane, the saxophonist vanishes.

I asked Todd, “Hey what happened to John?”

“Oh, man, somebody just stole his bicycle, so he went looking for it, but I think the thief got away.”

I guess some things never change in San Francisco (though Santana reports conferring with Alice Coltrane about the dream, and she interpreted the stripped bicycle as representing the lack of vehicles for her late husband’s music to reach the people).

poster for a Rahsaan Roland Kirk appearance at the Keystone Korner.
poster for a Rahsaan Roland Kirk appearance at the Keystone Korner.

The music never had trouble finding Barkan, who grew up amidst a politically progressive Jewish family in Columbus, Ohio. He was already an avid jazz fan at nine years old when a fateful encounter changed the course of his life, establishing a relationship that manifested itself frequently at Keystone. Riding the bus late in the summer of 1955 to catch a game by the Columbus Jets (the Pittsburgh Pirates farm team), he happened to sit across from a blind 19-year-old African-American man who would come to be known as the incandescent multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

“Back then he was Ronnie Kirk, not even Roland yet,” Barkan recalls. “He had his nose flute around his neck. I just kind of sidled up to this interesting looking dude, approaching gingerly just to ask what kind of instruments he had. I could tell he was a musician. He wasn’t an accountant. He wasn’t going to fix some plumbing. He was a man of interest.”

It turned out the Kirk and Barkan lived about six blocks from each other, and they struck up a utilitarian friendship. Barkan had started playing the piano, but Kirk didn’t give him music lessons. Rather, he provided an in-depth course of study in how to listen to jazz.

“I’d go over and he’d play records for me,” Barkan says. “One day we listened to nothing but Texas tenors. One day we’d just do stride piano. We’d listen to alto players, and I got to know it wasn’t just Charlie Parker. There was also Buster Smith, Sonny Criss, Bud Shank, and a raft of great altoists.”

What did Kirk get out of the relationship? A handy pair of eyes. “We’d go to record stores and I’d have to read the liner notes on the back aloud,” Barkan says.

When Barkan launched Keystone years later, Kirk was one of the first artists he booked, and his classic 1973 double live album Bright Moments (Atlantic) established the club’s international reputation. Barkan’s been in the business of facilitating bright moments ever since, and it’ll be good to have his warm wavelength back in the Bay Area, however briefly.

Live at the Keystone: Todd’s Picks

The irreducible fierce fourteen, recorded live at the Keystone Korner.
(All dates refer to when the concerts were recorded.)

1. ‘Bright Moments,’ Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Atlantic Records), June 1973

2. ‘Atlantis,’ McCoy Tyner Quintet with Azar Lawrence and Juini Booth (Milestone Records), August-September 1974

3. ‘Getz/Gilberto ’76,’ Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto (Resonance Records), May 1976

4. ‘Nights at the Keystone,’ Dexter Gordon with George Cables, Rufus Reid and Eddie Gladden (Blue Note Records, reissued on Mosaic), September 1978 and March 1979

5. ‘Charmed Circle,’ Cedar Walton Quintet with Manny Boyd and Steve Turre (High Note Records), August 1979       

6. ‘Sophisticated Abbey,’ Abbey Lincoln (High Note Records), March 1980

7. ‘Consecration’ and ‘The Last Waltz,’ Bill Evans with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera (Milestone Records), August-September 1980

8. ‘Time Remembers One Time Once,’ Denny Zeitlin and Charlie Haden (ECM Records), July 1981

9. ‘All the Way Live,’ Jimmy Smith and Eddie Harris (Milestone Records), August 1981

10. ‘Just in Case You Forgot How Bad He Really Was,’ Sonny Stitt with John Handy, Richie Cole, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, Herbie Lewis, and Billy Higgins (32 Records), September 1981

11. ‘Keystone 3,’ Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Wynton Marsalis (Concord Records), January 1982

12. ‘The Magic of Two,’ Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard (Resonance Records) February 1982

13. ‘Above and Beyond,’ Freddie Hubbard with Billy Childs, Herbie Lewis, and Louis Hayes (Metropolitan Records), June 1982

14. ‘Farewell Keystone,’ Bobby Hutcherson with Curtis Fuller, Oscar Brashear, Cedar Walton, Buster Williams, and Billy Higgins (Theresa Records), June 1982

— Andrew Gilbert, KQED

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One Response to Celebrating Keystone Korner’s Jazz Legacy with Todd Barkan

  1. Miles says:

    Todd…

    My congratulations to you on receiving the 2017 NEA Jazz Master award. If there’s anyone who truly deserves it, it would be you for the passion that has driven you for decades.

    I have nothing but fond memories of Keystone Korner, SF. During its heyday, I enjoyed many a night of great music and conviviality within that small room of yours, fueled by the love and respect you gave to the many musicians who graced that postage stamp of a bandstand. Thank you for your visionary booking, and for hosting the entire shebang!

    I wish I could attend the 45th Anniversary celebrations, but I’m afraid that I heard about the dates just a bit too late. I hope it will be a spectacular weekend for you!

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