KQED: Todd Barkan, Who Ran the Keystone Korner, to Receive National Honor


Photo: John Abbott

Todd Barkan, who ran San Francisco’s legendary jazz nightclub the Keystone Korner, will receive the nation’s highest honor for jazz artists, the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Jazz Master fellowship.

Barkan, pianist Joanne Brackeen, guitarist Pat Metheny and vocalist Diane Reeves are the 2018 recipients of the Jazz Master fellowships, which were announced at a concert Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., where Metheny performed. Each of the winners will receive $25,000, and will be honored at a concert at the Kennedy Center next April.

Barkan, 70, will receive the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy for his decades as a Grammy-winning producer and for his time at the Keystone, the North Beach club that pianist Mary Lou Williams once called “the Birdland of the ’70s.”

“It’s been a privilege beyond words to be able to provide some opportunity and space for these indispensable artists to swing and create together,” Barkan wrote on Facebook. “As Bobby Hutcherson told me quite a few times, and even wrote on the wall of the Keystone Korner, ‘True love asks nothing in return.’”

Born in Nebraska and raised in Ohio, Barkan says he discovered jazz at the age of 13 and swiftly became obsessed with the music, taking 1,000 jazz records with him instead of clothes when he left for college. In 1967, Barkan moved to San Francisco, and by the early ’70s he was working as a pianist in two groups, and looking for clubs to play. When he stopped into the Keystone Korner to ask then-owner Freddie Herrera for a gig, the Korner was primarily a rock club known for hosting guitar gods like Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, and Jerry Garcia.

“I went to him and asked, ‘Why don’t you hire my band?’” Barkan said in a recent interview with JazzTimes. “I gave him the press kit and demo, but he came back with, ‘I hate jazz. Can’t stand it. It doesn’t sell. But I’m opening a big rock club in Berkeley, the Keystone Berkeley. Why don’t you buy this joint and maybe you can turn it into something, do something with it?’”

As the owner of the Keystone, a tiny 200-seat venue on Vallejo Street, Barkan helped bring jazz back to San Francisco. The city had been resplendent with jazz clubs in the ’50s, but by the time Barkan bought the club for just $12,500, there were little to none. As soon as the club was up and running, Barkan brought big names that hadn’t been back to San Francisco for several years, like Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins.

Barkan also created a haven for jazz artists fighting to stay relevant when rock ruled the radio and the road. Several standout artists recorded albums at the Keystone, including Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was Barkan’s mentor as a teenager. The club gained such a reputation that artists who could fill much bigger venues, like Miles Davis and Stan Getz, frequently graced its stage. Its liquor license was paid for with a fundraiser in Oakland that featured Kirk, Tyner, and Elvin Jones, and another fundraiser featuring George Benson and Grover Washington Jr. paid for the club’s kitchen.

“Keystone Korner was — much like Bradley’s back in New York City — an absolutely indispensable part of the true jazz community,” bassist Ray Drummond, who used to play at the Keystone, said in a statement. “All kinds of musicians from all over the world looked forward to playing there.”

Barkan became known for his catchphrase, “Take care of the music and the music will take care of you.” But by 1983, jazz wasn’t taking care of the Keystone’s bills. After a Bill Graham-produced benefit at the Warfield raised only $1,500 — barely a dent in Barkan’s $50,000 tax bill — Barkan closed the club and left for New York. He came back to the Bay Area a few years later as a talent buyer for Yoshi’s in Oakland, but returned to New York in 1993 after an “unfriendly split” with Yoshi’s owners.

Barkan went on to produce hundreds of records for labels such as Fantasy/Milestone, HighNote and 32 Records. He also continued to promote live jazz, becoming the director of programming for Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center for eight years. But Barkan seems at his proudest when he talks about running the Keystone, still remembered today as one of “best jazz clubs in the world.”

“The Keystone was really a labor of love to the very last day it was open. And I tried to have the best music in the world there every night,” Barkan said in 2011.

For this year’s 45th anniversary of the opening of the Keystone, Barkan will host a series of shows in the Bay Area on July 7 and 8. The concerts — held in Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay and San Francisco — feature artists such as Charles McPherson, Gary Bartz and Denny Zeitlin. (Barkan has more information about the shows on his website, toddbarkan.com.)

— Kevin L. Jones, KQED

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