Very thankful. I’m very moved and honored by this recognition from my peers to be included with heroes Dianne Reeves, Pat Metheny, and Joanne Brackeen as one of the four 2018 NEA Jazz Masters. It’s been a lifelong blessing to have personally worked with most of the NEA Jazz Masters since I began this unlikely journey in our music in the mid 1960s. A real privilege beyond words to be able to provide an opportunity and space to these indispensable artists to swing and create together. 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.” –Todd Barkan
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.)
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 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).
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.”
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).
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