The miracle of Harbor East is not just the skyscrapers going up faster than the way Anthony Marinelli, the last of the old-time Little Italy bakers, used to churn out bread once upon a time.
It’s the appearance of an authentic jazz club — think Ron Carter, Abdullah Ibrahim and Roy Ayers — in the midst of the Four Seasons Hotel, handbags, glad rags and tourist bling.It’s called the Keystone Korner Baltimore, and it sits at the corner of Lancaster and Eden streets, most recently the site of the Mussel Bar & Grille.
The guardian of the groove there is Todd Barkan, a fabled impresario declared a “Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts. In accepting the honor last year, Barkan said, “For me, the art of jazz is most supremely expressed in affording others the opportunity and space to create and swing together.”
So why did Barkan, 73, open a jazz club in Baltimore, the town where Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Eubie Blake once practiced the craft?
“Baltimore chose me,” said Barkan, while noting that the idea surfaced during celebrations of his NEA award in Washington, D.C. The night before the official ceremony, there was a private dinner for the honorees at Marcel’s, the flagship of chef Robert Wiedmaier’s restaurant group. At the time, Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar & Grille had recently closed.
“[Wiedmaier] and I became fast friends,” said Barkan. “We began socializing and started talking about combining our great loves into one place.”
A few months later, the chef suggested that he and Barkan transform the Mussel Bar & Grille space into a jazz club, with Wiedmaier and his restaurant crew overseeing the operation’s food service component.
Within a year, jazz began floating across the harbor as the scent of charbroiled oysters, fried black bass and barbecued ribs wafted from the kitchen. “That’s the marriage,” said Barkan. “In terms of this level of food and music, I’d say only the Blue Note Tokyo comes close.”
Before Baltimore, the Keystone had incarnations in Tokyo and Oakland, Calif., in addition to San Francisco, where Barkan gigged on piano back in ‘68 with the Latin combo Kwane & the Kwan Ditos.
Along the way, Barkan helped resurrect the career of many a faded legend. Prominent among them was the Afro-Cuban composer Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill. Might Barkan turn the same trick — inviting an enduring but fractured city to swing together — with live music at ground zero of Baltimore’s tourism industry?
As he has done with all of his projects as a club owner, record producer, booking agent, he has invested the new club with love, labor, capital, moxie and hope.
“I grew up with nothing but Sinatra and Duke Ellington, and was a jazz fan by the age of 9; by 13, I was a fanatic,” said Barkan, whose first musical mentor was the late multi-instrumentalist and fellow Columbus, Ohio, resident Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whom he met on a bus going to a baseball game. “Roland and I would sit for hours just listening to tenor sax players, then we’d listen to nothing but stride piano players.”
Later, Barkan staged jazz concerts at Oberlin College at the height of Beatlemania before leaving the Buckeye State for San Francisco a few years later, “looking for paladins and dreams of psychedelia.”
In San Francisco, Barkan made the scene and made friends, and in 1972 bought Keystone Korner in Frisco’s North Beach neighborhood, booking the likes of Max Roach, Milt Jackson and Miles Davis. The club was branded the “Birdland of the ‘70s” by the late, great jazz pianist and arranger Mary Lou Williams.
After the original Keystone closed in 1983, Barkan managed the Boys Choir of Harlem (bringing in jazz musicians to solo with the choir) and served as artistic administrator for “Jazz at Lincoln Center” at the invitation of Wynton Marsalis.
Barkan announced his presence in Baltimore on April 30 — International Jazz Day — by opening the club with a performance by bassist Ron Carter. A steady parade of established stars and up-and-comers have performed at the Keystone since, with veteran guitarist Joel Harrison onstage during the Fourth of July.
A D.C. native, Harrison, 62, has paid his dues in enough dives to know a genuine miracle when he’s booked at one. On his recent club date at the Keystone, Harrison was backed up by Baltimoreans Greg Thompkins on tenor sax and Lee Pearson on drums. Gary Versace wowed the crown on organ during jazz treatments of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.”
“I’m always hustling for work,” Harrison said between sets.
For musicians of talent — known and obscure, playing jazz in all of its iterations — the Keystone Korner has made that hustle easier in Baltimore.
Keystone Korner Baltimore is located at 1350 Lancaster St. For information, visit http://keystonekornerbaltimore.com.
Rafael Alvarez is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.