Winter’s bluster takes different forms. There’s the kind that makes you split some wood and lay in firewood for a long winter’s nap. There’s the kind that sends you braving the elements to some municipal sledding hill and firing up the ol’ saucer sled. Then there’s the kind that re-kindles some atavistic urge to climb into a womb of more adult comforts, comforts cultivated by a yen for sonic soothing and scathing; comforts involving distinctly guilty culinary pleasures; comforts that involve a 2-drink minimum. This urge can take you to doors where inside no one knows your name but everyone knows why you’re there. So when February’s gloom and chill settle in for the long haul, sometimes it’s best to seek the comfort of jazz both hot and cool.
For the last 80 years, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
– that little joint little joint at 8 Mile and Livernois with the HUGE history – has been doing just that.
About 10 years ago, original owner Clarence Baker sold the joint to Juanita Jackson (she of Juanita’s Kitchen renown, so you know the soul food’s in play).
And even though thanks to the winds of cultural change there’s little shot that Baker’s will ever re-gain its status as a jazz Mecca for touring giants, it still remains a stalwart and steadfast destination for local purveyors of bop, smooth, and hard varieties of America’s only native art form.
But since it first opened its doors to wayward adventurers in 1930, Baker’s has played host to just about all the jazz giants. Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, Yusuf Lateef, Miles Davis and the list goes on and on.
Seven nights a week you’re still going to find some of the best local and visiting acts taking their place standing on the shoulders of giants. To step in off the salt-blanched sidewalks away from the bustle of nearby gas stations, Wendy’s drive-thrus and honking traffic is still to step into another world with a kind of rarefied womb-like welcome triggered by drastic changes from bright-light to dimly-lit-and-twinkling.
And while music heads with less-catholic tastes might profess to prefer standing around on extended weekend nights with a beer in their hands in sometimes-sparse cattle call hordes in front of ad hoc bandstands at hipster rock joints, there’s a helluva lot to be said for settling into a booth table or undulating vintage barstool vantage and riding out the improvisational waves rolling off a bona fide stage.
Cocktail glasses tinkling, waitstaff ambling purposefully and bona fide applause substituted for forced “whoo!”s between jams.
Now, a 2-drink minimum probably strikes some as “hoi polloi” and some as tourist-trap styled coercion. But think about it. When you’re ducking out of sub-zero temps, what better to warm the cockles of your heart and liver than a couple high-balls or High Lifes (or Shirley Temples for that matter) amongst fellow travelers.
And with the welcome addition of Juanita’s Kitchen at your beck and call, you can truly hunker down for some soulful comfort cravings. It’s not every joint in this fair burg where you can order up a plate of tasty catfish with a side of greens and mac ‘n’ cheese and resume digging the jams whilst beating back the cold in such a venerable hot spot.
Chris Handyside is a local freelance writer and all around hep cat.
Bakers Keyboard Lounge
John Colbert, Co-owner
Stand Up Bass Player
The Famed Keyboard Bar
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger