Detroit Jazz Club In Jeopardy After 75 Years Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit is one of the oldest continually operating jazz clubs in the world. Since 1934, hundreds of famous names have graced the stage. But while the owner celebrates its 75th anniversary, economic troubles put the club's future in peril.
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Detroit Jazz Club In Jeopardy After 75 Years

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Detroit Jazz Club In Jeopardy After 75 Years

Detroit Jazz Club In Jeopardy After 75 Years

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit is one of the oldest continuously operating jazz clubs in the world. It opened in 1934, and the club's current owner was looking forward to some raucous 75th anniversary celebrations. But now, Baker's very survival is in doubt.

From member station WDET, Rob St. Mary reports.

ROB ST. MARY: The roster on the Baker's Web site is staggering. Singers and soloists from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis, John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk and even comedian Lenny Bruce have performed there. Motown players honed their chops on the checkerboard stage between sessions. Ed Love has been a jazz DJ in Detroit for almost 50 years.

Mr. ED LOVE (Disk Jockey): I knew young musicians in New York and around the country. I knew old musicians, you know, veterans, and all of them had to play Baker's.

(Soundbite of music)

ST. MARY: Love says musicians would call him to pull strings to get them into Baker's because he says playing there would guarantee bigger gigs around the country. Saxophonist James Carter was born in Detroit.

Mr. JAMES CARTER (Saxophonist): It's not only a rite of passage for musicians, but it's also a rite of passage for patrons, as well. They can say that they've been to (unintelligible). This is right on par.

(Soundbite of music)

ST. MARY: Baker's has suffered along with the rest of Detroit as auto jobs have evaporated and home foreclosures have hit record highs. Owner John Colbert is sitting in Baker's ebony and ivory themed club room, and he speaks about the club's current fate with a laid back resignation.

Mr. JOHN COLBERT (Owner, Baker's Keyboard Lounge): The struggles of Baker's is the struggles of everyone right now. It's a depressed economy, and we're no different than anyone. We're in line.

ST. MARY: Colbert says his troubles grew when the city of Detroit put in a new water meter and then retroactively billed him for what he thought he had already paid in estimated bills.

Mr. COLBERT: This one bill came at one time, and it was in the area of $27,000, I believe.

ST. MARY: Colbert says he has yet to settle with the water department because it's been unable to answer his questions about the retroactive billing. Our calls to the water department were not returned.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Singer): (Singing) Hurry, hurry, (unintelligible)…

ST. MARY: All of this leaves one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world in a precarious state. Beyond the economic troubles, Colbert says the business has changed. The big names in jazz now mostly play concert halls.

Mr. COLBERT: It's hard to maintain the standard which was upheld for so long here when all the greats now don't come to the club anymore. Many of them are dead, but the biggest part is those who followed the tradition of playing acoustic jazz, the numbers are few.

ST. MARY: Baker's had its 75th anniversary this weekend, but Colbert says the club could close soon. He hasn't set a date because he's hoping that won't happen, so is musician James Carter.

Mr. CARTER: To not have this place, God forbid, would be a travesty to American culture, the culture at large here in Detroit. It would be sonic, musical, social castration.

ST. MARY: Carter became a part of the club's history with his 2004 album, "Live at Baker's."

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CARTER: I've still got to come back here, you know, and make sure the home fires are burning properly with a nice little crackle. And this certainly is one of the places that provides that. Without it, it'll be cold, and no electric blanket will save you from that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ST. MARY: Between hot jazz and hot sauce on every table, club owner John Colbert says he's doing everything he can to attract audiences, and he says that business has picked up since word of Baker's plight began to circulate.

Mr. COLBERT: Our business went up 25 percent, but remember, our decline was 40 percent so we're not there yet.

ST. MARY: Colbert, who bought the club about a decade ago, says he hopes the Baker's legacy won't end with him. But if he has to, he'd like to sell the club to someone else who will continue the tradition.

For NPR News, I'm Rob St. Mary in Detroit.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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