Friday, July 20, 2018

Keystone Corner: "The World's First Psychedelic Jazz Club"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“You never went to work when you were at Keystone. You went to play.”
- Carl Burnett, Jazz drummer

“There was a real special relationship always between Todd Barkan and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Todd absolutely loved Rahsaan. And, of course, Rahsaan just adored Todd. Rahsaan always liked to put his special people together. He had an art for that. He was not going to let me say no to making Todd a kitchen. Sol did. I basically did it as a favor to Rahsaan.

There was no kitchen there at Keystone Korner; there was a closet between the backstage green room and the garage, basically. He brought me down to look at the room and I looked at this little hole in the wall and said, "Oh my, how can I make a kitchen?"

[But] I did. One Saturday morning, Todd Barkan and his father came by to pick me up. We went to a supply store and bought a stove range and a sink, a refrigerator and a huge chopping block, and I made a kitchen: Ora's Kitchen at Keystone Korner. And it started from there.”
- Ora Harris, Ora’s Kitchen at Keystone Korner

“I’ve always had good feelings about San Francisco as a jazz town for one extremely personal reason: … , the city had a couple of strong; eventually legendary jazz clubs. One in particular, in North Beach, was the Jazz Workshop. In 1959, I had done a live-in-the-club recording with the newly formed Cannonball Adderley Quintet for Riverside, and it was the first hit record of my life [Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco]. ... So I was aware from the night that I worked into [Keystone Korner] that the San Francisco jazz audience was very alert and aware and, under the right circumstances, enthusiastic. …

Todd [Barkan], in that sense, was one of the people [responsible for that awareness and enthusiasm]. He didn't act like a club owner. I don't know if he didn't care to or didn't know how, but he was more like a kid in a candy shop. And I don't know what it was like for an average customer, but I was a professional in this business; I knew most of the people I was going to hear and always felt that I was at least partially at work when I was in a jazz club listening. On the one hand, it was nice that there wasn't any built-in tension in the place; on the other hand, it pretty much drove me crazy how un-businesslike Todd's approach was. As long as it wasn't my problem, it was a lovely way for a jazz club to be.

People would tolerate and do benefits for Todd Barkan because of who he wasn't. He wasn't [like] any other club owner in town that you want to name.  …
- Orrin Keepnews, Founder and Musical Director, Riverside Records

The themes in this opening quotation by Orrin Keepnews are repeated throughout Kathy Sloane’s Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club [Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2012].

Expressions of disbelief as to how Keystone Korner ever stayed in existence for eleven years [1972-1983], let alone how it ever came into existence in the first place, abound throughout the interviews, recollections and storytellings that comprise Kathy’s delightfully fascinating book.

The book itself is as much a labor of love as was Todd Barkan’s efforts to keep Keystone Korner going as Kathy and editor Sascha Feinstein went to great lengths to document a Jazz club for which record-keeping and documentation were in no way a common feature of its operations.

Among the storytellers that Sascha and Kathy have gathered to tell the saga of Keystone Korner are musicians who performed at the club including pianists George Cables and Ronnie Matthews, saxophonists Dave Liebman and Billy Harper, drummers Carl Burnett and Eddie Marshall, tuba player Bob Stewart , trombonist Steve Turre and trumpeter Eddie Henderson; writers and teachers who frequented the club including Laurie Antonelli, Devorah Major, Maria Ross Keyes, John Ross and Al Young; Stuart Kremsky, the club’s soundman and currently an archivist at Fantasy Records [Concord Music Group]; waitresses Flicka McGurrin and Helen Wray; Ora Harris, who developed the kitchen for the club which allowed it to apply for a full, liquor license, and, of course, Orrin Keepnews, NEA Master and founder of Riverside, Milestone and Landmark Records and Todd Barkan, who created the miracle of Keystone Korner in the first place and is currently the Programming Director of Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

From afar, I had always perceived Keystone Korner as one of the three miracles that helped keep unadulterated Jazz alive in the 1970’s along with impresario Norman Granz’s founding of Pablo Records in 1973 and the coming-into-existence of Claude Nobs’ Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland [although Montreux actually began operations in 1967].

Until I read Kathy’s book on Keystone Korner, little did I know how much of a reality this perception was. For the musicians and fans who appeared there, the club was like a safe harbor from a sea that was full of storms, fast currents and oceanic turbulence all bent on eradicating Jazz.

Here’s Kathy’s explanation of how and why the book came to be.

© -Kathy Sloane/Indiana University Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I wanted to be taken seriously as a photographer and not be considered merely a groupie in Keystone Korner, and to that end I established a routine that kept me in good stead with the musicians. I knew the ways in which black musicians had been disrespected-terribly used and abused- and I didn't want to contribute to that. So I would go to the club on Tuesday night, when the band opened its week-long stay listen to the music, introduce myself, and ask the band's permission to make photographs. The musicians seemed genuinely pleased that I sought their consent, and nobody ever refused me.

On Thursday, I would return to Keystone to photograph, and on Sunday, the last night of each engagement, I'd bring prints for each of the musicians, as well as one for Todd Barkan. I developed fine, long-lasting friendships with many of the artists, and I had a few wonderfully intense love affairs along the way (despite promising myself that I would not get involved with these magical musicians). ...

What I learned was that to make this music of improvisation demands a highly imaginative and creative mind, not only to blow, but also to live a life that enables one to make the music. The backroom was where the elders taught the youngsters the things they'd need to know in addition to mouthpieces and harmony. How they'd need to step around disharmony or become their own mouthpieces when a club owner refused to pay them or when their bus was stuck in an Iowa snow storm and they couldn't call A A A.

Embedded in the musicians' tales that evoked knowing laughter were the tools for hammering together an improvised life. You couldn't make the music and survive without this knowledge, and those lessons didn't come in school or in books - they came from the stories shared in clubs' backrooms and on the back seats of buses during the long nights the itinerant musicians traveled in order to make a living. Keystone was, for all the musicians, a home and a haven.”

The following overview of the origins and history of Keystone Korner is excerpted from

“Located on a ground floor at 750 Vallejo Street, off Columbus Avenue in the North Beach section of San Francisco, CA, in what is now a Chinese restaurant called Little Garden, Keystone Korner was said to be named for the "Keystone Cops" at the Central Police Station on the opposite corner of Emery alley.

Owner Freddie Herrera was sleeping in his station wagon parked in the alley in back and his wife worked as the club's only topless dancer when an inebriated Nick Gravenites, songwriter, raconteur, and bon vivant, wandered into the off-the-beaten-path, dingy Keystone Korner in 1969. "What you need is some music," he told Herrera. "I'll bring my friends down next weekend." With his topless bar operating four blocks away from the action on Broadway, Herrera wasn't having any luck attracting patrons than the previous owners, who named the place Dino Carlo's, had when they tried their hand at booking rock music and failed.

Herrera, who didn't know Gravenites from Adam, agreed and had no idea that his "friends" would turn out to be superstar guitarist Mike Bloomfield and most of the recently disbanded Electric Flag, who packed the joint to the walls and beyond every weekend under the name Mike Bloomfield and Friends.

Another one of Gravenites friends, Elvin Bishop, recently departed Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was putting together his own group and looking fo a place to play. Herrera gave him Monday nights and served free fried chicken to the crowd. The place was packed every Monday night and Bishop delighted in hosting freewheeling jam sessions. A 16 year old guitar whiz from the Peninsula made his way up onstage one night, that's how Neal Schon first splashed down on the SF music scene (he later joined Santana and helped form Journey). The Pointer Sisters, preacher's kids from Oakland, started out singing background vocals with Bishop on Monday nights.

In 1972 the club was sold to Todd Barken and immediately became a hit jazz spot featuring most of the big names of the times. Todd Barkan was a piano player, who played in a rock group called Kwane And The Kwanditos (spelled various ways) who played the Fillmore West a number of times. He had a concept for a "bona fide psychedelic jazz club," and it limped from benefit to benefit, including one to buy a liquor license, through the '70s and into the '80s.

Though the club came 10 or 20 years too late to get the greats in their prime, it got them on the way back down. Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey and Bill Evans all played weeklong gigs there.

During the 1970's, when jazz clubs all over America were folding under the onslaught of rock and roll and disco, San Francisco’s Keystone Korner was an oasis for jazz musicians and patrons. Tucked next to a police station in the city’s North Beach area, the Keystone became known as one of the most important jazz spots in the United States. It was so beloved by musicians that superstars McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones played a benefit concert just so the club could buy a liquor license.

Until his untimely death, one artist who frequently brought his artistry to the club throughout the 70's was jazz titan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Witness the great, 'Bright Moments' LP, a magical moment in recorded music that transpired within the boundaries of the Keystone's darkly painted walls and just in front of the golden mandala that forever framed the musicians on stage. The Keystone became the 'Kornerstone' for 'Bright Moments,' as countless hours of extraordinary music were created on that tiny stage, much of it released commercially. ….

When Keystone closed in 1983, it was one of the last San Francisco clubs to regularly book national and international touring jazz groups.

"Keystone Korner, I believe, was the last of its kind, certainly on the West Coast, and maybe the East Coast except for the Village Vanguard," says Sloane, 71. "It was not a small concert hall, the way I think of Yoshi's. It was a club. It was relaxed. People could go backstage and talk to the musicians, the musicians would come out front. The distance between performers and audience was totally permeable."

And here are a selection of excerpts from the “storytellers” i who recount their experiences, observations and opinions in Kathy Sloane’s Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club.

Al Young, writer, teacher, California Poet Laureate

“All heart and guts, Todd Barkan, Keystone Korner's savvy visionary and uncanny owner, never enjoyed the kind of big-time, official backing the Port of Oakland now provides for Yoshi's-once one of Keystone's exciting underdog East Bay rivals -yet he somehow managed to hold the 200-seat club together for more than a decade, usually on a shoestring budget and sometimes on a no-string budget. In its cash-strapped lifetime, the club was on financial life support and yet remained artistically healthy for years, one night at a time, one set at a time. During the ride, Keystone Korner inspired and provided the setting for a superb library of live jazz albums, as documented in this book's discography. Moreover, Keystone's laid-back ambiance drew players, visitors, and acolytes from all over the world. Stan Getz once called it "the number one jazz club in the world today." Singer-lyricist Jon Hendricks described Keystone as "the finest jazz club in the Bay Area and fast becoming one of the most important cultural institutions in the world." Premier pianists McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor - and so many other important artists - expressed similarly passionate affection.”

Todd Barkan, owner Keystone Korner, Programming Director Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola Jazz at Lincoln Center

“I think the Keystone Korner was historically important in its ability to carry the banner during a very difficult time in New York [and other, essential jazz locales]. [The jazz scene in] New York was not exactly I flying high in the ‘70s. It was a very difficult era. There were musicians'  union problems and there were discussions going on about cabaret fees, I and all kinds of urban crises were going down in New York. They culminated in the '80s with the great crime waves and all kinds of things, But in San Francisco, even though rock and roll was ascendant coming out of the '60s and the whole culture was changing, Keystone Korner managed to be a real beacon for a full spectrum of jazz presentations in that era.

I can only imagine what we could have done if I had been able to hang in there in San Francisco and somehow keep Keystone Korner open, 'cause it would now be thirty-five years old. And that would be something to behold.

It was ironic. The club had already closed; I was here in New York City; and an article appeared in USA Today on the front page of the entertainment section about the three best jazz clubs in America. And there was my picture on the front page of the entertainment section of USA Today - after Keystone had closed.”

Dave Liebman, Jazz saxophonist and bandleader

“The backroom was a serious hang. You really hung and listened, Todd always had something to listen to: "Check this out. Check that out." Usually Dexter [Gordon] or Rahsaan [Roland Kirk]; he loved that stuff. Todd was a teacher in a way. He knew that music and he was informing you-someone like myself, or Richie Beirach, who I was with a lot - he was informing us of our lineage. You need that; j need guys who know it.

A club owner's tastes set the vibe of a club and Todd was basically conservative. He liked the older cats playing straight-ahead jazz. He was coming from the tradition, but he wasn't opposed to other things. My first band was half electric, half acoustic, We played Indian stuff. We did everything. It was fusion, and he was cool. He had avant-garde guys there. He was pretty open to that. But when he would get you in the back, he would invariably say, "Check this Dexter [recording]." He would put on one of the masters and say, "Dexter was here last week.” …

“I was younger than some of the musicians that played there - Rahsaan [Roland Kirk], Dexter [Gordon]- but to be able to be part of that was a privilege; it was fantastic. I had a band, Lookout Farm, after I'd been with Elvin and Miles, and we had some measure of success. But to be able to play every night, have the chance to work the music out, think about it, talk about it the next day, change things, and rehearse - that's something that you really need. We're in a period where that doesn't happen any more.

And the music grew when you played in a club with a conducive atmosphere, with an owner that was encouraging, with an audience that was accepting, with equipment that was at least passable if not better. The music has a chance to expand. What we do needs to be worked out. We can't do our stuff in a laboratory, in a rehearsal hall at three o'clock in the afternoon, in a school classroom. That's what it's become now, but you need that ambiance, the looseness, and the kind of jazz attitudes for the music to develop.”

Eddie Marshall, Jazz drummer

“I'll never forget my first rehearsal with Milt Jackson. I had my little hippie set of drums and it was really raggedy. They were a set of drums that I didn't like the color of, so I took all the sparkle stuff off-it was just all natural wood that I painted-and I took the heads off cause I was looking for some other kind of sound that was somewhere between funk and jazz. I don't know what it was; I don't know what I was thinking.

Anyhow, I had come to rehearsal and I had a ride cymbal that had a lot of tape on it, and Milt says to me [Marshall imitates Jackson's raspy voice], "What's all that tape?" [Laughs] I said, "I have to have it on there because the cymbal's too loud," and he said, "I don't play tape. I don't like that sound, the tape. Take that tape off."

Now, what was I going to do? This is Milt Jackson. Normally, 1 would have been really arrogant and said something really smart. I said [Marshall speaks in a soft voice, as if to himself], "Damn, this is Milt Jackson. What am I talking about?" You know? So I take the tape off, He knew instinctively that if I had tape on that cymbal, I was gonna be banging the f*** out of it because it's like, "I'm just loose. I'm San Francisco. We play loud." And he knew I couldn't do that if I took the tape off. So l had to really control the cymbals. And to this day, I don't put tape on, and if I do put tape on a cymbal, it's for recording purposes or something, but never [at a gig].”

Flicka McGurrin, waitress Keystone Korner; Pier 23 Restaurant amd Clu; painter

“And I'm afraid that Keystone Korner, that atmosphere, is kind of gone. I don t think that people are building those kinds of businesses anymore, They don't make money, and people go into business to make money. I don't think Keystone ever made money, but it created an incredible stage for fabulous music and great listening.”

Eddie Henderson, Jazz trumpeter

Keystone was the end of an era in terms of quote-unquote jazz music, culture, in the Bay Area. I know they had Kimball's; they had Kimball’s East, Kimball s West. They have Yoshi's. Now, lo and behold, [Yoshi’s] is going to open again at Fillmore West. Miles Davis told me one time, "Any time you start getting popular musically, you ain't playing sh**." Blue Note, Yoshi's - they’re like McDonald's. They don't care about the artists; they just care about economics. Profit and loss. But God bless the Keystone. It was a divine event----Kingdoms rise and fall.”

- Orrin Keepnews, Founder and Musical Director, Riverside, Milestone and Landmark Records; NEA Jazz Master

“The positive vibrations that it [Keystone Korner] gave out toward musicians and toward audiences - that was what worked for it. That was what made it a thriving place and an enjoyable place. What worked against it would seem to have been largely Todd's inability to run an appropriate business organization. And I say that only because there was a while that he was succeeding, as far as anybody could tell. The place looked good, it felt good, and musicians had nice things to say about it. And then, eventually, with no noticeable change in any circumstances, it was gone.” …

“Its significance was that it has remained as a legend. Its significance is as a positive image. Its significance is that it reminds a lot of people - when you think about it, or when you bring it up, or when you tell the story again - that, hey, it is possible to put together some positive ingredients and have a good, working jazz club.”


  1. Actually, Todd Barkan has not been involved with Dizzy's Club Coca Cola for a few years. Apparently, some type of J@LC jazz politics had reared its ugly head.

  2. I'm curious as to why no mention is made of the Keystone's "House pianist" - Jessica Williams?


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