Kathy Sloane: Keystone Korner - Portrait Of A Jazz Club
Why was the club's failure inevitable? Liebman and Keepnews both hint broadly that Keystone Korner's problem was that it wasn't located in New York, with its density of economic demand and vibrant ecosystem of other clubs and earning opportunities for musicians. Others suggest that the club suffered for attempting this experiment in the 1970s rather than the 1950s or today.
Vibraphonists Milt Jackson (left) and Bobby Hutcherson (right)
Alternatively, maybe there was a problem with the business model. That is, maybe San Francisco in the 1970s was not an impossible market, but the club was doomed by what Keepnews repeatedly refers to as Barkan's frustratingly "unbusinesslike" way of doing things. To his credit, Barkan established solid credibility and respect with the musicians on the basis of his imaginative booking, and even more important, by ensuring that the musicians always got paid.
But there are some glaring problems in the business model. The club apparently paid retail for liquor, even sending staff out during performances to the corner liquor store to restock. The quotient of non paying customers was dangerously high, including Keepnews, who felt entitled to this special treatment, and all of the staff during their off hours.
Some of these not-so-special ingredients bespeak poor management. But others highlight the tension between the business and the jazz ends of the enterprise. Free admission for the staff (and their friends) supplemented their meager earnings, even if it cut into the takings. Monday night soundman Stuart Kremsky: "You got paid in vibe. You got paid in being able to hang out with Cecil Taylor. You can't put any money on that. You can't eat from that, either." (What about tips, you ask? Not always much help. Waitress Helen Wray: "I always liked working weeks with people like Dexter [Gordon] and Art [Blakey] because people tipped. And none of us wanted to work when Cecil Taylor was there because everyone came stoned and nobody tipped you anything.")
Some of the witnesses praise Keystone's practice of weeklong gigs, allowing musicians to settle in, and patrons to observe the evolution of sets over a week's time. But weeklong gigs seriously mismatched supply and demand in the North Beach market. As Liebman notes, "When I saw Eddie Henderson, Julian Priester, and guys like that have a set for eight people... it's not right." This practice has virtually disappeared from jazz booking today.
Maybe, in fact, it wasn't so special at all. Maybe the magic evoked by so many in this book is an artifact of nostalgia. "We were all thin," says George Cables looking at the old photographs. "We all had more hair." Is the wistful mood merely a yearning for vigorous youth, now past? Trumpeter Eddie Henderson tosses a bit of cold water on Sloane's project: "The Both/And, Jazz Workshop, Blackhawk, Bop City, the Vanguardclubs all over the worldKeystone was no different. It was just a jazz club. Let's not try to make it any more than that... You know, they got fine ladies coming in; they got ugly ladies coming in; they got bulldaggers; they got hos. It wasn't different than anywhere else. Write that in the book."
Sixty pages later, though, Henderson has changed his tune: "Blue Note, Yoshi'sthey'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." It seems the "bona fide psychedelic jazz club" was magic, if short-lived, after all, and these "bright moments" (to paraphrase Barkan favorite Rahsaan Roland Kirk), are keenly evoked. Dexter Gordon, showing up late, really late, after the club had refunded the patrons, to a near empty club (an audience estimated at seven, staff included)and playing. The productive tension between old master Milt Jackson and the young Bobby Hutcherson, brought together for a sort of vibraphone summit. So, too, the intimacy of the last performances pianist Bill Evans ever played (a week of concerts subsequently released on no fewer than sixteen compact discs).
There are the photographs, there are the interviews, and there is a CD of eight performances taken from various live albums recorded at Keystone Korner between 1973 and 1982, with especially affecting selections from Gordon, Evans and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. The recordings make clear just what this book is: a loving portrait of jazz, sounding soulful and strong, in the midst of its 1970s wilderness. (Sloane's co-editor, Sascha Feinstein, has helpfully included a discography of albums recorded at Keystone Korner. "I've never gotten any royalties for any Keystone records," says Barkan, today running Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center. "We never made a dime on those.")