Kathy Sloane: Keystone Korner - Portrait Of A Jazz Club

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Keystone Korner: Portrait Of A Jazz Club

Kathy Sloane

220 pages; audio CD

ISBN: 978-0-253-35691-8

Indiana University Press


Photographer Kathy Sloane's Keystone Korner: Portrait Of A Jazz Club is a love letter: a love letter to something more than just a business, to something less than a generation. It's a love letter to a relatively short-lived community that coalesced around a jazz club in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood: the people who worked there, the characters who frequented it, the musicians who played there. If Sloane's act of authorship is a love letter, the story that emerges is a bittersweet tragedy, driven by the well-rehearsed tension between art and commerce and set against the backdrop of San Francisco in the 1970s, a time and place that proved insufficiently mobilized by the inspired musical programming of the Keystone Korner to adequately sustain it.

First, there are the photographs, over a hundred of them in sober black and white. Sloane, in an Afterword that is candid and modest and disarming in tone, recounts her coming of age as a self-taught photographer at Keystone Korner. She also describes the challenges posed by the lighting in the tiny club for a would-be photo-chronicler, challenges that she appears to have overcome. Some belong among the greatest jazz portraits: the superb shot of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams used for the cover; a couple of portraits of reed player Rahsaan Roland Kirk on stage, in repose; a frenetic multiple exposure of pianist Cecil Taylor; just about every shot herein of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (is he just particularly photogenic?). Many others have a greater documentary value, recording the visual history of the jazz life in the 1970s on stage, back stage, and in the case of drummer Art Blakey, at Sloane's East Bay apartment for a home-cooked meal with her daughter.

The book is more than a collection of photographs, however. Sloane has also compiled an oral history of the Keystone Korner lifespan from June 1972, when Todd Barkan bought it, to 1983, when he was forced to close down. Reminiscences are included from the staff, including chef Ora Harris, who had previously opened a Boston eatery for avant-garde jazz artists and whose cooking ensured that the musicians showed up on time; from the musicians, among them house rhythm section members drummer Eddie Marshall and pianist George Cables; from the habitués, with extra time extended to jazz chronicler Al Young and San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirshman, who draws parallels between rap music and 1920s Soviet poets. Given that Sloane taught herself to be such a good photographer, we should not be so surprised at how good an oral historian she is, but the apparent ease with which the volume has been assembled and the coherence with which the chorus of voices are woven to tell a story, should not blind us the difficulty of the task. This book, on the basis of the text alone, merits a spot on the shelf alongside the classic oral jazz histories of Nat Hentoff and Studs Terkel.

Why does Keystone Korner matter? The redoubtable Orrin Keepnews, the great producer behind Riverside Records in the 1950s and 1960s, who was resident in the Bay Area during Keystone's run, and is a privileged participant in Sloane's interviews, puts it this way: "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."

Cecil Taylor

The most salient of those "positive ingredients" was undoubtedly owner/manager Todd Barkan's (described elsewhere by Keepnews as a "boy wonder") booking. Several musicians compare the breadth of Barkan's programming to what they experienced at European festivals, and credit him with building and developing a jazz audience in the Bay Area. Barkan himself describes Keystone Korner as "a bona fide psychedelic jazz club that emerged out of the post-psychedelic era in San Francisco—right out of flower children and Haight-Ashbury," and himself as "quite a bit of a hippie." Saxophonist Dave Liebman marvelously summarizes the club's appeal thus: "very loose, big hang."

But Keepnews' generous appreciation—that Keystone Korner demonstrates the feasibility of a magical jazz club—raises a problematic issue. You see, the story told in these pages demonstrates that for some reason, in fact it was not possible. Keystone Korner seems to have been fighting off its inevitable crash almost from the start; to borrow a title from Gabriel García Márquez, this tale might as well be called "Chronicle of a Death Foretold."


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