Pulling up to the corner of West 8 Mile Road and Livernois, you can see the sign from the street ‒ “Baker’s” ‒ in an elegant white font. The rectangular building with the black-and-white striped roof has the look of a zoot suit from the 1940’s. A matching striped awning reading “Jazz Club” welcomes guests in through the front door to revel in one of America’s oldest and purest art forms.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, billed as the “World’s Oldest Jazz Club,” has been a haven for jazz in Detroit since first opening its doors in 1934. Over 82 years later, the small Livernois club hosts live jazz and comedy entertainment seven days a week.
“[Baker’s] is widely known and accepted as the oldest continuous jazz club in the world,” says co-owner Eric J. Whitaker. “Baker’s is an internationally known brand because of its presence in the jazz community.”
The inside of the club is a step back to a time when big band, bop and swing were the gospel and horn players like Bird, Miles and Monk were its messengers. Separated into a bar area for drinks and a dining room with a stage, Baker’s is the definition of cozy. Small two-top tables make up most of the dining room, which has enough space for 99 guests. Framed photos of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan hang on the walls surrounding the stage, a constant reminder of jazz giants who came before.
There is a smell of crispy fried chicken in the air that appears as soon as you drop your jacket off at coat check and lingers late into the night. It wafts from the kitchen which boasts a menu featuring catfish, smothered pork chops, roasted turkey and liver and gizzards to name a few. These plates come with a pairing of sides that include macaroni and cheese, black eyed peas, corn muffins, collard greens and dressing covered in gravy. If you’re coming to eat, odds are you’re not leaving hungry.
The intimate seating and carpeted floors make for an environment with top-notch sound quality. This has attracted some of the most talented names in jazz, including Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Nina Simone, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, to play the Baker’s stage over the years.
It is a few minutes before 8 p.m. on a Thursday in March and guests are dining underneath low lights. Most are dressed in dark colors, including one older woman who sits by herself in the booth in front of the stage. She wears all black, including a black ivy cap, and slips on dark sunglasses when the live music starts.
Three musicians onstage are setting up instruments ‒ a Yamaha keyboard, an upright bass and a small club drum kit. They tune strings, tighten drum heads and toy with tone settings in the moments leading up to show time. A Bob Marley tune, though not jazz, plays softly throughout the room from the bass player’s phone, connected from a cord that leads to speakers hanging from every corner of the club.
Tonight’s performer is Renee King-Jackson, a Detroit jazz vocalist who performs at Baker’s every third Thursday of the month. She is joined by Jaribu Shadid on bass, Brian Holland on drums and Robert Jones, her keyboard player of over 30 years.
King-Jackson wears an orange-and-green long shirt that sparkles underneath the dim red stage lights. Her smile radiates over the room as she joins the band and jokes with members from the crowd.
“Thank you for 82 years of iconic jazz history,” the club’s manager announces through the house speakers. “Please welcome Renee King-Jackson.”
The atmosphere of the room shifts from dimly lit seriousness to a vibe that is more lighthearted. Feet start to tap and heads begin to bob in time as the bass player takes a line for a walk and the drummer swings out a classic ride cymbal pattern ‒ “Ching-ching-cha-ching.” King-Jackson sings her first notes, loud and proud, and the diners perk up from their plates. Tonight’s celebration in the joy of jazz has begun.
Two men sit at a small table in front of the stage. They stare intently at the musicians, hands tapping on their table, heads shaking from side to side in time with the music.
“I like to take them on a trip,” King-Jackson says of her audiences. “For the time that they’re in my presence I want to hold them captive. They never know what I’m going to say or what I’m going to do and I think that’s why they come back.”
One of the men requests “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”,” an old rhythm-and-blues standard from Nat King Cole that loosely fits into the jazz spectrum. King-Jackson smiles at the men and obliges. This is a good singalong number.
“Won’t you, get hip to this timely trip?” King-Jackson sings from a chair at center stage, never losing her smile.
More songs follow, including numbers from Donny Hathaway, Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” and a request for the band to play Dave Brubeck’s masterwork in 5/4 time, “Take Five.”
As the night progresses, couples start to sit a little closer in their booths. King-Jackson’s sultry voice makes for a very romantic environment to wax nostalgic for jazz of the past.
“There’s nothing like live entertainment and that’s why Baker’s has held true,” said King-Jackson. “People come from all over the world because of the tradition of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. It is still a comfortable place to come even though it is 80 years old. The original character is still intact.”
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge received historical designation from the City of Detroit in 2016. This prevents the owner of the building from demolishing it or altering its exterior without permission from the Detroit Historic District Commission.
“We want to continue to enhance the interior structure of the building with updates to older equipment, seating, flooring, bar area and lighting,” Whitaker said. “We don’t want to change the exterior. Because we’re historical, we have to preserve everything according to how the city wants it.”
Whitaker mentioned re-installing an old giant sign that used to hang in the parking lot but was struck by lightning as another future improvement.
“We want to expand upon what we have here,” Whitaker said.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge offers live jazz entertainment six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday. Monday is comedy night at the club. For more information on their event schedule and hours of operation, visit their website at theofficialbakerskeyboardlounge.com.