Thirty-six years have passed since Todd Barkan’s historic San Francisco jazz club Keystone Korner closed its doors. From 1972 to 1983, greats like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson, Stan Getz and Max Roach, among countless others, played there. The venue continues to live on in written history, and through a series of time-honored albums recorded live in the Vallejo Street nightclub.
In the nearly four decades since, Barkan has further cemented his legacy in jazz as a record producer and an operator of clubs in New York (and, from 1990-1993, of Keystone Korner Tokyo). Now, at 72, the newly minted Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts is ready to give Keystone Korner another go—and it’s happening here in Baltimore, right at the water’s edge.
Keystone Korner Baltimore, a collaboration between Barkan and acclaimed Washington D.C. chef Robert Wiedmaier, will set up this spring at 1350 Lancaster St., in Harbor East. The restaurant and jazz venue will open with some star power from April 30 to May 2, hosting legendary (and prolific) jazz bassist Ron Carter, joined by guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega.
Other acts booked for May alone—Barkan has the schedule filled out for months already—include Brazilian jazz drummer Duduka da Fonseca, pianist Bill Charlap with virtuoso trumpeter Jon Faddis and Baltimore’s own Cyrus Chestnut playing with Buster Williams and Lenny White.
“My goal is to create something that’s long-lasting for the city of Baltimore, and is a healing place where the music comes first, where we can celebrate the music together,” Barkan said.
Keystone Korner will take over Wiedmaier’s former Mussel Bar, which opened to positive reviews in 2015 only to be hounded three years later by construction in the still-developing upscale neighborhood.
“We were doing really well, and then suddenly we were surrounded by construction and you couldn’t even get to the restaurant,” the Michelin-starred D.C. chef told Baltimore Fishbowl. “I just decided to go dark—and then I met Todd.”
The pair crossed paths early last year at the National Endowment for the Arts’ awards dinner at Wiedmaier’s highly regarded French-Belgian restaurant Marcel’s in D.C.’s West End. The chef, whose sons happen to be a studying jazz bassist and a sax player, said he and Barkan “hit it off like two peas in a pod.”
They initially talked about teaming up on a jazz club-restaurant concept in D.C. or Columbia, Barkan said. But the loss of the Mussel Bar last spring proved to be an opportunity for a space combining world-class music and food in one room.
“It’s a rare combination to find any music joint, anywhere in the world, where you go in and you get really good food and really good music,” Wiedmaier said.
Ahead of the late April opening, renovations are underway at the old Mussel Bar to add a stage, lighting and sound equipment, and remove the many TVs that gave it more of a sports bar vibe—an ill fit for an intimate setting hosting the likes of Kenny Garrett, Joey DeFrancesco, John Pizzarelli, The Cookers and others.
The venue will seat up to 180 people, with tiers for premium and more affordable pricing (for example, $45/$25 for the Ron Carter Trio), Barkan said.
The menu will be short but sweet, with 18 items fitting an “Americana-refined retro” theme, Wiedmaier said. Options will include a burger made with Randall Lineback beef on a house-made bun, corn and lobster bisque, a wedge salad made with Wiedmaier’s own bleu cheese and croutons recipe, deviled eggs with candied bacon and assortments of oysters and spiced shrimp—”familiar foods done with a lot of finesse,” he said.
Barkan said his club will honor Baltimore’s storied jazz history, dating back to the 1940s through the 1960s, when Pennsylvania Avenue’s jazz clubs hosted premier homegrown and national talent. The new Keystone Korner will include shrines to the late Ethel Ennis, “the first lady of Baltimore jazz” who ran Ethel’s Place in Mount Royal with her husband during the 1980s, and to the Left Bank Jazz Society, which brought the likes of John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock and many others to town for its series at The Famous Ballroom from 1967 to 1985.
“I believe in acknowledging those people whose shoulders we stand on,” Barkan said.
Wiedmaier said the new club and restaurant can “bring something really special to Baltimore,” and add a “hip, cool” space to go with Harbor East’s high-end chains and luxury appeal.
Barkan, who happens to be checking out Steinways in Baltimore today, reflects fondly on the original Keystone Korner’s magnificent run in San Francisco. But in 2019, he said, “Our goal here is to keep this open a lot longer than that. I’m gonna make this a part of my legacy that far outlives me.”
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