Depending on whom you ask, Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit is the oldest or second-oldest continually operating jazz club in the world. But one thing not in dispute is that, since its opening in 1934, hundreds of famous names have graced its stage. Singers and soloists from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis, John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk and even comedian Lenny Bruce have performed there. Motown players honed their chops on the checkerboard stage between sessions.
For musicians, a show at Baker's meant bigger gigs around the country.
"It's not only a rite of passage for musicians, but it's also a rite of passage for patrons, as well," saxophonist and Detroit native James Carter says.
But Baker's has suffered along with Michigan, as auto jobs have evaporated and home foreclosures have hit record highs.
"The struggles of Baker's [are] the struggles of everyone," owner John Colbert says. "We're in a depressed economy. We're no different than anyone. We're in line."
A problem with the local water company — and the economic downturn — leaves one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world in a precarious state. Beyond the economic troubles, Colbert says the business has changed. The big names in jazz now mostly play concert halls.
This weekend, Baker's will celebrate its 75th anniversary. But Colbert says the club could close soon after. He hasn't set a date, because he's hoping it won't happen.
Between hot jazz and hot sauce on every table, Colbert says he's doing everything he can to attract audiences. And he says that business has picked up since word of Baker's plight has begun to circulate.
Colbert, who bought the club about a decade ago, says he hopes the Baker's legacy won't end with him. But if he has to, Colbert says, he'd like to sell the club to someone else who'll continue the tradition.