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Todd Barkan: Taking Care of the Music

Sylvia Levine Leitch interviews longtime jazz producer and presenter Todd Barkan about his life in service of jazz

Todd Barkan and George Wein at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola on October 24, 2010
Todd Barkan, Orrin Keepnews, and George Avakian at National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters 2011 Induction Ceremonies at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Chick Corea and Todd Barkan
Todd Barkan

In this latest interview in my series, “In Service of Jazz,” Todd Barkan—Director of Programming and, literally, the voice of jazz for Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as record producer, former club owner and musician—talks about his life in jazz. That life almost came to an abrupt and violent end February 13, 2011, when Todd was involved in a serious car accident driving home to the Bronx on the West Side Highway in New York in his trusty Mercury Sable from a night working with this music he loves. As he recalls from his hospital bed a week later, “An SUV travelling at least 100 miles an hour rear-ended me and propelled my car with such force that it smashed into a tree and landed back onto the highway facing the opposite direction.” Todd suffered multiple fractures to his lower leg and to his clavicle, and serious bruises from the force of the air bag. “You know,” he shared, “those air bags don’t just inflate around you gently. They explode on impact.” A kind taxi driver witnessed the accident, called the police, and stayed at the scene to tell what had happened-the SUV took off. And, in an odd twist, Todd’s cell phone redialed the last call received before the airbag hit it. So pianist Monte Alexander was treated to a bizarre soundtrack of sirens in the wee hours of Sunday morning, he and his wife thinking it must be one of Todd’s latest musical ideas. “They had no idea,” Todd chuckled.

“I expect to make a full recovery,” Todd said. “But I’ve got to spend some weeks in rehab before I’m totally up and at ’em.”

Get well soon, Todd!

Todd Barkan:

I’ve been a “servant of jazz” for more than 40 years. Today I am Director of Programming at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center and I am an independent record producer too. I owned the Keystone Korner in San Francisco for 11 years, which, I’m proud to say, became one of the legendary jazz clubs of the world. My actual career in jazz started when I was still in college at Oberlin and I helped to promote a number of concerts: I remember especially the Modern Jazz Quartet, a Miles Davis concert with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock, and, ironically, a 1964 Dizzy Gillespie Quintet concert with Kenny Barron on piano-never imagining that one day I would be involved with a New York jazz club bearing Dizzy’s name and regularly featuring Kenny as a major headliner.

I’d developed the jazz “affliction” by my early teens-as both a jazz piano student and avid listener. Charles Mingus’s “Mingus Ah Um” came out when I was 13 years old. I listened all the time, every day, to that record, to Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out, ” and to Donald Byrd’s “Byrd in Flight,” with Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Duke Pearson, Doug Watkins and Lex Humphries. Somehow I got hold of those records. That’s the music that really formed my jazz consciousness. These LPs became my university, they brought me in, became my lodestar, my life. And there was jazz on the radio late at night. Fritz Peerenboom, what a name!, had a show on WBNS 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. called “The Night Owl” that was a big influence on me too. He turned me on to Art Pepper, Carmen McRae, Thad Jones, Zoot Sims, Marty Paitch, Jimmy Smith, Joe Williams, Count Basie, so much great music. Think about it! If you look at all the great American art that came out just in 1959, at the height of the middle class experience in this country, the middle class didn’t survive but the music did. That music struck a chord in me and I knew that it was something I wanted to be involved in whatever way I could: writing, playing, presenting, whatever I could do. There was a passion and integrity about it that I could feel close to.

One of my major mentors back home in Columbus, Ohio, someone who really helped me get as deeply involved in the music as I did, was Roland Kirk, who later added Rahsaan to his name. He was a very dear friend to me and to this music. He played with many bands in Columbus and throughout Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois-one of my favorites was the group including the blind organist Eddie Bacchus up in Cleveland called the Three Blind Mice. Rahsaan [who was blind] and I would spend literally hundreds of hours going through stacks of jazz records in the stores at first in Ohio and eventually from there to California to Europe to Australia-all over; he would have me read the liner notes on the back and I learned a lot doing that; it was an important element of my education. Several other people, too, have been mentors and friends in my life and times, including Dexter Gordon and Grover Washington, Jr. I took piano lessons from Don Patterson, another Columbus, Ohio, musician and one of my heroes, from whom I learned a lot about this music. Guitarist Warren Stevens and singer Nancy Wilson were also an important part of that scene. I learned from all these people what this music is about.

When I left home for college, I took a thousand jazz LPs with me. I think I freaked out my mother and father when I brought out the records to put in the car. Other kids brought their clothes and books. The hell with clothes and books! What I needed was my jazz records. I had beautiful carrying cases with lids for them that I’d bought with the money I’d made in the summer in construction work-I remember I made four dollars an hour, a good rate that provided enough left over for these cases. They fit albums perfectly.

As I said, I started producing jazz concerts almost as a kid, after being present at some truly memorable ones. I was reminiscing with George Wein last year when I booked his Newport All Stars at Dizzy’s, about when I met him in 1962. He was co-producing the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival in the same spirit as the Kool Jazz Festivals. He was a major jazz impresario by then and bringing in Duke Ellington, Kenny Burrell, Count Basie et al. and I remember seeing him on stage. I was there in Cincinnati with my family, who knew the local co-promoter, and we actually caught a couple of nights’ of concerts. Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell, Gloria Lynne, John Coltrane: George promoted just a cornucopia of great music and he was a major inspiration to me. Here we were, in 2010, sitting there in New York City at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with, incidentally, the brother of one of the co-promoters of that festival, Gene Santangelo, talking about Ohio in 1962. The jazz family is like that. That’s the way the music is.

You know, I recently discovered in several conversations with George Wein that he and I share many parallel experiences in our jazz lives, the most remarkable of which is that we both started out as jazz pianists who in our mid-20s opened clubs at first to have a place to play. His was Storyville in Boston and mine, as I’ll tell you about in a minute, was Keystone Korner in San Francisco.

In 1967-the Summer of Love-I took off for San Francisco in a 1941 Cadillac. (It died just at the city limits.) I was a customs broker in the daytime and piano player for various bands at night. Two of my main groups were Kwane & The Kwan-ditos, a Latin jazz band, and a jazz vocal group called Fresh Air. Looking for work for Fresh Air, I went to a popular beer bar in North Beach to meet with the owner, Freddie Herrera. This was in 1972; I’d been in the Bay area four or five years by then. So I went to him and asked, “Why don’t you hire my band?” I gave him the press kit and demo, but he came back with, “I hate jazz. Can’t stand it. It doesn’t sell. But I’m opening a big rock club in Berkeley, the Keystone Berkeley. Why don’t you buy this joint and maybe you can turn it into something, do something with it? You can hire your own band yourself.” “Well,” I said. “That sounds like a viable plan. But I only have eight thousand dollars.” “Well,” he says back, “that could be enough to do something. Come back in a couple of days.”

So I did. I came back in a couple of days with a close friend who was a lawyer; the owner had a lawyer there and a guy from the bank with a bunch of papers. So they asked me for $5,000 down, sold me the club for $12,500 in 1972, and threw in two free nights of music-of Jerry Garcia and Merle Saunders, which meant I had two packed houses to help get me off the ground.

Then and there I decided to have a full-time jazz policy. The first main act I brought in was Bobby Hutcherson; then McCoy Tyner. I already knew them both, not only as a musician but from my time in college as a presenter. So even though I was a young guy, I was not a totally alien person to the jazz world, I had been involved with this music for what seems like my whole life. But owning a club at 25 years of age, a club that became like the Village Vanguard of the West Coast, was a quantum leap forward. I knew nothing about running a business, nothing about running a bar, nothing about the day-to-day challenges of running a jazz club. I just had to learn by doing.

Artistically I’m proud of everything I did at the Keystone Korner. I did make my share of business mistakes, and I don’t regret any of them either, even though it took me a lot of time to pay off some of those mistakes-like giving a party where nobody comes. There were at least a couple of total bombs like that, where great music was played to the tables and chairs. I am also proud of the way the jazz community came together to keep the club afloat at critical junctures. We had opened in July 1972 as a beer only bar with 32 brands of barley and hops from all over the world. That following February, Freddie Hubbard joined forces with McCoy Tyner, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones at the 3500-seat Paramount Theatre in Oakland to play a benefit concert for the club to get its full liquor license. A couple of years later, January 1975, Grover Washington, Jr., and George Benson donated their services for a similar fundraising event at the Paramount to pay for a full kitchen for the Keystone, increasing our capacity and the range of clientele we could serve. I do still always say, “Take care of the music and the music will take care of you.” I really believe that and these are just a very few examples. I see no other reason that I have survived out here these last 40 years.

The Keystone Korner was a hippie bar and I was a hippie musician, and we had psychedelic posters on the walls, ionizers on every table so that the pot-or cigarette-smoke would go up in the air and not bother people two rows over from it (those were the days when people still smoked in clubs). We had people coming in in all states of consciousness; the audience was extra special and everyone I had working there was a musician or deeply involved in the music in some way [writer: I know Helen Simpson Wray and Janet Soleski who worked there and have great memories. The late Helen Wray met her life partner George Cables at the Keystone when he was playing there with Freddie Hubbard!].

That was just a fundamental experience. The club was open from July 7, 1972, to July 11, 1983. I was about 36-37 when it closed; I basically grew up in that club. That was where many of the wonderful relationships of my life were formed, and some of them are still a major part of my life: Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton and Maxine Gordon are close friends as was Dexter-it was a very special place to many people.

The Keystone was really a labor of love to the very last day it was open. And I tried to have the best music in the world there every night. I liked having a range of jazz styles: for example, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, then some avant garde. I had double bills, even triple bills. One double bill was Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp-packed every night. At the end of the year, I’d have my Keystone Holiday Jazz Festival: Triple bills. One was the Max Roach Quartet, the Bobby Hutcherson Quintet and the Dexter Gordon Quintet. The marquis just said, “Max, Dex, Hutch.” I’d have three bands for 10 days at the end of the year. We sold out every night.

I did tend to underprice my tickets. I was looking at a ticket the other day that I found going through some of my memorabilia. Kathy Sloane, the photographer, is doing a book about the Korner and I’m thinking of doing one myself, so I’m trying to assemble some of the materials before they completely disappear into the ether; yes, I’ve been thinking about all the great music, the musicians, and the affectionate things people said about the club. It was a lot of musicians’ favorite place to play-in many ways it was part of the New York scene, an outlying post. People could leave New York and relax a little, feel a little more comfortable, on the West Coast, in a place that was part of the scene. New York was, of course, going through its own set of challenges in the 70s, so people did appreciate that opportunity. Dexter called it his “home away from home-this is where the music is played.” Mary Lou Williams called the Korner “the Birdland of the 1970s.” George Benson said it was his “favorite place to play.” McCoy Tyner told me, “You have some of the best jazz audiences in the whole world, just about every night, open and giving a lot of heart and soul to our music.” Stan Getz said it was “far and away the best jazz club in the world” and the inimitable Art Blakey just said, “My heart belongs to Keystone.”

Having come up as a piano player, I continued to practice and sometimes, for example on Monday nights, I would play there myself, or I would sit in with a friend-I sat in with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and with Grover Washington, Jr., on both piano and percussion. But I feel-felt-kind of awkward about hiring myself. My life’s work is to hire musicians. I am proud of that. I feel great when I hand a musician a check. Because that’s my gig. That’s part of what God put me on this earth to do-and I feel fulfilled when I do that: provide work! I knew early on in my life that as much as I liked playing the piano (and I still do, still get some great joy out of playing and writing music and lyrics), my creative muse was definitely presenting the music.

Producing jazz records, too, has been and continues to be a vital element of my work, maybe as much as presenting live music. They go hand in hand, arm and arm, hand and glove. The first record I produced was in the early 1970s, something by Tete Montoliu, a legendary, phenomenal bebop and hard bop piano player I met in Europe when I was working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I brought him over to play at the Keystone Korner in the early 1970s, with Billy Higgins and Herbie Lewis. He was a true delight to work with. We recorded the band for a European label, Timeless Records, and just called it Live at the Keystone Korner. That first venture was followed by several others: There were a couple of wonderful records with Bobby Hutcherson, one I’m particularly proud of was Highway One, with George Cables, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Marshall, James Leary and Manny Boyd. Also we did the Timeless All Stars-Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, Buster Williams, Billy Higgins, Curtis Fuller, Harold Land, and Oscar Brashear. The recordings were interwoven with what I was doing down at the club.

In 1983, after the club closed I moved to New York. My dear friend Michael Cuscuna-one of the great people in this music-and I were roommates at his home at 350 East 78th Street in Manhattan. He is definitely one of the smartest, most capable people in all of jazz, and a wonderful human being. I worked for the Boys Choir of Harlem as a manager for about five years; I produced a recording for them early on in that association with my friend Kenny Burrell, who was a Keystone regular, and Billy Taylor and Grady Tate were on it too. I took the Boys Choir of Harlem out on the road for the first time and worked with their Director, Dr. Walter J. Turnbull. I believe I contributed to making them a world-class touring company. It was one of the most satisfying and wonderful experiences in my life.

I stayed active in a lot of areas related to this music after that, even worked at a booking agency, and as an artist rep. I became more involved in record production, booked tours on the west coast, whatever I could do to be in jazz. I worked with a guy named Jack Whittemore-one of the unsung day-to-day heroes of our jazz world-probably the greatest artist manager and booking agent that I have known. When I was still in San Francisco I would stay on the couch in his office sometimes when I came to New York; it was a second floor office on Park Avenue. He looked just like Jimmy Cagney, a little Irish guy, a drinker, solid guy, talked a little like Cagney too. He managed Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Rahsaan, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Betty Carter and a plethora of other artists-booked and managed them, all without one signed contract. He was that respected and trusted, one of the great men of this music for decades. It is not right that he is barely mentioned in any jazz history book. He died the same year the Korner closed, 1983, and there is a relationship between those two events.

One great Jack Whittemore story that I love to tell, took place during a time that I was in from San Francisco, staying on his couch. Art Blakey had borrowed Jack’s car to drive his band up to Boston to open at Fred Taylor’s-Fred is another jazz lifer-Jazz Workshop. Actually, maybe it was Lee Wiley’s car, Jack’s wife or girlfriend-the jazz singer. Anyway, around 8 p.m. the phone rang. It was Fred. Art hadn’t gotten there yet. Then the phone rang again and it was Art. “Who’s this?” he asked in that gruff voice of his. “This is Todd.” Well, that seemed to be good enough. “Tell Jack that the Messengers are okay,” he informed me. “We just ran into a herd of wild turkeys.” “What?” I asked, dubiously. “A herd?” He insisted, “There were feathers everywhere. There was blood on the windshield.” It turned out that someone had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven into a ditch. Art was being a creative interpreter of the facts of the time, the events of the moment. Of course, they did get there, about half an hour late, but that is just a classic story of the times.

I have been on the road quite a bit and gotten to see how terrible the conditions are sometimes for the people who are asked to create this music. Yet they do create. I was on the road with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with Bobby Hutcherson, and with some other folks, and have seen, for example, what we used to call PSOs-piano-shaped objects-make real music under the right hands. Just think what Art Tatum did with mediocre, sometimes terrible instruments, it is nothing less than astounding. Jaki Byard and Errol Garner too: So many giants of this music were able to just transcend the most awful instruments and make great music from them. You hear what those instruments naturally sound like and then hear what they were able to do, create art, I think they were able to suspend disbelief in that instrument’s capabilities. The challenges that an artist has to transcend run the gamut from the difficulties of travel to the technical difficulties of different stages, to the difficulties with these substandard instruments. I am very proud to work with JALC to provide world-class conditions for musicians at Dizzy’s these days: a good sound system, a great piano. Having seen the other side of these conditions firsthand is very helpful in trying to take care of musicians in the best way possible, which is important to all of us who try to present this music today.

I got to Dizzy’s in a natural, organic way, as a result of my history in jazz and the relationships I had formed along the way. A few years before Dizzy’s opened, maybe 1998 , I ran into Wynton Marsalis on Eighth Avenue. Now I had first met and worked with Wynton at the Keystone Korner when he was music director with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers 20 years earlier. He was with the Messengers at the Korner a couple of times. Wynton was a young jazz phenom on his way up. He met Dr. George Butler, president of Columbia Jazz, in my office-so we had a relationship, a history. Over the ensuing years we stayed in touch, got to know each other a little more; I had a tremendous respect for what he was doing on many levels.

“We’re thinking of, actually working on, getting a new facility open for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I’m planning on having a jazz club in that facility,” Wynton told me. “You would be a good guy to help us with this effort.” I said thank you very much, filed that away in my mind, and went on about my business, producing records and working with a few artists. One of those artists, by the way, was the legendary composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill, whom I helped get back into the jazz mainstream. I produced his comeback recordings for Fantasy Records and his first European tour, and I brought Chico to Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1997.

In December of the year 2000 the executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center left and Wynton called me. “We need someone here who knows something about the music; can you come work at JALC?” Well, I was out in San Francisco working on a Jimmy Scott recording for Fantasy. And I was the president of 32 Records. But I came back and we talked in person. Wynton is such an effective visionary, motivator, facilitator-he convinced me to come to work there for half the salary I was making at the time.

I started right away, in January 2001, at JALC. We were strongly involved with opening the new facility by 2004. JALC had just moved into the new building at Sixtieth Street where we are now. So the next few years were taken up with fundraising, planning, and organizing-an unbelievable undertaking with many challenges and heroes. Roland Chassagne, who works with me at Dizzy’s, was on the building team. He’s been there a little longer than I have. We all worked together from 2001; I worked with Wynton booking the concerts at Alice Tully Hall, the Kaplan Penthouse, and Avery Fisher Hall in the first couple of seasons, and when the club came concretely into view, that it would actually open in 2004, I was given the responsibility of booking that room. It is certainly a full-time job and the fulfillment of what Wynton had said seven years before on the street: He is a visionary, an amazing human being. He instilled me with so much enthusiasm. I certainly have no regrets-a little over six years and thousands of gigs later.

I am still involved in record production too. You have to be able to do a lot of different things to stay in the jazz business over the long haul. I have worked with record companies all over the world-Italian, English, American, Dutch, and, of course Japanese.

I do feel that booking jazz artists in clubs and producing jazz records go hand in hand. I can do something in the studio and work on music that will be presented in the club. Likewise, sometimes I can suggest things for the club that can be recorded, then brought back into the club that much stronger-these are interweaving processes that move the work along.

The sorest need, the most urgent need, is for more and better places to play this music, because live music is such an essential element in growing up in music. We need more and better jazz clubs. If you add up the capacity of all the jazz venues in New York, you might not have more than 2500 seats-all of them together don’t equal one Madison Square Garden. An important part of what we do at JALC and what all people trying to do something substantial for jazz music do-is to let the music be heard by as many people as possible as often as possible. I think there is more audience for jazz than there ever has been, I’m seeing people get fantastically excited about straight ahead, swinging music when they have the opportunity to hear it. Those of us who are presenting the music have to present it with the most passion and consistency as humanly possible. That’s my mission-to let the music be heard.

Originally Published