The Scene: Keystone Korner Baltimore

Todd Barkan opens a new East Coast version of his fabled San Francisco club in partnership with D.C. restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier

Todd Barkan and Robert Wiedmaier, owners and partners of Keystone Korner Baltimore (photo by Michael Wilderman)
Todd Barkan and Robert Wiedmaier, owners and partners of Keystone Korner Baltimore (photo: Michael Wilderman)

“This whole venture is based on friendship and synergy,” says Todd Barkan, jazz nightclub impresario and co-owner of Keystone Korner Baltimore, which opened on April 30—International Jazz Day. Barkan has partnered with high-profile restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier to bring this top-notch jazz club and restaurant to Baltimore, which hasn’t had a truly national-level jazz club since the D.C.-based Blues Alley shut down its location (formerly Ethel’s Place) there in 1990.

For Barkan, the wait has been about as long. He bought the original Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1972 for $12,500 ($5,000 down, with $400 monthly payments) and turned the former blues bar into one of the premier jazz clubs of its time, playing host to Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and other legends. The club, which often teetered on financial collapse, eventually closed in 1983. Since that time Barkan has created various Keystone Korner concert series—in Japan, New York, and at the original site of Yoshi’s in Oakland—and he worked for a few years as the manager of Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center. But the dream of opening another Keystone Korner has haunted him for the last 25 years.

“What excites me most about this project is that this is a revival of the Keystone Korner on the East Coast, because I always felt a kinship with the East Coast,” Barkan explains. Indeed, he’s lived in New York for more than three decades, while also working as a respected record producer with more than 800 albums under his belt. Baltimore is his home now; he moved there with his wife Ilene in April to be a hands-on manager of the venue. 

The new partnership originated when Barkan was honored as an NEA Jazz Master in April 2018 in Washington, D.C. Wiedmaier, who is a Michelin-star chef and owner of several high-end restaurants including Marcel’s in DC, hosted a dinner for the honorees: Barkan, Pat Metheny, Dianne Reeves, and Joanne Brackeen. The chef and the impresario struck up a friendship. Wiedmaier had become a jazz fan in part because his son Marcel, now in his twenties, started playing electric bass at age seven and transitioned to acoustic bass at 10. Already a fan of artists like Metheny and Manhattan Transfer, Wiedmaier became exposed to mainstream jazz and found that he liked it more than he expected.

Wiedmaier already had some experience with a live music venue. His Bethesda restaurant Villain & Saint hosted live bands—mostly roots-rock—most nights of the week. But the venue has never been profitable, which is an important measure of success for any restaurant owner. After meeting and getting to know Barkan, Wiedmaier asked him to come down to the restaurant in an attempt to figure out how to make it work. After doing a site visit, Wiedmaier says that Barkan told him: “Robert, the biggest problem with these types of venues is if you don’t have someone there living and breathing it, it will never make it. You’ve gotta love the music, love the musicians, and love the space and nurture it every day.” It’s a lesson that Wiedmaier took to heart.

In January Wiedmaier was struck by the idea of taking a space he had sitting empty in the growing area of Baltimore between Harborplace and Fell’s Point—a former seafood bar called Mussels—and turning it into a jazz club. Naturally, he thought of his new friend. He reached out to Barkan, who, ironically enough, was sitting in Dizzy’s during an Ask the Pros networking session at Jazz Congress at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Barkan didn’t hesitate to accept the offer, and the venture took flight. Barkan says he started contacting musicians and their reps that very night.

Leveraging Barkan’s longtime relationships in the jazz world has been an important part of the plan. “Todd is a walking [resource] of the musicians and the music,” Wiedmaier explains. “Todd knows the artists personally, and the history of the music.” The schedule of high-profile artists who opened the club reflected those relationships, starting with opener Ron Carter, who roughly 35 years ago helped organize a benefit concert for Barkan to raise $85,000 to pay for the original Keystone Korner’s liquor license, without which the club would have failed even sooner. Among the other A-list jazz acts appearing in the opening weeks were Kenny Garrett, Bill Charlap, Jon Faddis, Sean Jones, Joey DeFrancesco, and John Pizzarelli.  

Todd Barkan and Robert Wiedmaier, owners and partners of Keystone Korner Baltimore (photo by Michael Wilderman)
Ron Carter performing at the opening of Keystone Korner Baltimore (photo: Michael Wilderman)

It all seems like quite a leap in an area that for a long time has had only a few venues such as An Die Musik booking national acts, even on an irregular basis. Barkan says he intentionally overloaded the schedule in the opening weeks with top-drawer talent. “There’s no halfway here,” he says. “I found out through brutal experience that if you don’t do that, the plane doesn’t leave the runway. You have to create that sensation, that vibe, that reality of having great music.”  

Barkan expects that the identity of the club will be similar to that of its original namesake with not only mainstream jazz, but also Latin, Brazilian, R&B, and blues. “It’s important to reach a broad demographic,” he explains. “I’m going to do it with integrity and knowledge. I’m not going to put on some jive stuff just to sell a few tickets. It’s got to be great musicians.”

From all the venues and shows that Barkan has produced in the past, he’s learned that a noble failure is still a failure. “You don’t want to give a party and nobody comes,” he says. “That’s one of my biggest lessons. Nobody’s a martyr.” He’s also seen how vital it is to have a functional team in place. “This isn’t something you can do by yourself,” he adds. “I’m bringing my artistic vision, but I have to be open to feedback. That’s a huge lesson to learn because I was always Mr. Go It Alone at Keystone Korner. In my life and in my experience, that day is gone. It’s a group effort without compromising the integrity at the same time.”

Barkan has been hands-on in every aspect of the venue’s creation—from the stage, sound, and lighting to the messaging and marketing to the local and national community. He even took Baltimore native Cyrus Chestnut to the local Steinway dealer to pick out an appropriate piano for the club: a high-quality Steinway D that Chestnut tested and approved. And he purchased a DeFrancesco custom-model organ—the Viscount Legend—to have on hand for performers. Barkan has also insisted on a strict quiet policy for the room.

The musicians have taken notice of all that care and attention. “Todd Barkan has created a wonderful new space for jazz at the Keystone Korner in Baltimore,” pianist Charlap wrote in an email to JT. “The club is both expansive and intimate at the same time and the focus on the music is palpable in all respects. The Steinway piano is first-class and the food is fantastic!”

On the subject of food, Wiedmaier is going to comparable lengths to ensure that everyone agrees with the latter statement. He describes the menu as “American retro refined cuisine, with my twist and refinements on it.” Sometimes the combination of fine dining and live music can be problematic, but Wiedmaier has trained his staff to provide service without interfering with the listening experience. The wait and bar staff move like ninjas around the room, taking care to whisper or signal rather than shout the orders. And there is no shaking of drinks at the bar while the band is playing.

Barkan says that the response from the Baltimore jazz community  in terms of attendance, word of mouth, and media attention has been fantastic. And he’s returned the favor by creating the Baltimore Jazz Collective, which will be the band-in-residence at the club on Monday nights. Constructed along the same lines as the SFJAZZ Collective, in which the group composes and performs original works, it consists of Sean Jones (trumpet), Warren Wolf (vibes), Todd Marcus (bass clarinet), Max Stephens (guitar), Chris Funn (bass), Quincy Phillips (drums), and Brinae Ali (vocals and tap dance).

As owner of a large restaurant group, Wiedmaier is keenly aware of how important a venture like this can be for the local community. “I think Baltimore needed this more than anything right now,” he says. “Baltimore has been pounded over the head with a lot of bad stuff. Baltimore needs this love that Todd and I are going to bring to this venue. Healing love with great music and great food.” During the opening-night show Ron Carter, who had never appeared in Baltimore as a leader, told the audience, “Please support this club because it’s nice to do more than pass through Baltimore on the way to somewhere else.”

KEY FACTS

  • Keystone Korner Baltimore is located at 1350 Lancaster St., Baltimore, MD 21231, phone (410) 946-6720
  • Capacity is 210 seats, 104 of which are general admission
  • National artists Thursday through Sunday with regional artists other nights