Todd Barkan understands why a casual fan might question the idea of opening a jazz club in Baltimore in 2019. He faced similar critiques back in the ‘70s, when he opened the original Keystone Korner in San Francisco.
“I was called crazy,” he said. “[People would ask me], ‘Why are you starting a jazz club at the height of rock n roll?’”
Barkan turned his club into an international brand, including an eponymous venue in Tokyo. The jazz world vet, who also presided over Jazz at Lincoln Center programming for more than a decade, plans to carry that vision into the future with a new Keystone Korner that opens April 30 in Harbor East.
This time, Barkan partners with Michelin Star-winning chef and restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier. The pair first connected in April 2018, when Wiedmaier’s acclaimed D.C. restaurant Marcel’s hosted a special dinner for the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2018 Jazz Masters. Barkan, who earned the special lifetime honor for his production and curatorial work, found a kindred spirit in Wiedmaier, who named the restaurant after his jazz bassist son.
“It has a parlor area, 25 by 30 feet, that makes for a natural stage,” Barkan said of the space. “We’re fortunate that it has a very large bar.”
Barkan and Wiedmaier said Baltimore has a built-in jazz audience that turns out at jazz-centric events by such local players as An Die Musik, but no jazz-specific venue producing events on the scale they hope to achieve. To that end, they want the programming and the cuisine to match their world-class reputations.
Wiedmaier fills the menu with an evolving set of dishes, including baby back ribs and an oyster po’-boy that he describes as “retro refined Americana.” He intends to make the menu “approachable and true to America” – the same way he views jazz’s impact on American music.
As for the music, Barkan is continually adding acts to Keystone Korner’s already packed calendar. The club opens with a three-night stint from the trio of Ron Carter, the prolific upright bassist who played with Miles Davis in the 60s. Barkan says he will play off of Baltimore’s storied jazz history in both the club’s visual identity (a portrait of Ethel Ennis, the late singer and owner of Ethel’s Place, greets visitors on the way in) and booking; for instance, Baltimore native Gary Bartz will play several dates in July.
“No matter when or where we were born, or what we’ve done in our lives, we have to be thankful for and acknowledge those whose shoulders we stand on,” he said about Baltimore’s jazz legacy. “I’m a very passionate about that.”