Baker’s Keyboard Lounge Still Thriving in Detroit

Growing up as a kid, Eric Whitaker can remember the days of his parents coming back home from a nice evening out at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. When he became of age, he would drive to the historic jazz club to see for himself why this Black-owned establishment in Detroit was the place to be.

Whitaker was 17 when he first stepped foot inside Baker’s and it’s where he met the owner, Clarence Baker.

“He had the ability to continue to maintain bringing in musicians,” Whitaker says. “During that time, we were going through the Great Depression and getting ready to go into World War II, and despite what was happening in that day and time, through the love of Jazz, Clarence continuously introduced folks to the venue.”

Fast forward to 2013, when Whitaker learned of the sale of Baker’s, he jumped on the opportunity and aligned with his business partner Hugh Smith to purchase the historic jewel.

A younger Whitaker recalls: “Baker’s used to be one of my favorite places to bring folks to have dinner and listen the great music.”

Baker’s opened in 1934, and it began as just a deli. As a 14-year-old kid, Baker introduced the idea of having piano music played at the deli. He had to convince his parents that he and his friends would play music during the evening hours, and it later would be a great addition to the family-owned business.

Over the years, an ambitious young Baker would take over the establishment and turn the Northwest Detroit jazz club into a mecca for attracting the greats in the jazz music industry. From the likes of Miles Davis to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole, Baker’s became the go-to place for great musicians within the genre to visit while in the city.

Since the art of jazz was first introduced, Detroit has been attracting jazz musicians and birthing them too. “There have been a lot of great musicians that have come from out of the city. They may not have been popular, per se, but they played with a lot of famous musicians, and they have passed along that craft and that art and the standards of how jazz is presented throughout the decades,” Whitaker says.

For years, Detroit has been a place that has celebrated the art of jazz. Annually, the city welcomes The Detroit Jazz Festival during Labor Day Weekend. The free event welcomes thousands of performers and musicians from around the world to Hart Plaza and Campus Martius Park in Downtown Detroit. The event was started in 1980 by Robert McCabe and the Detroit Renaissance group, all with the goal of bringing more visitors to the city.

From a longtime patron to now as its owner, Whitaker is pleased to head up a jewel that has been a longtime staple of the community.

“We’re certainly proud to be an important part of what makes this community,” Whitaker says. “With all the changes that the Avenue of Fashion has undergone, still being a part of the University District has always equated us the opportunity to renew our clientele.”

Whitaker played the saxophone in his younger days and was an avid jazz lover because of his mom, who he remembers having stacks of old LP records, vintage 10- or 12-inch vinyl records or soundtrack discs, she would closely guard.

Whitaker’s love for the art of jazz grew even fonder, as he recalls, after one of his first visits to Baker’s and meeting Clarence Baker who made him feel right at home.

“How could I help you?” Baker asked Whitaker.

I told him, “I want to listen to some jazz music,” Whitaker replied.

“Come on in. You can’t have no drinks, but we do have lemonade” Baker responded.

“Fine, I’m not here to drink anyway. I just want to listen to some music,” Whitaker said.

“He invited me in, and I went and sat in the corner and then Miles Davis came in. He happened to be in town. He and Clarence were great friends. There was a local band playing on stage, Miles had his trumpet out with him, he started playing in the aisle and started jammin’ with those guys and it was just an experience I’ll never forget.” Whitaker recalls.

That experience would feed his drive and love of jazz. As Whitaker grew into a young adult, he became an engineer and group manager at General Motors. Going out to lunch or an after-work spot with co-workers was always an adventure in his world, as there weren’t too many colleagues who looked like him. He remembers his co-workers always taking him to their favorite restaurants or places they enjoyed.  Whitaker then began to invite them to his hangout spot he enjoyed.

He became a regular at Baker’s and it’s how he began to know Clarence Baker the drive he had for making the business more than just a neighborhood night club, but for turning it into something special and renown. Now as owner, Whitaker tries to instill the roots of what Clarence brought to Baker’s, while embedding his own vision into decades-old business.

“Clarence’s real drive was continuing to have an opportunity for jazz music to be played,” Whitaker says. “That is what got him started and that is what kept him motivated throughout the years. To have somewhere you can bring fabulous musicians together and enjoy a different way of having the audience and musicians interact.”

He says it’s why Whitaker constructed Baker’s the way he did – an intimate setting where special things happened that had audiences leaving with a great aura about what they experienced. In return, musicians created music to the sounds and intimate feelings with the proximity of the audience. It’s what motivated Clarence to keep Baker’s alive and it’s what Whitaker aims to continue to offer patrons throughout the week.

One of the things that greets you right away is the stunning and unique piano shaped bar.

It was made famous when the late Liberace, a famed pianist and singer, visited Baker’s and then took the concept home and made a big bar in his house of a similar design. The distinctive presentation was first introduced by Clarence in 1957 after renovations. Whitaker says he has every intention of maintaining the eye-grabbing feature.

For an establishment that has hosted so many great jazz musicians, it has earned the honor of receiving a historical state and city marker, with Whitaker aiming for a historical national marker as well. That only seems right for a place that will soon approach its 90th anniversary in May 2024. Whitaker is looking forward to a special event to mark the occasion, and he is tight-lipped on plans for the big milestone, but says he’s always looking ahead to future endeavors for the storied jazz club.

“We hope to do more updates to the facility and continue to grow with the Livernois Avenue of Fashion, as the area is enticing a lot more people and places of businesses to the neighborhood and we want to continue to be a part of that.”

Baker’s Keyboard currently features its Monday night comedy, Karaoke Wednesday, and Friday & Saturday night live entertainment with Ralph Armstrong.

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