The Rebirth of Cool

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By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, 

Jazz musician and impresario Todd Barkan has brought world class Jazz back to Baltimore.

There was a surreal scene in the swanky Harbor East community over the Memorial Day weekend.

Billy Murphy, the legendary defense attorney was holding court outside of a new nightclub with a group of other men, still buzzing after witnessing a world class jazz performance by Baltimore native Cyrus Chestnut.

Return of the Legends: The Keystone Klub, which opened in April in Harbor East featured iconic Jazz musicians over the Memorial Day weekend, including (from left), Buster Williams on bass, Antonio Hart (a Baltimore native) on alto saxophone, Lenny White on drums and Cyrus Chestnut (also a Baltimore native), who is not seen here, on piano. (Photo credit: Joe Lee)

What most don’t know about Murphy the iconic lawyer is that he is not just a jazz aficionado, he is an outstanding Jazz drummer; he really knows this music, the only organically American art form. And it has been decades since Murphy and other true lovers of the music have been serenaded by a Jazz titan like Chestnut in a club setting in Baltimore.

The wait is over, Keystone Korner has arrived.

“It was like a fait accompli, it’s like destiny,” said Todd Barkan, programming director/executive director of the Keystone, which opened in April. Barkan’s odyssey from Jazz pianist to co-owner of the Keystone Klub in Baltimore, began almost 50 years ago in Northern California. He purchased the original Keystone Klub in the North Beach community of San Francisco in 1972 and operated it until 1983.

“I built Keystone Korner into an internationally famous place, that had many famous live recordings; Rahsaan Roland Kirk, McCoy Tyner, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, all recorded live there,” Barkan said. Subsequently, Barkan opened Keystones in Oakland, Calif., and Tokyo.

Keystone Klassic: A classic 1975 marquee picture from the original Keystone Korner in San Francisco.

From the establishment of Keystone as a beacon for the Jazz world, Barkan moved on to New York as program director for Jazz at Lincoln Center from 1999 to 2012.

In April 2018, he was awarded the National Endowment of the Arts, Jazz Master award, an honor Barkan describes as, “the highest award in jazz in our country…it’s like the Nobel Prize for jazz.” The bestowing of the Jazz Master award (the other winners that year were Pat Metheny, Dianne Reeves and Joanne Brackeen), on Barkan led to an encounter with the man who would become his partner in bringing the legendary Keystone to Baltimore.

“The night before the big concert and ceremony at the Kennedy Center we had an awards dinner…and the owner of the awards dinner restaurant, Marcel’s, was a guy named Robert Wiedmaier,” Barkan said. “Well, he and I met and struck up wonderful and fast friendship and we decided to do something together.”

Wiedmaier, who owns the RW Restaurant Group, is a Michelin Star restaurateur who owns several upscale eateries. He was the second element of the Keystone equation, which has allowed the Baltimore incarnation to become a club, in Barkan’s words, “featuring the best food in the world and the best music in the world.” Wiedmaier owned the Mussel Bar and Grille (which had been closed for over a year because of the extensive construction taking place within that neighborhood) at Harbor East, the space that ultimately became the Keystone Klub Baltimore.

Prior to crafting the Keystone Klub in Baltimore with Wiedmaier, Barkan had only had a tangential relationship with the city. He had played at the Left Bank Jazz Society decades ago and his last performance here was at Ethel’s Place, the city’s last world class Jazz club owned by the highly venerated daughter of Baltimore Ethel Ennis, who died in February. Perhaps, it is divine the reconfiguring of Wiedmaier’s restaurant into the Keystone began that same month.

“I’m going to build up the strongest and best jazz club I can,” Barkan said. “That’s the best thing I can do for Baltimore is to make this club…as successful as can humanly be. And in so doing I’m doing a solid for the people of Baltimore. I want them to be able to come here any week of the year and hear five-star music…the people of Baltimore deserve that.”