Weeks ago Kris was checking schedules and found a show at Bakers Keyboard Lounge we’d both enjoy, the square representing that Friday on our calendar was blank, so I quickly filled it in. We had the perfect place in mind to have dinner beforehand. The area of Livernois from 6 to 8 Mile Rd is known as the Avenue of Fashion. This commercial boulevard was the place to shop back in the day; storefront after storefront offered the finest fashions and accessories. Though still fashion-oriented this area of Livernois is now home to multiple galleries, independent businesses, cafes and Restaurants. 1917 American Bistro is located on Livernois at Outer Drive and is a great place to dine and listen to live music. We arrived before the rush, parking is offered in an adjacent lot or on street, we were greeted as we walked in the door and seated immediately. The dining area feels light and airy, large pieces of original artwork hang on the walls, the band was setting up in the front window space. The menu has a nice variety of entree’s, as we watched plates being delivered to tables we noticed the catfish was extremely popular. Offered Cajun style or blackened, both looked delicious so we ordered a piece of each, served with smashed potatoes and vegetable, we added the Veggie Stir Fry and shared both dishes. The catfish was fantastic, the Cajun had a wonderful crunch to it, the fillet itself was delicate and moist, the Cajun spice adding just the right kick. The blackened is smothered in spice and cooked in a cast iron pan, cooked perfectly it flaked easily with a fork and had wonderful flavor. The smashed potatoes had a hint of garlic that was just right, the veggie stir fry was excellent; fresh vegetables tastefully seasoned, cooked just right retaining a bit of crunch, piled high on a bed of rice, delicious! As we ate we noticed a line of hungry patrons beginning to form, the music was set to begin shortly. We finished up leaving no room for dessert which was probably a mistake as the selections looked divine, oh well, there’s always next time.
We would spend the rest of the evening at the legendary Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Livernois in Detroit. Originally named Bakers in 1939, it is said to be the oldest Jazz club in continuous operation in the United States, how cool is that? Opened by the Baker family as a sandwich and beer restaurant in 1934, they soon added entertainment by local pianists. In 1939 son Clarence took over the club after his father suffered a stroke, in addition to local musicians he began booking folks from outside Detroit turning this neighborhood spot into a full fledged Jazz Club with shows nightly. The club was enlarged and in the 50’s the name was changed to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the club’s trademark was the piano shaped bar with mock piano keys lining the edges, it’s really something to see. Baker’s became a regular stop on the American Jazz Circuit and hosted many Jazz greats; Fats Waller, Tommy Flanagan, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, Nat King Cole, even Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn sang here. The 7 ft Steinway piano was a gift from Art Tatum who picked it out in New York and had it shipped to Detroit. Liberace even made the trip just to see the infamous bar. I knew that Baker’s had an amazing history, but the more I researched and read on the internet the more fascinated I became. The Baker’s website has a nice piece on the history of the club and is where I garnered much of my information. In 2011 new owners took over BKL and are in the process of bringing it back to life, from what we saw Friday night, they are doing a marvelous job.
Local artist Sky Covington would provide the evening’s entertainment with a Billy Holiday Review. We arrived early, as this intimate venue seats only 99. As soon as we walked in the door I could feel a change; the interior possesses an atmosphere all it’s own, like somehow the walls have absorbed and retained all of the memories of the past decades. We have been here before but I still love to pause and take in the bar, I like to imagine it back in the day when the who’s who of Jazz probably sat here until the wee hours of the morning, having a drink and telling their stories, I picture the room dim and smoky. We continued on and were seated in a tiny three-sided booth facing the stage. It looks just like what you’d imagine if you are a fan of old movies; Tiny booths lining the length of the room, a few cocktail tables set near the stage, towards the back of the room are tables where larger groups can assemble. Old photographs and paintings hang on the walls, the black ceiling is exclusive acoustic tile providing superior sound quality. The band took the stage and began to play, I knew we were in for a treat.
After a couple of numbers by the band which consisted of a piano, drums and upright bass, Sky took the stage. She had a warm rapport with the audience, she began by telling us a little bit about herself and a little bit about Billie, and then she began to sing. What came out of her was the heart of Billie Holiday and the soul of Sky Covington. She did not imitate Billie, though her voice had similar qualities, it was more like her interpretation of Billie. Her voice is clear and soulful, soothing and melodic. The room was becoming increasingly more crowded, many seemed to know her and would stop at the stage for a quick embrace. The first set went by too quickly so we decided to stay for the second. Many visitors used this opportunity to order their dinner; I have never seen so many plates of fried catfish come out of a kitchen! Plates were piled high with golden colored fillets, sides of yams, mac and cheese, fries, and greens accompanied them on large trays. Patrons dug into their late evening meal with a look of satisfaction across their faces. The second set began to a packed house, there was standing room only in the bar. Once again Sky’s voice filled the room with music and emotion. The crowd was more lively by this time and individuals would would talk to the singer from their seats. She performed Billies best know pieces like: My Man, Lover Man, and I Cried For You, her voice draws you in from the first note, songs less familar were equally sensational. We sat there completely engaged for several hours, thoughts never straying from outside the room. The other musicians on stage with Sky were equally talented, the piano player was outstanding, the Bass player, superb, the drummer played effortlessly. Each received loud rounds of applause after individual solo pieces. The entire evening was magnificent, I look forward to our next visit. If you like Jazz, you have to come to Baker’s and experience what Detroiter’s have been lucky enough to have in their own back yard for over 75 years.