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Jazz fills the soul, but not the pocketbook

Did you know…Detroit has the oldest continuously operating jazz club in the world?

And did you know it is in danger of closing?

Thanks a lot, economy. What jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Nina Simone helped to build, you are dragging down, slowly and surely.

Bakers Keyboard Lounge on Livernois is an icon. A cornerstone of the jazz community. A historical site made great by its audiences and the legends that played for them.

What started as an 8-seat diner in 1934 blossomed into a powerhouse where music became more important than food. Initially, owner Clarence Baker added music to boost business. That solo piano player, Pat Flowers, became an institution. But the sound of clanking plates and dropped forks began to overwhelm the music, so they did away with meal service.

Jazz fed the soul, and that was enough.

Now, with the region running on empty, the legend is hurting. Owners John Colbert and Juanita Jackson are trying to keep Bakers going. But things are so desperate they are even willing to franchise the club outside of Detroit to a suburb to find audiences.

Really, the thought of going to the suburbs is paramount to a capital crime around here. So you know the problem is serious.

“Sometimes we're half to three-quarters empty,” Colbert said. “People don't want to travel as much to go out.”

Bakers has many challenges to overcome beyond the region's poor economy, Colbert admits. Jazz has lost its appeal among younger audiences who are more interested in rap, hip hop and other formats.

The club itself needs a major facelift, Colbert added. The furnishings and layout are about 40 years too old.

“Honestly, Bakers is antiquated. It needs modernization,” Colbert said. “It needs to be structurally expanded with a larger space to perform and view the performers to get us on a competitive level with other places.”

There were unpaid tax bills too, but those are being resolved.

Thankfully, there is support out there. One fan started a “Save Bakers Keyboard Lounge” site on Facebook, where people post comments, complaints and memories of their favorite nights there. Colbert and Jackson even use Twitter to advertise performers, special events, even lunch specials. Business did perk up around the time of the club's 75th anniversary last spring.

But, like so many other Detroit institutions, people start to forget. And business dropped again.

So Colbert is open to ideas -- franchising, an investor, some new blood. Whatever it takes to keep the music playing.

“Jazz is still alive. Bakers is still alive,” Colbert said. “We want to maintain the legacy of giving Detroit acoustic jazz in a live setting.”

Find out the latest performers and all the rest here.

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