Jazz Notes: On May 9 The Jazz Gallery Gala Celebrates the Maestro of Bebop: Todd Barkan
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, April 29, 2016
Since 1995 The Jazz Gallery has been a jazz artist incubator where brilliant music has been created and supported—from MacArthur Fellow Steve Coleman to rising-star pianists such as Aaron Parks and Gerald Clayton. The space has been a proving ground where audiences flock to check out the latest in the continual cycles of jazz evolution. As such, The Jazz Gallery presents some of the most adventurous programming in the U.S. at a time when clubs and venues have been disappearing after a few short years—or long-term stands—of operation.
Every year The Jazz Gallery celebrates its nonprofit existence by throwing a fund-raising gala (watch out: the price of the affair held at The Players Club in the Gramercy neighborhood is steep but well worth it) on May 9 where a who’s who of the jazz world in the past has been honored. This year bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter, who has been racking up numerous awards in the last several years as he closes in on the 80-year-old mark, is crowned with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Also Newark’s WBGO jazz radio founder and heart-and-soul ambassador of jazz Dorthaan Kirk is honored with one of two Contribution to the Arts Awards.
The other goes to one of the unsung jazz heroes over the last half century: impresario, club runner and producer Todd Barkan, who jumped into the jazz world full depth in 1972 when he founded the seminal jazz space Keystone Korner in San Francisco and is still dizzyingly active now, with a fresh Grammy in 2015 as producer of the Best Latin Jazz Album of 2014: Offense of the Drum by Arturo O’Farrill. He continues to push out new music, including One for Marian (a remembrance of the late pianist Marian McPartland) recorded by Roberta Piket and Steve Wilson, and the recent HighNote recording, He Was the King, by Freddie Cole in salute to his late older brother Nat King Cole. “This is the twentieth album I’ve produced for Freddie,” says Barkan. “I’ve been asking him to do an album like this for years, but finally he agreed it was time to make a unique homage to Nat.”
In our recent conversation, Barkan is spirited and spouts out his favorite motto: “Make the world safe for bebop.”
“I’ve been practicing this since 1972,” he says buoyantly. “That’s been 44 years—and we’re making progress. Bebop is the music of the future. Hey, different streets for different freaks.”
Barkan runs down a long list of jazz greats who played his Keystone club over the years, like Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. He acknowledges the brilliance of today’s young jazz stars like Robert Glasper, but says, “With all due respect, he’s just not playing at that level that the beboppers and hard boppers did. Young players that I adore, like [pianist] Eric Reed, just don’t do what the beboppers did. I think we’re ready to move backwards to those days.”
While it opened in 1972 and closed on July 11, 1983, the Keystone Korner alone would be fitting reason to celebrate Barkan even if he had never lifted a finger in jazz circles again—an impossibility given how earnestly committed he has been to presenting and documenting the music, including his one-time Tokyo outpost of the Keystone, a return to the Bay Area when he programmed Yoshi’s in Oakland under the Keystone brand name and more recently his decade-plus artistic directing of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club when it first launched). Even though he bows to the bebop gods, Barkan is quick to assert, “I’m no moldy fig. I’m full spectrum. Back in the early days of the Keystone, I hired people like the AACM’s Henry Threadgill [a recent awardee of the Pulitzer Prize for Music] in his band Air, and Anthony Braxton and then creative, artistically provocative bills like Stan Getz playing on the same bill as [blues great] Johnny Guitar Watson. There’s not a club in New York today that’s doing what I did at the Keystone.”
Get Barkan talking and it soon becomes apparent that you’re getting in way over your head with his experiential knowledge. So rather than drown, I asked him what were four important moments in his illustrious career. Turns out he’s got a great memory.
In 1964 he went to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus, Ohio. He had no idea that he would be struck by jazz lightning that day, forever changing his future. “I heard John Coltrane’s quartet playing right next to a bunch of Guernsey cows,” he says. “Ninety seconds into the band playing ‘My Favorite Things,’ and I flew off to another planet. My whole universe turned upside down.”
Flash back to the summer of 1955 when Barkan was taking a bus in Columbus to go to see a game by the Columbus Jets, a minor league baseball team. “I met this guy who had all kinds of instruments around his neck and a long stick,” he says. “There I was 9 years old and I had met Rahsaan Roland Kirk.” Kirk, one of jazz’s most eclectic, unpredictable and exciting artists, became a regular at Keystone in San Francisco years later.
Fast-forward to the opening year of the Keystone in 1972. Two events rocked Barkan’s early entree as an impresario. The first came when he booked saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who was scheduled to play with bassist Bob Crenshaw and drummer Jack DeJohnette. “Sonny was blowing this psychedelic, mind-bending music, but the first set was short: 29 minutes,” says Barkan. “After, I told Sonny that it was great but too short. And he said, ‘OK, why don’t we call them episodes.’” He laughs and says that he immediately went outside and changed the sign for the billing to “4 or 5 episodes each night.”
That same year Barkan’s world was shaken by the appearance of longtime Coltrane pianist, McCoy Tyner, going out on his own as the leader of his own band. “McCoy was really going for it,” he says. “There were waves of psychic energy as an extension of what Trane was doing. In fact, McCoy played tidal waves.” (Years later in 1994 when Barkan had produced his Prelude and Sonata recording, Tyner commented: “Todd brings a very rare level of intelligence, experience and sensitivity to being a producer of our music.” Added note: Barkan has produced over 600 albums during his career.)
Finally, I asked Barkan what the three most important albums were in his life. Even though he says that he has hundreds of favorites, he agreed to slim that down to three dates from the Keystone:
• Freddie Hubbard’s Pinnacle, recorded live at the Keystone—“Freddie was like a godfather to the club. He played there every four months.”
• The Magic of 2 with pianists Jaki Byard and Tommy Flanagan, recorded at Keystone—“This was artistically beyond anything I’d heard. It took place in 1980 and it took 33 years to come out on Resonance Records in 2013. Hats off to the label.”
• Getz/Gilberto ’76 by Stan Getz and João Gilberto—“This one took nearly 40 years to come out, again on Resonance. I had been trying to get the rights for years. It was never a problem with the Getz estate. But João first wanted a million dollars, then later a half million. Finally we agreed to a more reasonable figure.”
Barkan is basking in the glow of his lifetime achievements in the jazz world as well as being honored by The Jazz Gallery. “That place really has the Keystone vibe,” he says.
In addition to the awards ceremony, The Jazz Gallery will present special performances by a band comprising club regulars: trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Clayton, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Johnathan Blake. And in special honor of Carter, a bass quartet with Matt Brewer, Dezron Douglas, Larry Grenadier and Ben Williams will also perform.