by Alana Maiello
“Our music will persevere. There are more great young players than there have ever been. Our music is about telling your own story in your own way. And that involves a certain kind of individualism and iconoclasm – and you need to develop your own voice.”
-Todd Barkan ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In April, the National Endowment for the Arts will honor Todd Barkan – jazz musician, producer, advocate and entrepreneur – for his lifelong contributions to jazz. The NEA Jazz Master fellowship is the nation’s highest honor for jazz artists.
A Love Affair Begins
Born in a home full of jazz in 1946, the voices of the masters captivated Barkan’s imagination as a small child, and encouraged him to pursue music.
“It’s a love affair – I fell in love with the music as a little kid. Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Oscar Peterson. I listened to a tremendous amount of music as a young person,” says Barkan.
Barkan began learning piano and started jazz lessons at age 6. He was a self-described “jazz fanatic” by the time he was 8.
Todd Barkan, age 5, the Toddler doing his first booking
With a stroke of luck, Barkan met Rahsaan Roland Kirk on a bus, and Kirk became Barkan’s lifelong mentor and teacher. Kirk is known for being a multi-instrumentalist and for playing up to 3 saxophones on stage in a single performance. Barkan and Kirk would go on to record “Bright Moments” at The Keystone Korner in 1974.
As a teenager, Barkan spent every last cent he had buying jazz albums. After college, he headed to San Francisco in search of psychedelia.
The Keystone Korner
It was the summer of love, 1967, when Barkan moved out west playing with the Afro-Cuban band Kwane and the Kwandidos. Just as the Keystone Korner, a blues bar, was about to close down, Barkan offered the owner all the money he had and took over.
Described by Jon Hendricks as “the finest jazz club in the Bay area” and “one of the most important cultural institutions in the world,” the Keystone Korner offered a place for jazz artists to improvise nightly with new styles.
“The main thing that is important to Todd is that you’re hittin’; you’re for real,” says Dave Lieban of the atmosphere in Keystone Korner.
Todd Barkan and Charles McPherson at Keystone Korner, 1977
Communal and bright, the Keystone Korner became an “oasis” for many jazz musicians in the West. As rock and roll was rising in the ‘70s, the Korner attracted unique and significant jazz sets.
“A lot of cats who felt out of sorts in New York were making a beeline to Keystone,” says Barkan. “Santana and Jerry Garcia came by a lot, and poets like Bob Kaufman, Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso were at the club almost every night. It was the only psychedelic jazz club.”
Barkan made a special effort to take care of all performers and customers. By creating a familiar environment, people felt at home in the Keystone Korner.
It was always more important to Barkan that jazz music was accessible. Some of the biggest names in jazz played there, yet the Keystone Korner always kept it’s personal ambiance.
“I just wanted to present the best music that we could with the warmest feeling that we could,” says Barkan.
Jazz musician Norbert Stachel frequented the Keystone Korner starting at age 14.
“I listened to the music from a side door, outside the club. A few years later, I grew a mustache and was able to pass for older and get in. I heard Dexter Gordon several times, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Miles Davis, Rhasaan Roland Kirk, Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt, and the list goes on,” says Norbert.
Barkan always made tickets affordable to the public, even for major acts like Cannonball Adderley.
“Keystone felt like a place where you could go and bare your heart. No matter what that was, you could stretch to whatever degree you could because the atmosphere was accepting,” says Carl Burnett of the club.
Psychedelic mural on inside west wall of Keystone Korner.
Current State of Jazz and the Music Industry
Barkan’s lifelong advocacy of jazz is tied to his belief that musicians should stay true to their own voice, no matter what circumstances arise.
“Regardless of what the financial realities are, musicians have to play music. They have to redouble their efforts and commitment. It’s not easy. But it’s absolutely necessary to redouble our dedication,” says Barkan.
With the variety of social media platforms available, there’s never been more opportunities for artists to share their creative work with an audience. And yet, true artistry can be lost within the blizzard of social media algorithms and personality-driven influencers.
“It’s more of a challenge than it’s ever been for quality music to be appreciated – and for honesty, and integrity, and for real artistic depth. It’s harder than it’s ever been. I don’t think its a lost cause, but it is a challenging era,” says Barkan.
Barkan sees the struggles musicians currently experience as a natural result of our society’s newfound dependence on technology. However, he also thinks that jazz will experience a resurgence in the coming years.
“Jazz will become even more popular in the years to come because there’s a timeless joy involved. There’s an eternal groove to it that never gets outdated. It’s always contemporary, it’s always fresh at its highest level,” says Barkan.
Jazz: An Inexhaustible Joy
Jazz is all about your soul moving with the sounds. It’s about creating through reinvention.
“Jazz at its most supreme expression is a dance.You’re dancing together as you spontaneously create with one another. You’re continually reinventing yourself within that groove,” says Barkan.
Barkan has produced hundreds of jazz albums in the last 40 years, for labels such as HighNote, Fantasy/Milestone, and 32 Records.
“I felt right away that he respected and supported my vision,” says jazz vocalist Andrea Wolper. Barkan co-produced two of Wolper’s award winning records.
“It was enormously helpful to have Todd in the studio, listening to each take objectively, letting us know what was working, and what we needed to do over again,” says Wolper.
At 71, Barkan is actively involved in the jazz world, beaming with the same welcoming spirit that carried the Keystone Korner through the 1970s and early 80s.
Producing for jazz musicians like Freddie Cole, curating jazz events, and teaching the craft of jazz to young students are just a few of Barkan’s current pastimes. He’s got “another dream or two or three up [his] sleeve.”
“I’m still listening and I’m still learning. It’s a non-ending experience. You continue to grow. That’s part of the whole jazz experience; it’s a continuous search,” says Barkan.
Jazz, still, is an “inexhaustible joy” to Barkan, and a source of discovery.
Barkan’s unending dedication to jazz over the last 60 years is a gift to the jazz world, and will be recognized on April 16, 2018 by the National Endowment for the Arts at a tribute concert in Washington D.C.
“In the process of swinging and grooving, you’re learning what your human potentiality is. It’s more than listening – it’s surrendering to the music. Giving yourself up to it and letting the music take you on a trip,” says Barkan.
Celebrating Keystone Korner’s Jazz Legacy with Todd Barkan, toddbarkan.com
Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club, 2011, Kathy Sloane