May 17, 2012
Preserving the Legacy of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
New manager talks plans for Detroit’s historic music venue
Before there was Motown, there was Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.
But unlike the historic, iconic Detroit record label that created the kind of music that helped to change the world, this musical nugget has remained inside the city limits.
And for nearly 80 years.
There’s pride there. Music careers were solidified there. Relationships were formed and people fell in love there – mostly with the music.
The lounge looked to be on the verge of closing not all that long ago, but two longtime Detroiters came in and saved the day.
We talk with Hugh Smith, who patronized the lounge for years, before getting a job at Baker’s as the manager. Now? He and his buddy Eric Whitaker, a retired GM engineer, own their favorite jazz lounge.
And the best is yet to come. Here’s what else he told us:
This is the 78th anniversary of the club. What is it about the lounge that works?
Well, anything that lasts 78 years should be commended and should be celebrated, because it’s just a rarity to have to have the opportunity to say I’ve been doing anything for 78 years, let alone continuing a jazz legacy or even continuing a business for that matter. So, in and of itself, 78 years is something that’s warranted and very necessary to celebrate just for the reason of being for 78 years.
Is that one of the reasons that you wanted to buy it?
Only reason! We bought it because we love Baker’s. That’s why we felt the call when they said that it may close. We love the club so much, we couldn’t let it die if we had any chance to keep it or help continue it. I was a longtime customer, patron, of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge way before I worked here. I’m not that kind of person to stand on the sidelines and watch things happen. I’m more of a run-to-a-fire kind of guy.
What were you doing at the club before you purchased it?
I was a manager with John Colbert. John Colbert was my mentor. So, having the privilege of working beside John Colbert every day, seeing his dedication to making sure the legacy of Baker’s…the name of Baker’s remained untarnished. This guy ran this club for 15 years and never had a blemish on the name of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, and that’s to be commended.
What plans do you have for the lounge?
When we first purchased Baker’s, we looked at her as a bride. This is our wife, so what we do is we have to buy her a new dress, we have to get some new shoes. The old girl needs some fixing up. Our plans are to keep Baker’s Keyboard Lounge a jazz refuge. We also want to restore Baker’s aesthetically and socially into the minds of everyone. We want it to remain a great legacy. We still have great musicians, whether they’re local, whether they’re national or whether they’re world musicians across the globe that still cherish this music. And so, that’s what we’re about here is maintaining the legacy of jazz that is the legacy of America and pressing this thing forward.
Do you play any musical instruments? Do you have a musical background at all?
To be honest with you, Teddy Harris showed me a major seventh chord and he showed me the progression of that chord, and I’ve been practicing that chord now for about five years! I wouldn’t call myself a great musician, but I am a great listener, as Teddy once told me.
That’s hilarious. You’re also a very tall guy…
I’m 6’8” to be exact.
Does that mean that you’ve ever played basketball?
I am an ex-basketball player from Eastern Michigan University. I won a championship there at Eastern Michigan, a MAC conference championship. And then that was the end of my career.
What did you study there?
Psychology. My minor was history and African-American studies.
I would imagine that a degree in psychology would serve you well working at a lounge.
I worked in a home for abused girls for four years. So that was my first call of duty. And I call it a call of duty because it seems like God puts me in the most curious positions to be serving. So, I serve wherever he places me. I believe it’s by faith that I’m guided. Having that experience of being in psychology does help in understanding people, because this business is just about understanding people. And I do.
Kelley L. Carter is an Emmy-Award winning, freelance entertainment journalist.