“Love is the Answer” composed and performed by Kenny Burrell feat. The Boys Choir of Harlem, from the album Love Is the Answer, used courtesy of Concord Records.
“Cuarto De Colores” composed by Arturo O’Farrill and performed by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra from the album, The Offense of the Drum, courtesy of Motema Music, LLC.
“Trane’s Blues” composed and performed by Miles Davis, from the album, Bluing: Miles Davis Plays the Blues, courtesy of Prestige.
“My Foolish Heart,” composed by Victor Young, performed by the Bill Evans Trio, from the album, Consecration, courtesy of Fantasy Records.
Todd Barkan: Well, what it means to me to be an NEA Jazz Master is a feeling of acceptance and recognition of particularly of my peers and colleagues and people that I’ve worked with all these years. It feels like coming full circle. It’s one of the most deeply moving experiences I’ve ever had in my whole life in music. Not particularly because it’s an award, as much as it is a feeling of recognition of my life’s work, especially from the people I really most deeply admire and respect, and that’s what’s most touching and most humbling about it. Because we are all lovers of the music. That’s one of the things about working in jazz over the years that has been one of my most abiding joys and sources of inspiration is how much love I feel for so many of the people that work in jazz. I’m feeling like I’m getting my love returned.
Jo Reed: That is 2018 NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Jazz impresario Todd Barkan’s name is inextricably linked with one of the nation’s legendary jazz clubs: the Keystone Korner. Todd opened the San Francisco club in 1972 and it was almost immediately recognized as a musicians’ space. The Keystone Korner was known for Todd’s adventurous bookings and his ability to create a home for audiences and musicians alike. Todd Barkan ran the Keystone Korner with that philosophy for more than a decade until the club’s closing in 1983. And while that alone would make him a significant figure in the jazz world, Barkan also worked as a record producer, producing scores of albums for labels like Fantasy Milestone, Concord, and HighNote. He worked with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center—opening Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where Todd served as program director and MC. Todd Barkan’s deep love of jazz, his respect for the music and its practitioners, and his knack for curating exciting live performances has made him both a respected and beloved figure in the jazz world. Born in Nebraska and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Todd Barkan’s love of music goes back to his earliest childhood.
Todd Barkan: In our home in Columbus, Ohio, in particular, there was always music everywhere and we went to a lot of concerts. My parents were not musicians themselves, but they were real music fans, and some of that love rubbed off on me. And they had records and albums playing all the time, and radio stations playing all the time, and there was music. It was a house of music. And I took—started taking piano lessons really young, at the age of six, so there was always music happening in our home.
Jo Reed: This is the era of rock n’ roll. And yet jazz, somehow, is speaking to you. And I know it’s difficult, but I just wonder, can you remember what it was that you heard that did kindle your imagination?
Todd Barkan: Yeah, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, which was actually a very, very fertile place for jazz music at that time, much different than it is now in certain respects, although jazz is still very popular all over the Midwest. But, it was more almost like culture shock. I remember very well the music that really, really, really made me start thinking and whistling and singing along and making my heart really sing with it were the music of Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, actually Johnny Mathis had a jazz record that my parents had that I fell in love with, of all people. Sarah Vaughan, and then early Jimmy Smith. One of the records that really turned me around early in my life was Mingus Ah Um, with Charles Mingus. That music, I used to memorize all the music in it.
Jo Reed: Todd, specifically, what was it about the music?
Todd Barkan: It was the rhythm of the music, especially the rhythm, and the passion, the intensity of the music. It had a great lyric beauty to me, but also, the intensity. And I could feel that these people were all telling their own story in their own way, even when I couldn’t verbalize that. It was not until years later that I could say those words, but I could tell that these people were really so resolutely individualistic that it really fired my imagination.
Jo Reed: Well you certainly had one really important early mentor.
Todd Barkan: I met Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was on a bus, when I was nine years old, and he became a mentor to me. That was very important to me and that became an abiding relationship. We would spend a whole day just listening to alto saxophone players. Then we would spend another day listening to tenor saxophone players. Then we’d play, spend a day listening to stride piano players. I mean, to have that kind of guidance as a young person, you know, it wasn’t, you know, he didn’t give me quizzes and, you know, he wasn’t real pedantic about it. He just said, “Let’s listen to this, let’s listen to that.” It was just like let me share some food I really like with you. I feel like my whole, you know, my whole career in music really grew out of my friendships with the musicians that I met and got to work with.
Jo Reed: When you went to Oberlin, you began producing jazz concerts there, and you were just a kid. How did you do that?
Todd Barkan: First of all, yeah, I started working on some jazz concerts when I was Oberlin College when I started going there when I was 18, 19, 20 years old—because I had some relationships with some musicians already. I had met some musicians already, and I was able to reach out to the musicians that I knew and just make phone calls. And Oberlin was close enough to New York City that these people would come out. They would drive out to Oberlin. Dizzy came and played and that’s when I first met Kenny Barron. He played at Oberlin in 1964 with Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Kenny Barron, Chris White, and Rudy Collins. That’s when I met Miles Davis, when he came there with Ron Carter and Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. So, I mean, I was very lucky, but there were a lot of kids working together. It was the beginning of the Oberlin Jazz Society. Jazz was kind of an insurgent activity at that time, in the early Oberlin days. You weren’t supposed to play jazz in the practice rooms. Now there’s an Oberlin Jazz Building and an Oberlin Jazz Department, and a whole other. It’s evolved, but I was more in the early days.
Jo Reed: You moved to San Francisco right after Oberlin. That was in 1968. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Todd Barkan: But that—that was the earliest days, and when I, you know, moved out to San Francisco right after Oberlin, I drove out there in a 1941 Cadillac out to California. I started playing right away with a few bands out there, and one was called Quannie and the Quanditos. It was Afro-Cuban jazz band. Quannie and the Quanditos was a great—we played Mongo covers, mainly, and we worked all the time. So I went to the Keystone Korner, which was a blues bar at that time and I went there to get a job and I said, “You know, we can have Latin jazz on Monday nights, free spaghetti.” I was trying to get us a gig, you know. And the guy says, “I—I don’t know about that.” He says, “I’m trying to get rid of this place. Maybe you should buy this club.” I was 25 years old. “Maybe you should buy this club, and then you can hire your own band.” And I said, “Well, I’ve only got $8,500 to my name,” and he said, “Well, come back here in a couple days, and we’ll see what we can do.” So I came back in a couple days, and, voila, all of a sudden, at the age of 25, I owned my own jazz club, although it was a rock club and we made it a jazz club. We repainted the front of the club. He gave me two free nights of Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders that they owed to the club because they’d cancelled a bunch of times. And then all of a sudden, I had Michael White and Bobby Hutcherson and McCoy Tyner, and we were a jazz club.
Jo Reed: And you were off and running. At this point it’s 1972, tell me how the Keystone Korner fit into the culture of San Francisco.
Todd Barkan: To really understand Keystone Korner, you really have to understand that this is still a part of the hippy era. It was a psychedelic jazz club. We had psychedelic murals on the walls. We got ionizers to take the pot smoke out of the air so other customers could enjoy the music without any kind of impediment. So, it was really a hippy-kind-of-bohemian culture that the Keystone Korner grew out of. When I was in San Francisco, there were poets on the street and there were poets in the Keystone Korner handing out poems. There were all kinds of actors, people in the rock community and the jazz community and the classical musicians. The poets and the artists and the musicians would all hang out. There was a real bohemian scene. We were right around the corner from the City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. So, it was a much more of a concentrated artistic community, and also a very multifarious artistic community, and a much better integrated community than it is now. I mean, physically, you had a lot of people, you know, intermingling. It was a home for all kinds of people. One of the most important things about Keystone Korner was the integration of different vectors of our society coming together with our music, which is one of the main reasons that our music is so wonderful, because it does bring so many cultures together and groups of people.
Josephine Reed: Well, you were known for, and I’m quoting now, your “adventurous bookings.” You would have double bills and triple bills, and—but nobody was an opener because all the acts were equally talented.
Todd Barkan: I felt very fortunate that I was able to do a lot of those things, you know, to have adventuresome booking policies where we could have the Dexter Gordon Quartet and the Bobby Hutcherson Quintet and the Max Roach Quartet. And then, I could just put up on the marquis, “Max, Dex, Hutch,” and, you know, I had three bands playing, nonstop from 8:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning. And nobody was an opening act; nobody was a closing act. Everybody was, you know, that was the wonderful thing. It was a real blessing to be able to use the Keystone Korner kind of as an open canvas to do paint many pictures and create many kinds of interesting combinations.
Josephine Reed: Well, musicians loved the club. They loved playing there. It was a musician’s space. How did you make that happen? How did you allow that to happen?
Todd Barkan: Well, I mean, being a musician myself, I think that was a good starting place.
It just evolved very naturally. From the very beginning, it became a home away from home for all the musicians who were playing there. And you know, that’s been one of the mixed blessings of my life in music is perhaps sometimes I’ve been told that I love the music too much, but I’m very proud of that, and I’m going to take that with me all the rest of my days, you know, working with the music. But it became a musician’s place because of all the love that we put into it and all the people we had working there. I mean, the person at the door would be a musician, person in the ticket booth would generally be a musician, and if they weren’t a musician, they were somebody that just totally loved the music.
The sound man and the people working in the office, I mean, we went out of our way to have people that were really committed to playing the music. For one thing, we couldn’t pay that tremendously well, so that made it a lot easier if you were working with people that really loved the music and didn’t need to be tremendously well paid. So that happened very naturally. We had a tremendously dedicated staff of people. The love that was put into there—we made it a home for the musicians. It was a place to play but also a place to hang out. When the gigs were over at night that was just maybe the half-way point. I mean people would hangout until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning or sometimes even later than that. It was a home away from home for the musicians.
Jo Reed: And Musicians came together a couple of times and did benefits for Keystone Korner. For example, for you getting your liquor license, not just beer.
Todd Barkan: When it came time when we needed to raise money for a liquor license or to knock down a wall and add some space and build a kitchen, musicians actually got together and organized benefit concert to raise funds in bigger halls, like the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, my childhood friend, and Freddie Hubbard, who lived in Los Angeles, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones, who were all regular friends of the Keystone Korner. My friends and friends that loved the club—and we raised enough money for a liquor license in 1975. And then Grover Washington, Jr., who was the best man at my wedding, and George Benson, who was one of the earliest artists who played at the Keystone Korner regularly, they did another benefit concert where we built a kitchen and you know, added space and a new ventilation system. So, like I was saying, it was the musicians who helped create this club.
Jo Reed: I read a great story that you told about Miles Davis.
Todd Barkan: Well, talking about friends and the importance of friends in my life and at the Keystone Korner, Miles Davis was the only musician that actually gave us back money. He loved to play the Keystone Korner. At one time, he played a whole week there—six nights and it was a wonderful experience. And we had taken in enough money, we were really taking a big risk for this gig.
We were paying him $12,500 for the week and it was in 1974. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. And I paid the band off because we paid all the musicians in cash, there weren’t any checks. So Miles played a whole week at the Keystone Korner and on Saturday night I paid the band, the roadie was actually the percussionist, Mtume. So I paid Mtume $12,500 cash and I felt good. You know, whatever we take in on Sunday is our money, and I felt really good about the whole thing. And the very next night, Mtume comes back and he’s got one of my envelopes in his hand and it had $2,500 in the envelope. He hands it back to me and he said, “Miles wants you to have this $2,500 because he knows you need it a lot more than he does.” They were very flush at that time. And he said, “Listen, he knows you need this money to pay your bills and he always appreciates playing here, so you take this money back.”
Jo Reed: That’s a great story.
Todd Barkan: So that’s, you know, that’s the kind of thing you live for in our music, and it’s just an indication how sometimes things are not what they appear to be in terms of, you know, Miles was known for being very gruff and very difficult. But he could also took really good care of his friends and people that he really cared about.
Jo Reed: You recorded dozens of albums at Keystone Korner. What was your thinking behind that? What made you decide to do it? How did you arrange to do it? There was money issues, so this had to be an extra cost as well.
Todd Barkan: It was. Well, we basically tried to record as much as we could at Keystone Korner, merely as archival recordings, because it was very evident very quickly that there was a lot of very special music being played at Keystone Korner and we didn’t want it just all to go up in thin air. So we would record, like, on cassettes and then we got real fancy and we had a reel-to-reel player. The quality is mixed. Sometimes it comes out very clear, and sometimes it’s at the mercy of how the, you know, how the band was mic’d at that time. There were some real recording sessions, live recording sessions done at Keystone Korner, like, for example, Rahsaan Roland Kirk Bright Moments, and McCoy Tyner Atlantis, and Yusef Lateef Ten Years Hence, and Tete Montioliu
Live at the Keystone Korner. But that was maybe only 15 to 20 sessions during the whole 11 year existence of Keystone Korner. Otherwise, I tried to record as often as I could archivally. There were a few artists that didn’t want to be recorded under any circumstances and that’s fine. The great Bill Evans, when he was there at Keystone Korner, asked me to record because I think Bill Evans had a sense that it was the end of his days, which it turned out to be right before he passed.
Todd Barkan: So, with Bill Evans, it was at the request of the artist, and even though they were archival recordings, they wound up to be very important because it was at the end of his life, and there wound up to be 16 CDs that came out of that recording, basically all made on cassette.
Jo Reed: And that’s The Last Waltz and Consecration.
Todd Barkan: And Consecration, yeah.
Jo Reed: How big was Keystone Korner? How many people did it seat?
Todd Barkan: Well, when we started out, when we first moved into Keystone Korner, it was about 140 to 150 seats. When we closed, we were closer to 200 seats, so it grew as we knocked down a wall here and there.
Jo Reed: And how much were tickets?
Todd Barkan: Tickets, when we started out, were $3 during the week and $3.50 on the weekend; $1.50 or $2 on Monday nights. And then we had student prices, which were half price for students with student IDs, any night but Friday and Saturday. I was definitely overly idealistic and overly utopian. And if I had to do it all over again, I probably would be the same. I really am proud to get the music to people for the most reasonable price possible in the most humanistically engaging way, just creating a loving environment for both the music and the people listening to the music.
Jo Reed: That is not a lot of money, even then.
Todd Barkan: No, it wasn’t. It was very reasonable. Even then, it reminded of one wonderful story. When Sonny Rollins first played there, we were all excited because Sonny Rollins was coming to the club, and we couldn’t have been more excited, and we raised the ticket price to $4. We were really pumped up. And so, Sonny Rollins, the first set he played was exactly a half hour long, and he thought it was, like, two hours. He was just into it. Nobody left. We didn’t clear the house in those days, anyway, so people stayed for the next set. So I said, “Sonny, wasn’t that a little short? I think we need to make it, like, closer to an hour. That would be nice.” You know, but I didn’t get upset; I was just puzzled. And he said, “Todd, uh, we won’t call them sets. We’ll call them episodes.” So, I took out my Marks-A-Lot, you know, and I put a new sign up in the window with my Scotch Tape and a new piece of stationery. It said, “Continuous music from 9:30 until 2:00,” you know, and he did about three episodes, you know, that evening. But, we went with the flow, you know, and—but that was one of the greatest virtues of that place, you know. I mean, sometimes the sets—guys would play for two hours if the musicians felt like it. Musicians were supreme in that type of environment, you know.
Jo Reed: And, unfortunately, it also closed in 1983. It was just untenable, financially?
Todd Barkan: No, it wasn’t making a lot of money and it closed because, you know, we had financial difficulties. But also, I think we could, at the very end, we could have raised some money, had I been able to renegotiate my lease. So it was a combination of not being able to get my lease and also you know struggling financially, which I always worked by the seat of my pants.
Jo Reed: And then you pulled up stakes and moved clear across the country to New York City.
Todd Barkan: Right, I moved back here in 1983 and I’m very glad I did come back here. But, I’ll always have a tinge of melancholy for my San Francisco experience because it was my foundational experience for my whole life in this music. But one of the most wonderful things about our jazz community is that we’re at home no matter where we are, all over the world. When I came back here, I had many, many friends and started doing some bookings for a club called Lush Life and I renewed my life in the music and started working with the Boys Choir of Harlem.
Jo Reed: Yes, I would love to talk to you about your work with the Boys Choir of Harlem. They sing in so many different styles, their music has such a wide net. And you added jazz to their repertoire.
Todd Barkan: One of the most important things I’ve done in my life in music was working with the Boys Choir of Harlem because I helped create a working ensemble that traveled all over the world.
Jo Reed: You took them on their first tour.
Todd Barkan: Right, I took them on their first national and international tours. I put them together with people like Kenny Burrell and Billy Taylor and Grady Tate and other musicians and we did recordings together. Kenny Burrell did a great recording with him called “Love is the Answer,” which he wrote the music and the lyrics for.
Todd Barkan: Doing that work with the Boys Choir of Harlem was one of the most satisfying experiences of my whole life in music. Working with kids in general, it has to be one of the greatest experiences you can have as a musician, creative person, a producer, or any other kind of function we have in the music, because you always feel like you could be affecting the rest of their lives. Working with children, which I even was recently able to do with the Jazz House Kids for Christian McBride and Melissa Walker and that wonderful organization. And it was one of the most heartwarming experiences of my life, because you can tell, out of a group of maybe 100 kids, that four or five of those kids are going to, you know, turn around and be listening to Sara Vaughan the rest of their lives or John Coltrane, or whatever you’re able to really stimulate there. Instill them with the love you feel, because one of the most wonderful things about our music is that it becomes your friend for the rest of your life. You can turn to it and it’s always there for you. It’s one of the most reliable friends you could ever have. So, with young people, the main responsibility we have who work for this music, is to make them feel that love. It’s all positive.
Jo Reed: I do want to talk about your producing. Because you produced hundreds of jazz recordings. Tell me about the work of a producer. I mean, we all see produced by, but what does that mean?
Todd Barkan: That’s a good question. Well, I started producing albums as kind of a function of having the Keystone Korner and doing some recordings out of there. Some of my earliest experiences producing were with people that were integral parts of the Keystone Korner, like Bobby Hutcherson. But being a jazz producer, being a record producer, is a special kind of situation because you have to wear a lot of hats. To be a producer in the jazz world, you have to be a combination of producer, director, cinematographer, camera grip, and a whole lot of things. The only thing you don’t usually do is run the soundboard, some producers even do that. The main job of a jazz recording producer is to create the nicest environment for the music that you can create, work with the leader in artistically putting together a program. A producer in a jazz recording is intimately involved in you can’t go over the budget, a very real budget. Most of the times you get a finite budget and if you go over the budget you have to pay that out of your own pocket. You have to have control over the budget, but you want to still keep as much artistic love and artistic support. You want to create as welcoming and engaging an environment for the music as you possibly can. In terms of putting together the band and putting together the repertoire and putting together the artistic components. You work in varying degrees, depending on how hands-on the leader is. You give them feedback. That take was seven minutes long, eight minutes long, you know, nine minutes long, so it won’t get much play on the radio. But at the same time, you want to encourage them to express themselves artistically. And sometimes eight minutes is the way it is because that’s what artistically as wonderful as it is. Our music, sometimes takes eight or ten minutes to really tell the story we want it to tell.
Jo Reed: And jumping way ahead, you produced the 2015 Grammy Award Winner for Latin Jazz Album, which was Arturo O’Farrill’s The Offense of the Drum.
Jo Reed: And this had to be really gratifying for you because you worked with his father too.
Todd Barkan: I started playing the music when I got to San Francisco, and then when I came here to New York City, one of the first groups I worked with was Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, which was a very wonderful, cutting-edge Latin jazz band, which led to me starting working with Chico O’Farrill, who was Arturo O’Farrill’s father.
Todd Barkan: And so, I started working with Chico O’Farrill on his comeback record in 1995-96, and then I got to work with Bebo Valdes, and then I got to work with Arturo O’Farrill, Chico’s son, and even Arturo O’Farrill’s children. So I’ve worked with three generations of the O’Farrill family. So I feel like that’s my Latin jazz family, and I’ve had the privilege and the honor to work with those people.
Josephine Reed: You bump into Wynton Marsalis as you’re walking down the street, and suddenly, it’s another page turner for you. What happened?
Todd Barkan: So, in ’81-’82, I had the opportunity to work with Wynton Marsalis as part of the Art Blakey Band. Then, you know, like in a movie, the leaves of the calendar turn, blow in the wind, I’m living in New York and I’m walking down the street, and I bump into Wynton Marsalis on 8th Avenue, and he says to me, “Oh, man,” he says, “I’m starting Jazz at Lincoln Center, and we’re going to have a jazz club in there, and maybe you should come there and work.” And lo and behold, I wind up starting to work with Jazz at Lincoln Center at the turn of this century. I’m working with a guy that I had first worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, 20 years before in my own club. Now I wind up helping to start Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and do so much other work with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Jo Reed: So you booked the acts, and you were the MC. Dizzy’s isn’t Keystone Korner. I mean, it’s—it’s different. But obviously, there’s some overlap, too. What went into your thoughts when you booked Dizzy’s?
Todd Barkan: Well, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola is like a dream come true in terms of creating a wonderfully utopian place for a jazz club with ideal acoustics. It’s a wonderful environment for our music. It’s one of the greatest jazz clubs ever created, physically and artistically. Dizzy’s was another kind of challenge, because Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola being one of three major venues in Jazz at Lincoln Center, we had to integrate the activities of this new creation, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with the other venues. Sometimes I felt like I had less latitude for creating triple bills or double bills, two-hour sets and whatever else I wanted to do, creating festivals in the club. Dizzy’s was another kind of challenge, because Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola being one of three major venues in Jazz at Lincoln Center, we had to integrate the activities of this new creation, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with the other venues. But at the same time, you know, there were strict set times, and sometimes I—you know, sometimes I felt less—like I had less latitude in terms of creating, you know, triple bills and double bills, and—and all kind—you know, two-hour sets and whatever else I wanted to do, creating festivals in the club. I wound up creating the Women in Jazz Festival at Dizzy’s, and the Generations in Jazz Festival. Now, the Generations in Jazz Festival is still part of my living legacy at Dizzy’s and that happens in September and we have hundreds of musicians play for the whole month of September.
Jo Reed: It’s really hard to balance business with such a deep love for jazz and jazz musicians. You know, it’s a challenge for anyone.
Todd Barkan: Well, I know I’m naïve and I know I’m a little utopian, but I never would have become a jazz club owner if I weren’t that way. I really didn’t know what I was doing when I opened up Keystone Korner, except that I loved jazz. Fortunately, I had enough belief and enough unbelievable energy and dedication to keep at it, to work 16, 18 hours a day, and more. I still feel that kind of utopian idealism. I still feel that. Sometimes I think to myself, Todd, you’re still very impractical in many ways. And I’ve paid for that impracticality, financially and in other ways. But I’m very proud of it at the same time. Take care of the music and the music will take care of you, which has kind of become my motto over the last 50 years or so. I do feel hope swings eternal. So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Jo Reed: That is 2018 NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan. The NEA has just named the 2019 Class of Jazz Masters. They are, drum roll please:Abdullah Ibrahim,Bob Dorough, Maria Schneider, and Stanley Crouch. Find out more about the NEA Jazz Masters— past and present at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Worksproduced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Workswherever you get your podcasts—so please do. And if you’re so inclined, leave us a rating on Apple—it really does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.