Hugh Smith III said he gets hundreds of submissions from artists around the world who want to play at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.

Hugh Smith III said he gets hundreds of submissions from artists around the world who want to play at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.

Photo by Donna Agusti

Born and raised on Detroit jazz

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published August 13, 2019

 Paul Howard, the owner of Cliff Bell’s in Detroit, said the city  is a destination spot for jazz fans.

Paul Howard, the owner of Cliff Bell’s in Detroit, said the city is a destination spot for jazz fans.

Photo by Sean Work

METRO DETROIT — Hugh Smith III, the co-owner of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, said he sifts through hundreds of emails a day from musicians around the country who want to play at his club.

Baker’s is the oldest continuous jazz club in the world at 85 years strong, and Smith said he was groomed by his godfather — the late musician Teddy Harris — on what to listen for when booking acts.

“He trained me in this business — how jazz is played, what improvs are good and which are less than good,” he explained. “Customers come here because of the historical value and the legacy that is Baker’s, so we hire the best entertainment in the country. We sort through (electronic press kits) to find those gems.”

To say that playing a gig in Detroit is a “holy grail” experience for jazz musicians might be a bit strong, Smith said. But is it on the bucket list for most players? You bet.

“I’m a Detroiter, born and raised, so I might be biased, but I think Detroit has the best musicians in the world. If a jazz star didn’t come from Detroit, they certainly hired Detroit musicians to play with them,” he said. “Stevie Wonder brought on (trumpeter) Dwight Adams, a Detroiter, and Aretha F ranklin had an all-Detroit band.”

Paul Howard said his club books more acts from the “up-and-comer” jazz scene. Howard restored Cliff Bell’s club in downtown Detroit in 2006 after the venue, a city staple from 1935 to 1985, sat abandoned for decades.  

“Before it was vacant, this place was a cave-themed nightclub,” Howard said with a laugh. “So we had all of this historic architecture buried under black props. So I would say people come here first for the music, and second for the architecture.”

Howard would say that the Motor City is arguably on par with New Orleans, Chicago and New York City as destination spots for jazz fans. In the 1930s, Detroit was known for its own unique sound and jazz stars, and that tradition never left.

“We’re on the tour route between Cleveland and Chicago for musicians on the Midwest circuit, but there’s a lot of local talent,” Howard said. “A lot of musicians stayed in Detroit to teach at Wayne State University, Oakland University, the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University. We have great music degree programs here, and even in Detroit’s grade schools and high schools, kids are raised learning to play. Detroit makes jazz because of the churches too. Jazz music is the same instruments they grew up hearing in church. So when those kids (grow up), they’re able to stay here and have a career, where maybe 13 years ago they would have to leave the city.”

Cliff Bell’s has live music six days a week, with no fewer than nine unique acts during that time. Baker’s intimate, 99-seat club is packed nearly every night for live music. But there is no shortage of places around town to hear jazz. And just like the crowds that frequent the clubs, the jazz business is about unity, not exclusivity.

“(Musicians) say, ‘I’ve heard the greats play here — I want to play here.’ And audiences respect that legacy,” Smith said. “In here, you’ll see people from every social economic base, from the suburbs to uptown to midtown to downtown. There’s an electricity, and everyone is here for that electricity and that music. There’s no color. There’s no different backgrounds.”

“We’re right down the street from the ballpark, so it’s not uncommon to see a guy in here in a tux sitting next to someone in a ball cap,” Howard said. “We have a great following for our calendar, and it’s a really mixed crowd. I’ve seen three generations in here together: grandparents who remember this place from back in the day — maybe they had been here, maybe they met here — and their grandkids rediscovered it and brought their parents and grandparents along.”


In the mood for some tunes? Check out some of these well-known jazz venues.

• Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit
(313) 345-6300

• Cliff Bell’s
2030 Park Ave., Detroit
(313) 961-2543

• Dirty Dog Jazz Café
97 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe Farms
(313) 882-5299

• Willis Show Bar
4156 Third St., Detroit
(313) 788-7469

• Bert’s Entertainment Complex
2727 Russell St., Detroit
(313) 567-2030

• MotorCity Wine
1949 Michigan Ave., Detroit
(313) 483-7283

• Northern Lights Lounge
660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit
(313) 873-1739

• Café d’Mongo’s Speakeasy
1439 Griswold St., Detroit