Originally published in Earshot Jazz July 2012
“Welcome to my living room,” says Craig Baker. Nestled in a tree lined courtyard in downtown Bellevue, this “living room” is the newest incarnation of Baker’s live music venue. It features 18 foot tall windows, a grand piano, and seats 100 guests. Bake’s Place reopened for business in May to sold out crowds.
About 14 years ago, Baker wanted to open a club. He had loved singing in a professional rock band during his school years but life had taken him far from his youthful passion. Listening to local jazz performers turned him around. He first considered buying the Odd Fellows Hall on Leary Way in Redmond, but lack of parking convinced him to keep looking.
Rather than jump in with a big investment, he decided to start slowly. Baker’s east side home had a piano and an empty basement. Why not practice running a live music venue with no overhead? He licensed his home as a bed and breakfast to get the business off the ground. Tuesday night music performances led to weekends with catered food service. Guests responded to the warm atmosphere and intimate performances. Eventually, audiences filled a covered outdoor patio that accommodated 200.
When business success demanded a professional kitchen and commercial location, Bake’s Place migrated to Providence Point at the southern end of Lake Sammamish. Performing artists included Freddie Cole, Jessica Williams, Jovino Santos Neto, and Greta Matassa. This year, in search of additional seating, expanded hours, and convenient location, Baker and his wife Laura moved their operation to 155 108th Avenue NE in Bellevue, just blocks from downtown hotels and apartment towers.
“There is no comparison to the previous versions,” says singer Dee Daniels, who performed in all of Baker’s venues and opened the current location. “The house was cozy and Providence Point had divided sight lines. This is way to the tenth power. It’s a performer’s dream.”
Comfort, class, and quality sound were designed into the space. Originally an odd shaped office space on the ground floor of the Columbia West residential tower, Baker envisioned several alternative renovations with Steve Erickson of SABArchitects. Where could a kitchen be added? Would moving the stairway improve the flow? What should the bar feel like? Should there be booths? Where is the best location for a stage? What configuration offers the best sight lines? What can be done to make sure live music sounds fantastic? “It’s not a bar that has music,” explains Baker. “It’s a performance venue.”
The trapezoid shape of the room helps diffuse sound waves but Baker knew this was not enough. “I didn’t want a curtain behind the stage,” said Baker. “We looked at recording studios for ideas.” Constructing louvers would be too expensive. Baker pointed at a sample of white material with deep wavy grooves in Erickson’s office and asked, “What’s that?” The panel was made from layers of gypsum and glass fiber. Multiple panels fit together to create a sculptural wall perfect for diffusing sound. The product line comes from ModularArts in Ballard. Baker chose a pattern called Burle because it has the highest sound diffusion. The entire wall behind the stage is covered with these interlocking panels that function both acoustically and aesthetically.
To deal with low frequencies, a dense stage construction vents to the rear of the platform. Running the width of the stage, a bass trap looks like a low wall. It is covered with cloth and sandwiches about 10 inches of insulation and air.
This design keeps the sound warm and clear from a whisper to a wail. A digital mixing board and surround speaker system deliver clean sound reinforcement. As with all design, when it’s good you don’t notice it. So when you listen at Bake’s Place, close your eyes and ask yourself, “Have I ever heard live music sound like this?”
And when your eyes open, everything you see puts you at ease – dark wood tables, leather upholstered chairs, earth toned carpet, intimate lighting. “Music is a format for meditation,” Baker says. “It’s healing and uplifting.”
To have the complete Bake’s experience, try something from the menu. Executive Chef Chris Peterson, formerly at Café Campagne, Bis on Main, and Milagro Cantina, offers great flavors with minimal fuss. During opening weekend, several friends of Dee Daniels sought her out after the show. “The first thing out of their mouth was, ‘The food was so good,’” said Daniels. “The food was off the hook.”
All the ingredients for a great music club come together for the potential of magic. But the secret recipe is created by the performing artists on stage. Occasionally, a spontaneous mix of musicians takes the evening to another level. During the Bellevue Jazz Festival, Jovino Santos Neto’s Quarteto was joined by members of organist Booker T. Jones’ band. The following evening, Lary Barilleau’s group added flautist Hubert Laws and his ensemble.
“Jazz has an element of class,” says Baker. But Bake’s Place is “not just a jazz club.” He books a variety of genres into the room – blues, jazz, funk, folk, and rock. Baker hopes to attract audiences of 75 on weeknights and turn the room for each set on weekends.
Although Baker went to school in Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management, opening a music club took a leap of faith. Jazz pianist George Wein wrote in his autobiography, “I knew almost nothing about running a business. I just held my breath and jumped into the treacherous waters—hoping that I would stay afloat.” Wein’s club Storyville was a haven for jazz in Boston for a decade. Then he went on to found the Newport Jazz Festival.
Running a club is a big commitment but audiences don’t recognize how much the owner has on the line. After 77 years, Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in New York is the oldest jazz club still in existence. “Some people seem surprised that the Vanguard has an owner,” Gordon said in his autobiography. “I know what they mean. Half the time I feel as though the place owns me.” Gordon’s wife Lorraine took over after he passed in 1989 and continues to manage the landmark venue.
Bake’s Place has survived 14 years in 3 locations. Can it last? “The clubs that do make it over long periods of time,” wrote jazz chronicler Nat Hentoff, “are those you fall into even when you’re not sure who’s there that night. You trust whoever runs the joint to have enough self-respect to have booked a performer with class.”
Visit https://www.bakesplacebellevue.com/ to read more about Bake's Place.