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Alamo City Jazz History: Remembering the Keyhole Club 

click to enlarge CARLOS AGUILAR
  • Carlos Aguilar
Finding a local jazz club featuring a cookin’ combo playing to a diverse crowd of enthusiastic jazz fans is not a hard find these days in San Antonio. Between Luna uptown, Carmens de la Calle downtown, and the Pearl’s Jazz, TX, jazz is hot and plentiful. You might think this is a new trend in the Alamo City. But, you’d be surprised.

San Antonio’s jazz club history goes back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when territory bands from Kansas City to New Orleans filled the roadways. While many might remember the Eastwood Country Club as a hallmark of music history, there is another juke joint that led the way for jazz (and much more) in San Antonio: Don Albert’s Keyhole Club.

The original location at Pine and Iowa on the city’s Eastside was founded in 1944 by Louisiana native and jazz trumpeter Don Albert. Albert, born in New Orleans in 1908, made his way to Texas playing in regional bands, namely with San Antonian Troy Floyd as early as 1926. A 2012 transcript of Riverwalk Jazz with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band revealed that in the 1930s, you could have tuned in to WOAI to catch Don Albert & His Ten Pals, live! Adding to the club’s statewide notoriety, the Keyhole was featured in the 1947 film Juke Joint, directed by Spencer Williams.

The musical landscape of the region was a hybrid of New Orleans jazz, big band and swing, R&B and Texas blues. In a 2013 essay titled “Talk to Me: The Story Of San Antonio’s West Side Sound,” historian and soul collector Alex LaRotta wrote that bands traveling throughout the Southwest by way of the Chitlin’ Circuit made San Antonio a destination, largely due to Don’s Keyhole Club.

Albert’s connection to jazz as a trumpet player provided him access to popular touring bands. It has been widely noted that Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Louis Jordan and His Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Slam Stewart and Louis Armstrong all performed at the original Keyhole Club. In addition to jazz bands, the Keyhole (open nightly for dancing), featured a wide variety of local acts. The original Keyhole Club closed in 1948.

A second location was established in 1950 on Poplar street. Once again, Albert continued to bring legendary jazz players to the Keyhole Club, including Zoot Sims, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. Legendary Eastside saxophonist and resident musician in the Keyhole’s Wilmer Shakesnider Band, Spot Barnett shared with me that, “In 1955, [the Keyhole] was very nightclubish. What I mean by that is that it was strictly after hours. I was a college student then. We would get started at 10 p.m. and end at 3 or 4 a.m., so you know ….” Barnett’s sweet laughter lights up our conversation. “It was about half the size of the Eastwood Country Club and could hold a couple hundred people. The Keyhole was good music, good food, good service and a helluva show!”

The legendary talent that visited San Antonio and the Keyhole is enough to put Don Albert in the history books. There is no doubt that the club brought awareness to the city as a beacon of jazz throughout the Southwest. But there’s more to the story and more to Don Albert.

Don Albert’s Keyhole Club was an integrated nightclub (unofficially). The social landscape of the Southwest in the 1940s and 1950s was still heavily segregated. Yet, by all accounts, the Keyhole was an exception — open to patrons from all walks of life. A civil lawsuit in the 1950s resulted in a win for Don Albert, who made sure the club would continue its integrated policy until it closed.

Today, it’s not uncommon for people to express with pride that San Antonio is a diverse and culturally mixed city. Our arts and creative community represent this diversity. A visit to a jazz club very much reflects this sense of inclusion, as do most bands and bandstands throughout the city.

Here’s proof that San Antonio is and has always been a progressive city and not one on the rise, but well-established and already risen. It is a city where jazz has been thriving for decades. One need only look back to Don Albert and the Keyhole Club.

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