By Mel Watkins
During the late 1960s and early 70s, just as the Civil Rights Movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, jazz thrived in Lower Manhattan and the Greenwich Village area. Since then, many of the era’s most fondly remembered clubs—among them, Slugs on the Lower East Side, Bradley’s on University Place, the Half Note, and Village Vanguard in the West Village—have been celebrated in the press. More often than not, however, Boomers, one of the era’s most colorful and unusual jazz spots, has been overlooked.
The club opened in 1969 when Stanley Cohen, a local lawyer who was active in the Village Independent Democrats, asked Bob Cooper, a black musician and chef, to take over a failing neighborhood bar/restaurant at 340 Bleecker Street between Christopher and 10th Streets. Cooper took control of the restaurant’s day-to-day operation, revamping and setting up the kitchen and menu, and the restaurant was reopened as Boomers. Shortly afterward, live music was introduced, and Aubrey De Souza (an account executive at Mademoiselle magazine who later served on the Board of Directors for the New York Jazz Museum) and I (at the time an editor and writer for the New York Times Sunday Book Review) were recruited to assist in the operation.
The club’s reputation swelled when piano legend Bobby Timmons began appearing regularly, in effect becoming the resident pianist, and New York Times restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov gave the new soul food menu a rave review. By the early 1970s, Boomers had emerged as one of the most popular jazz clubs and eateries in Greenwich Village.
With the ferment of the era’s Black Arts Movement as backdrop and the fact that it was the only black-operated club in the Village, Boomers quickly became a hotspot for African-American activists, performers, and celebrities. Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Lou Gossett, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Cosby, were among the musicians and performers who frequently showed up to hang out at the bar or gather at a table for dinner. And many of those guests would set in with the musicians playing that night; when she dropped by the club with former Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes, for example, Nancy Wilson joined Timmons’ Trio for an impromptu performance.
Playwrights and writers Ed Bullins, Charles Gordone, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Ishmael Reed, and James Baldwin were among those who stopped by for food, music, and lively political and literary discussions. And regulars like director Gordon Parks, Jr. and future mayor David Dinkins could be seen socializing with aspiring young politicians as well as luminaries ranging from literary figures to sports stars such as Earl “The Pearl” Monroe or Walt “Clyde” Frazier to members of the Negro Ensemble Company such as actor and co-founder Robert Hooks.
But Boomers was also at the forefront of an expanding, increasingly integrated West Village social scene. Activist Bella Abzug and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark (on occasion accompanied by his friend, Marlon Brando) were frequent visitors. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who lived nearby, often stopped by for afternoon cocktails. The diverse racial setting was varied enough to permit the club to both host a weekly literary soiree organized by Columbia University Professor Frank MacShane and provide the setting for nightclub scenes in Gordon Park Jr.’s gritty 1972 Blaxploitation film Super Fly. Its unique atmosphere aside, however, music was the element that most distinguished Boomers.
Initially, the club presented duos, usually featuring piano and bass; later, relaxed cabaret laws permitted booking larger groups. Post-bop or hard jazz trios and quartets led by artists such as Timmons, Roland Hanna, Cedar Walton, Richard “Groove” Holmes, George Coleman, Junior Mance, Charlie Mingus, and Charles McPherson were the musical mainstays. But the club offered an eclectic musical array that also showcased avant-garde musicians like Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, vocalists and blues artists such as Irene Reid, Betty Carter, and Etta Jones, and fusion jazz musicians like Joe Beck and David Sanborn.
During the mid-1970s, Les Davis broadcast live concerts on WRVR radio from Boomers, and several live albums were recorded at the club. Max Gordon (Village Vanguard) and Art D’Lugoff (Village Gate) were among the Village club owners who stopped in to evaluate and recruit artists for their own venues. And group leaders like Art Blakey came by to check out new talent. On one such occasion, according to saxophonist Dave Schnitter, after Blakey sat in with him during a session at Boomers, the legendary drummer asked Schnitter to join the Jazz Messengers.
In terms of both its anticipation and promotion of an emerging, more integrated social environment and its contribution to an African-American musical tradition that embraced both jazz and the blues, Boomers established a reputation as a unique venue. And from 1969 until its closing in 1977, it just may have been, as the late piano great Cedar Walton maintained, “The hippest jazz club in New York.”