So long, Sonny: Jazz and soul food were his instruments for bringing people together

In the '60s, as other cities were exploding in race riots, Quentin "Sonny" Booker saw an opportunity to responsibly voice black and white community concerns.

The co-owner of a Seattle popular jazz club, the Checkmate, set up four chairs on the bandstand — two for black and two for white. He made a rule that nobody could talk from the audience unless they had the courage to come up on stage and publicly air their opinions.

The revolutionary Monday nights on the corner of 23rd and Union became so popular that the Black Panthers and white coffeehouse debaters of the city became regulars.

Times have changed since managing such a raucous crowd, but Booker's love for jazz and organizing events has not.

Working with Interbay Golf Center, Booker's strong ties to the jazz community and his talent for producing creative events have allowed him to host live outdoor summer jazz barbecues every Thursday evening for three years now. The shows have been so popular that parking is scarce those nights.

After being a club owner, entrepreneur, master fencer, jazz musician and property manager, Booker is excited to be getting ready to retire and leave Seattle for a 40-acre ranch in California's San Joaquin Valley with LauraMay Albertson, his wife of 13 years.

In his characteristic slow, understated drawl, he recalls those days at the Checkmate. "Nobody believed it: Blacks and whites talking and drinking and eating soul food together, discussing racial issues over music!"

Beginning of a tradition

At Interbay, happy customers sip drinks in the sunshine. Back in Seattle's strict liquor-law days of the '40s, Booker attended Garfield High School and played trumpet in Seattle's first African-American swing band, The Savoy Boys.

"We were the beginning. Musicians would come and go, but there was no stationary local jazz band: we were it."

Following The Savoy Boys came other Garfield High jazz musicians, including Quincy Jones and bassist Buddy Catlett.

Catlett remembers Booker from when he was 10 years old: "He was the cool guy all the youngsters in the neighborhood looked up to."

Forming its own jazz band in response, Roosevelt High School became The Savoy Boys' first competition. Nearly five decades later, that rivalry is still going strong, with the schools taking first and second place in the nation in a recent competition at New York's Lincoln Center.

A pioneer

Pushing limits and leading the way in Seattle was no new thing for Booker, who was also the first black quarterback on the Garfield football team, one of the first black bartenders in downtown and one of the first black ship waiters.

"On that ship we waited on, they gave us the worst place in the whole dining room, all off in the corner. Boy, did we laugh about that! But, after that, they started hiring black waiters," he chuckles.

A community man by nature, he can recall one amazing story after another. "We used to go over to Ray's (Charles') rooming house, and once he had this saxophone all taken apart on his kitchen table and the parts were all over the place. I never stopped being amazed by that guy: Here was a blind man repadding a saxophone!"

The Checkmate club opened in the '50s when Booker and his co-owners saw Seattle's need for a "decent" jazz joint.

"I'd open up the Monday talk show by showing everyone a bottle of scotch with a picture of a white and a black Scottie dog and say, 'This is a case of blackie and whitie running together.' Then I'd show everyone my fencing swords and say, 'If you can't solve your problems here, you can take these swords and go out in the alley and kill yourselves.' "

Thursday nights at the Interbay Golf Center, Booker works the crowd as he goes around, talking to people individually, making them feel at home. But he recalls harder crowds he managed in the '60s. "One night, I wondered how I could stop the debate before it got out of hand. So I tell one of the waitresses to go put a quarter in the jukebox at 11 o'clock when the thing finished. The music would start playing and we'd look back in the place and everyone would be dancing and drinking like nothing ever happened, and then I could wipe the sweat off my brow and laugh."

The 'mayor' of Interbay

Tonight's show at the Interbay Golf Center will be Booker's last, and everyone is invited.

"It's a jazz barbecue with music and good food that helps the community people relax and get to know each other," says Booker (who also refers to himself as the "self-appointed Interbay mayor").

"All good barbecues have a mayor to come along and say how the food is and kiss the babies. That's what I do."

A local, Booker personally knows all the groups he books.

Tonight's performers include guitarist Brian Nova and his trio, bassist Catlett and drummer Greg Williamson. Booker has played with Nova and Catlett (who played with Count Basie himself), and they shared the same high school.

As Seattle says goodbye to Booker tonight, we know that the man of roots never forgets his roots, either: Besides keeping in touch with the jazz community, Booker still meets with his high-school and grade-school friends.

These contacts are matter-of-fact for him, nothing unusual. "I've really loved my life and cherish the people I get to meet. The ups and downs make it interesting, like music."

Taha Ebrahimi: 206-748-5815 or

Interbay Golf Center BBQ Jazz Night

With Brian Nova, Buddy Catlett and Greg Williamson, 4:30 to 8:30 tonight, 2501 15th Ave. W., Seattle; free, 206-285-2200.