Coop’s Records owner Ezell Cooper, South Side store owner and ‘jazzologist,’ dead at 89
Rick Wojcik, owner of the Dusty Groove record store, called him ‘a legend.’ He carried all musical genres, but his specialty was jazz.
Ezell Cooper had a sign outside one of his record stores proclaiming “IF IT’S NOT AT COOP’S. . . IT’S NOT OUT!”
He offered all kinds of records at Coop’s, but Mr. Cooper’s specialty earned him a nickname: “The Jazzologist.”
Mr. Cooper, 89, who’d been in declining health, died Dec. 23 at Jesse Brown VA Center, according to his son Pierre Cooper.
Long before people routinely found music via Spotify and Google, “People would come from all over town” to his stores to find the music they loved, his son said. “They’d go, ‘Doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo doo,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, that’s Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue.’ ”
People waiting for a bus would come inside and get lost in the bins.
“They would come in and buy music,” his son said, “and then they would miss the bus.”
Mr. Cooper started in the music business in the 1960s. He worked in the warehouse for Mr. T’s record shop before moving on to its store near 87th Street and Stony Island Avenue, according to his son. In the 1980s, he bought the store and named it Coop’s Records. He later expanded and also operated two more Coop’s stores, at 87th Street and Ashland Avenue and at 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue.
His stores were magnets not only for jazz enthusiasts but also for students from Chicago Vocational High School and the University of Chicago.
“They’d ask him, ‘What is that you’re playing, Mr. Cooper?’ ” his son said. “He would give them a history lesson. He could tell them, ‘Well, I saw Miles Davis in 1971.’ Or: ‘I saw Gene Ammons,’ And he could tell you what they were playing and be able to critique the concert. He would make recommendations on what they should be listening to.”
In 1996, Billboard magazine described Coop’s as “more like a barbershop than a record store . . . where longtime patrons routinely discuss such diverse topics as the weather, finances, politics or everyone’s love: music.”
Pierre Cooper eventually opened Coop’s Underground in the storefront next to Coop’s at 87th Street and Stony Island Avenue, stocking it with techno, house, hip-hop and rap.
Mr. Cooper was born in Memphis, Tenn., attended Manassas High School and studied English at LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically Black college. He learned to type fast, a skill he used while serving in the Army in Germany and Italy, according to his daughter Karen.
After heading north in the Great Migration, Mr. Cooper worked at the Hillman’s grocery store at State Street and Washington Street.
Once he started operating his shops, he and his friend Alvin Carter-Bey would go on road trips to replenish the bins, hunting for jazz treasures at estate sales and tiny record stores in places like Detroit, Memphis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.
Mr. Cooper was “a legend on the South Side,” said Rick Wojcik, owner of the Dusty Groove record store. “He was part of this unique group of people who would get together in a garage in an alley near 51st and St. Lawrence. They would have battles playing jazz records.”
“We were called the ‘Alley Cats,’ ” said Carter-Bey, a radio host on WDCB-90.9 FM.
For decades, the DJs would gather on Sundays at the garage of Pops, “an older guy who smoked cigars,” Carter-Bey said.
In addition to “Coop,’’ Wojcik said the other DJs were known by names like Butterball, Big Henry, Clydell, King Rip, Killer Joe, Big O, Little Earl, Lil Mike, Playboy, Raindrop, Sarge, Syl and Sly Fox.
They’d tote their own speakers and turntables to battles, where “they’d use the best equipment,” Carter-Bey said. “They would spend thousands of dollars on needles.”
One competitor brought coffin-shaped speakers that he made himself.
The crowd rated them by points. Participants lost points if they placed a needle in the middle of a track instead of at the beginning. They’d be judged on the entertainment of their presentation and their records.
“A favorite was Ella Fitzgerald, with her scatting, and Count Basie,” Carter-Bey said.
Winners collected money from a passed hat.
In his later years, Mr. Cooper helped Wojcik at the Dusty Groove. When his memory began to falter, he faithfully continued to call the shop to say he wouldn’t be able to come in that day. In a sign of fondness and respect, Wojcik and his workers always thanked Mr. Cooper for his call and assured him he could come in when he felt better.
Mr. Cooper also is survived by daughters Olivia and Sue and sons Clifton, Godfrey, Orlando, Paul, Alonzo and Nathaniel, nine grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
His family hopes to have a memorial service this spring at which they’ll play jazz.