Updated: Aug 16
Opened in 1961, Big Bill’s Bar showed the best of Asbury Park nightlife. Converted from a Hampton Inn, Bill Sanders, also known as “Big Bill,” opened an elegant nightclub featuring great jazz and popular foods like corn bread, yams, and pound cake. His lounge attracted clientele from Philadelphia and New York not just for the great soul food but also because it acted as a hub for musical artists in the area. Featuring performers such as Sam Pugh’s trio, the Soul Sisters, Faye Adams, and Floyd Lang, musician Cliff Johnson reminisces about the nightclub, saying: “From that point on, all the way down to Main Street, music was everywhere.” Big Bill and his Bar were the heart and soul of Asbury’s West Side.
Big Bill was the eldest of eight brothers and sisters and was born in 1926 in deeply segregated Walterboro, South Carolina. As the eldest in the family, he had the responsibility of looking after his siblings and his mother. At the age of 17, Big Bill was drafted to serve in the segregated US Navy during World War II and was deployed to Okinawa. After serving in the military, he moved to Asbury Park with his family in 1946, working at the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital for a total of sixteen years, around the time he opened Big Bill’s Bar.
Besides the patronage of music, Big Bill also tried to play an active role in the community. Converting his parking lot into a basketball court, Bill hosted a Shore Summer Basketball League game, drawing a large crowd to watch. This, done at a time of instability within the town, shows the efforts Big Bill took to bring the community together, creating a space for people of all ages to relax, and have fun. In fact, the New York Times recognized Big Bill as one of the founders of the Jersey Shore Basketball League which still exists today.
While Big Bill’s Bar survived the unrest seen in Asbury Park’s West Side in 1970, sadly, in 1973, 12 years after its opening, Big Bill’s Bar burned down in a fire. Starting in the kitchen, employees attempted to put the fire out for 15 minutes and then rang the alarm. While luckily nobody was hurt in the fire, the ceiling of the building collapsed. Though this marked the end for Big Bill’s Bar, Bill Sanders’ effect on Asbury Park, its community, and the music scene lasted many years past the nightclub’s closing. Sadly, Big Bill passed away on September 10, 2021 at the age of 95 in San Francisco. To learn more about Big Bill’s Lounge, check out this link: https://create.passitdown.com/present/5e861cd2802f1730d242e9c9/david/story/5e869594802f1730d242f28e
— written by Ahan Iyer
About the Author
Hi! I’m Ahan Iyer, a high school student from Holmdel, New Jersey. My interests include playing the oboe, jazz and chess. I’m a classically trained oboist, but have become interested in exploring various aspects of jazz, including jazz history and jazz composition for the oboe. Apart from exploring the jazz oboe, I play and teach chess. I’m currently working on a research project where I analyze data sets to find patterns that help us understand the wider influences that jazz has globally.