It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night on Massachusetts Avenue and Wally’s Café is already at capacity of 99 people. A group of about ten twenty-somethings wearing trendy sneakers and perfectly distressed jeans wait anxiously outside the chipped red door blocked by a large African-American man, who lets two people out and another two in.
Inside it’s dark. The tiny place is packed; men and women guard their mate’s barstools, because a open seat at Wally’s is hard to come by. Black-and-white photos of long-gone jazz legends line the exposed brick wall parallel to an elongated bar that stretches from the to the stage. The four-piece ensemble is already playing on the barely-elevated stage—an amber-red drum set, a golden Les Paul guitar, a brassy sax, and a hefty double bass are all tenderly plucked and pounded on in ten-minute improvisation jazz tunes all while submerged in moody red lighting.
Sitting dead center at the bar, is a young well-manicured man wearing a dark wool tuxedo jacket with a stiff, pale pink shirt collar peeping out, head swaying, toes tapping.The bar’s younger patrons, dressed in ripped jeans and sneakers, also swing and drum to the twisting jazz grooves.
The owner and manager, Frank Poindexter, flutters down a white paper napkin before carefully placing the dapper man’s cocktail in front of him “There are not that many places in Boston where there is so much nostalgia there, and a lot of people want to be part of that,” says Poindexter. “ Wally’s is an American story.”
Wally’s has truly become a living link to Boston’s jazz heyday. At the time, the South End was home to predominantly African-American families and was the premier scene for Boston’s introduction to jazz music. Neighborhood nightclubs included the High Hat, Savoy Ballroom, Chicken Lane, Wig Wam, and Storyville (none which are in business today.).
Poindexter’s grandfather, Joseph “Wally” Walcott, founded “Wally’s Paradise” in 1934 at 428 Massachusetts Avenue. He was a Barbadian immigrant who started the jazz club with the help City Council President Gabriel Piemonte and Mayor James M. Curley, both of whom he grew up with in Boston’s West End. Walcott founded the club because while African-Americans were permitted to perform in nightclubs, they were not allowed to attend. Walcott was the first African-American nightclub owner in New England. “He wanted to open a place where all kind of people can come together for live jazz music—black, white, whatever,” Poindexter states.
Walcott would hand out fliers to college students from the area’s universities, to help bring the jazz scene to the white community. Walcott hosted world-renowned jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, and Billie Holiday. By the 1960s, Walcott decided to recruit younger jazz musicians from neighboring universities like Berklee School of Music, Boston Conservatory, and New England Conservatory to play alongside jazz veterans. “The jam sessions started off with the old guys teaching the young guys, and now since the old guys are really not around, the young guys get in there and do it themselves.” In 1979, Walcott moved his booming nightclub across the street to 427 Massachusetts Avenue, renaming it “Wally’s Café.”
But Wally’s relocation wasn’t the only change it has undergone. Michael Quinlin, founder of Mass Jazz, says the decline of Jazz in the South End in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a natural result of the gentrification of the South End. “There wasn’t a new audience for jazz at that time in the South End…a lot of the African-American families were replaced with younger, educated students and professionals.”
“For Wally’s to sustain itself through those natural changes is a real tribute to the Poindexter family who kept it alive,” Quinlin says. Poindexter says part of why the institution survived is the influx of music students into the city each year. “The top young musicians in the world come here to get educated, and they’re gonna need a place to play. Wally’s is one of those places where they can develop their talent.” According to Quinlin, young people love to go to Wally’s because “it’s a hip place where you get a taste of what Boston is about and what it was about. “This place is a legitimate jazz establishment, and it’s really proactive that they give students an opportunity develop into the next generation of jazz legends,” Lauren Fisher, a Wally’s first-time visitor notes.
The jazz audience and musical taste have altered over the years. “It comes down to this, the demographic of people who really enjoy jazz now are not the same as the original Wally’s crowd which was mostly African-American,” Poindexter notes. “Jazz is just not as popular with the younger generation of African-Americans, they’re listening to hip-hop and stuff like that.”
Jamaica Plain resident, 49-year-old Peter Brown, whose parents introduced him to Wally’s because they frequented the music venue when they were young; now he has been coming to Wally’s for over 25 years. He says the spot was once a “hidden jewel,” and the level of music hasn’t changed. “They [the musicians] are masters of their craft. They should be on a record somewhere.” Brown also says the crowd includes genuine jazz aficionados, “Everyone in the crowd knows what song they’re playing. It’s people that know jazz inside and out.”
Wally’s has evolved, but remains a New England landmark institution that is dedicated to provide live jazz music 365 days a year. Tonight is no different. “One of the beautiful things about Wally’s is that as long as you like good jazz, you’re very welcome there…it’s got a word-of mouth reputation that goes beyond the confines of Boston,” says Quinlin. Tonight a white Berklee student’s fingers dance up and down the neck of the Les Paul, while a Middle Eastern student from Boston Conservatory tugs away at the double bass, an Asian man wails away on his sax, and a black student bangs away at the drums. “We’ve carved out some space in different people’s minds, Poindexter says. “People who really appreciate live jazz wanna hear young kids and keep the art form alive. People go there just so they can say they went to Wally’s.”