Wally's Cafe: The South End’s Relic Of America’s Jazz Age
BOSTON — The South End used to be the jazz haven of Boston. African-Americans began moving into the neighborhood during the first half of the 20th century, bringing with them a strong jazz influence that permeated the nightclubs and bars in the area. Wally’s Cafe is one of the last relics of this era.
Heading down Mass. Ave. past the five-story Victorian brownstones, its easy-to-miss red door is tucked away behind the tall staircases that line the street. A small, black sign spells out “Wally’s Cafe” with carvings of jazz musician caricatures underneath. The brackets attaching the sign to the dark, brick brownstone discreetly form the shape of a saxophone.
Opening the door, you get a glimpse of what Joseph Walcott imagined when he opened the jazz club, formerly called Wally’s Paradise, in 1947—a venue that would feature the big names in jazz while offering a stage for local students to practice and learn their craft.
Today, though the venue has moved across the street to 427 Mass. Ave., it maintains its mission with daily afternoon jam sessions and performances from professionals or local students every night of the year. Things have changed a bit though.
An all-girl band is playing a jazz-funk fusion jam and no one is wearing a suit or feather in their hat. The band, GWC & Common Thread, with members hailing from countries around the world and states across the U.S., met at Berklee College of Music where they are currently studying. On Wednesday nights, they come down to Wally’s to play.
In a medley of constant improvisation, friends jump on stage adding an instrument to their existing ensemble including a vocalist and musicians playing a trombone, saxophone, the bongos, a keyboard, drums, bass and guitar. It’s a neverending song that floats across the changes throughout the night. People applaud from time to time as the music changes from upbeat funk to more somber jazz and soul.
The bar was empty until 9 p.m. sharp when it filled to near capacity, as it does most nights. The narrow venue packs strangers side by side at the small tables along the bar. The crowd mimics a college brochure—albeit with a wider age range. An evenly mixed black and white audience shows up, a mix that is unrivaled in this city. College students having a drink sit alongside middle-aged men who come in just to listen to the new acts. People dressed to the nines stop in the bar for a drink while on a date. Sixty people fill the dark, brick bar. A converted Pac Man game acts as a table in the corner.
Behind the bar is Frank Poindexter, tall and dressed with a neatly pressed button down shirt and nice slacks. He is the great grandson of Joseph Walcott, who immigrated to Boston from Barbados in 1910. In 1947, Mr. Walcott, known as Wally, opened Wally’s Paradise—the first jazz club in New England owned by an African-American.
The venue featured some of the greats—from Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday to Art Blakey. After the big band era died down, Wally brought in students from Berklee and other local music schools to keep the live performances going through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Poindexter says.
Today, Wally’s is one of the oldest, continuously running jazz clubs in Boston. Frank and his two brothers now manage the bar, keeping the same ideas of providing students a stage to practice on while featuring some professional acts.
“It’s a training ground for musicians,” Poindexter says. “It’s a nice responsibility to have. It’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.”
Today, student groups playing at Wally’s mostly come from Berklee, Harvard and Boston University. Jazz is a great base line for students, he says. Learning jazz music gives students the ability to play other genres and it appeals to a lot of listeners.
“We’re about providing a floor for musicians and for other people to come and enjoy. For people to come and see these musicians progress in their craft,” he says.
It’s a whole new industry today, Poindexter says. They’ve had multiple recent Grammy winners come through the hall of Wally’s, from Esperanza Spalding to Jeff Bhasker, who wrote for Kanye West and Lady Gaga. But these aren’t the same type of professionals his grandfather would feature.
Jazz clubs no longer line the blocks around the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Mass. Ave. But with Wally’s Cafe and The Beehive in the South End, The Regattabar in Cambridge, and Scullers Jazz Club in Allston, jazz is still part of Boston’s music scene.
This is just another “part of the evolving American story,” Poindexter says.