427 Massachusetts Avenue
Boston, MA 02118
Ubiquitous red brick buildings of varying shapes and sizes house virtually everything and anything that’s tried and true in Boston. Wally’s Cafe proves no exception. The long, narrow shoebox of a room sits inconspicuously on the ground floor at 427 Massachusetts Avenue. Only a small sign marks its presence in the row of four-story, turn of the century, attached houses… that is, aside from the late night, sidewalk overflow of patrons. Despite its low profile, Wally’s remains a local hot spot in its 53rd year. How, you may wonder? Because it functions as a hardcore, old school jazz training ground, one of the few left across the U.S. It’s roughly the Beantown equivalent of New York’s Small’s.
When its doors opened for the first time January 1, 1947 as Wally’s Paradise, the club was located across the street at 428 Mass Ave (as Massachussetts Avenue is known to locals). It joined an already burgeoning jazz scene. The neighborhood (centered at the intersection with Columbus Ave) was then home to the High Hat, the Savoy Ballroom, Chicken Lane, the Wig Wam, and the Big M.
Owner Joseph A. Walcott, a.k.a. “Wally” (1897 – 1998), had immigrated from Barbados in 1910 and clearly possessed good business instincts from the get-go: it was from his carefully saved earnings as Boston Mayor James Curley‘s driver that he bought the venue. The mayor even arranged for the lawyer who aided in the establishment’s purchase. Wally became the first African-American to own a nightclub in New England, now the oldest jazz club in the region and the last remaining in the immediate area. Wally’s is still family owned and operated.
Big bands were the mainstay in the early days, but with their gradual decline Wally’s began featuring young, student talent. The club eventually moved to smaller quarters in 1979. Evidently, you can’t downsize paradise; the new locale became known as Wally’s Cafe.
Photo courtesy Wally’s
Thanks to the presence of the Berklee College of Music, the Boston Conservatory, and the New England Conservatory of Music, Beantown was (and still is) loaded with musical talent. While flying under the national jazz radar, Wally’s gave young artists like Roy Hargrove, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Branford Marsalis, Sam Newsome, Danilo Perez, Javon Jackson, Mark Whitfield, Delfeayo Marsalis, and Antonio Hart a place to cut their teeth. The occasional Harvard student, like Joshua Redman or up and coming pianist Aaron Goldberg played there as well.
As Sam Newsome remembers: “When you started at Berklee, Wally’s was the place you were working towards. The best 3rd and 4th year students had the regular gigs there and they didn’t read off of charts like in ensemble class. It forced you to push yourself past what the school expected of you and was more true to life with regard to the actual scene.”
The Wally’s scene certainly remains competitive and the music reflects that: it’s hard, fast, loud, and aggressive. The room practically generates its own heat. Young musicians, when they get brave enough, come to sit in and hope to keep up with their peers. While the Boston area has other jazz clubs – the well-managed Sculler’s presents national talent as does the no-atmosphere Regattabar; Ryles, Johnny D’s, The Lizard Lounge, The Middle East and the House of Blues present jazz part-time – Wally’s is one of the few places left where students get vigorous on-the-job training. As such, Wally’s was likely the single most important venue to the development of the young lions in the 1980s and 90s. If you saw them at Wally’s, you saw them first and that’s something bound to continue into the future.
From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox