Counting in Time to a Legacy: An Interview with Wally’s Café Jazz Club

By Rory Lambert-Wright for Boston Compass

November 2, 2020


When I first visited Wally’s, the only jazz club which I had visited before was Preservation Hall in New Orleans. I noticed that Wally’s and this storied Louisiana institution had several of the same hallmarks: antique newspapers and posters lining the walls, a lack of refurbished surfaces, a low ceiling, and not an inch of wasted space. Boston, however, is not a “Jazz city” by the standards of New Orleans, which has many jazz clubs and legacy spaces. Boston only has one, and this is one of the things that makes Wally’s a unique and valuable institution.

A Black-owned family business and an indispensable artistic space, Wally’s has featured live music practically every night since the year 1947. At a time when many performance spaces are shuttering and in-person shows are practically non-existent, I decided to sit down with owner Elynor L. Walcott-Poindexter to discuss the history of Wally’s, the secrets to its persistence, and how the business is persevering with the challenges of today.


One of the most distinctive things about Wally’s is simply that it is so old. It’s survived where a lot of places haven’t. To what factors would you contribute the longevity of this place?

Elynor: Well, I would attribute it to the hard work of my father, and mother.


And may I have their names, please?

Elynor: Yeah, Mr. Joseph L. Walcott, and Mrs. Ethyl Walcott.


What was their motive for starting the business?

Elynor: They wanted a space where their people could play. I’ll quote my father, He wanted a space for his people.


And that would be the Black community in Boston at large?

Elynor: That’s exactly what he was talking about.


So prior to Wally’s, there weren’t many places for black people to experience black music in a setting like this?

Elynor: No, no. He was the first black person to have a liquor license, and an entertainment license in New England.


I trust it cost substantially less back then?

Elynor: Oh, yes, absolutely. When they started this place it was directly across the street. 426 Mass Avenue. They were renting initially, for awhile. We were over there for forty years, and my father had ownership of the building for more years than he was a renter, and he had to fight for that. But he got it.


What was the reason for moving across the street here?

Elynor: The Boston redevelopment authority took my father’s building by eminent domain in 1979, for the highway they were trying to build through the city at that time. A lot of people, their homes were taken from them on the premise of building this highway. There’s an administrator for the city named Karilyn Crockett who wrote an excellent book about it called “People Before Highways”. People all up Columbus avenue had to get out of their homes.


What were the largest challenges facing Wally’s in its infancy?

Elynor: I remember my father saying one of the largest challenges was the owner of the building, himself. While we were still renting. He’d keep his eye on my father’s business. He [the owner] had a liquor store right next door. And as he watched my father’s business growing, he’d raise his rent! That was a big challenge to my father, he didn’t like it. It was a matter of control.


Wallynewspaper


So as Wally’s grew, say, by the time it had reached this venue, how did these difficulties change?

Elynor: Well, ownership solves a lot of problems. It provided a big, overcoming, shall we say, that is was what enabled them to overcome those challenges. Another challenge was entertainment itself. My father did a lot of work around the business. Big name artists would come for a sit-in, maybe play a little, but at their level? The money that a big name would get for a gig is something that perhaps my father was aspiring to provide, but wasn’t able to do at that time. So he primarily had artists that were extremely talented, but didn’t have the recognition like a Lena Horne.


Any big-ticket names you can remember?

Elynor: Billy Dobson. Billy Dobson had an all-male review of female impersonators. My father was asked to stop after so many shows because everybody was coming to watch, and the line would go all the way down the block. It was more than just live music back when we were across the street, because there was a big, big dance floor, dressing rooms downstairs in the basement- live performance shows. We were mostly married to Jazz, but variety acts would come through as well. We had a lot of these entertainers stay in our house- these were black entertainers, so they couldn’t stay in these hotels. I’ll put it nicely: they weren’t welcome in certain places. So we would have entertainers in our house all the time, I grew up with them. Now, another big act was Butterbeans and Suzy- you can look them up, they were a black comedic act. I got pictures of them, autographed pictures where they say very nice things about my mother and father. I don’t know where exactly they came from, but when they came, they stayed at our house. There were many others- Illinois Jacquet was one. The producer who made Michael Jackson’s Thriller, actually, Quincy Jones came here, when he was still going to Berklee. He would come and sit in at Wally’s. And the Astronaut- the first Black Astronaut, Ron Mcnair, would come sit in when he was at MIT. He died in the challenger shuttle explosion. He played the saxophone, and would come and sit in at Wally’s!


You mentioned Berklee- Young people, students from the college of music frequently play at Wally’s, and I’ve seen many of them perform here. When did Wally’s start connecting with the talent pool of students in the area?

Elynor: Very early. When Wally’s was still across the street, my father would go into the colleges, and built relationships.


Chairsatwallys


You say that ownership and your family’s hard work is what kept this institution alive for so long- what kind of toll does that take on a family whose business isn’t just a means of supporting themselves, but a whole artistic community as well?

Elynor: Well I think… now, is the word “ingratiated”? When you actually receive so much goodness from something?


Like the accolades you get from it?

Elynor: Goodness that you can’t put a dollar figure on. It’s priceless. Priceless. That’s what it did for our family. This hard work, carrying on this history and this legacy of my parents, my son’s grandparents- it’s priceless. And it has kept us together. We live together, we work together. I grew up in this place. My three sons grew up in this place. When my parents bought the place, they brought me in a basket! With a brand new box of salt for the blessings. And here we are today. We’re still here. And we’re still together.


Wallys


I’m very glad to hear that. I want to ask about contemporary challenges due to the pandemic. Obviously there’s no live shows. How are you adapting, and dealing with finances, and the day to day of owning a business that’s prevented from operating? What can the broader community do to support Wally’s at a time like this?

Elynor: Well, what we’ve been doing is working to develop streaming of live music. Which is extremely hard, but we are working on that. As far as this Covid-19 is concerned, it’s been very painful for Wally’s and the family. Because we didn’t cause it. We had to shut down Wally’s on March 15th, 2020. And we haven’t been open to the public since. It’s painful. That’s my description. Painful emotionally. Painful fiscally. But we’re gonna persevere. No matter how painful it gets. We gonna persevere. By any means necessary. That’s a quote.


I’ll put it in the article for sure. Now—“by any means necessary”, is that Malcolm X?

Elynor: Malcolm X. And we’re in that autobiography, page three hundred-something! We’re in that book.


The Boston Compass does a lot of work with young artists. As a person with generations of experience with talented artists, what would you say to a young artist who might want to perform at Wally’s?

Elynor: Just show up! Show up at Wally’s!


Where do you see Wally’s in the next ten to twenty years? Do you have aspirations to expand, or do you want to preserve the legacy of this physical space?

Elynor: Where I see Wally’s? Staying right here, in this space, and expanding to the space next door. My father bought both these buildings.

Follow Wally's Cafe Jazz Club @wallyscafejazzclub


—Rory Lambert-Wright

www.asperitasphotography.com

Interview conducted October 20th, 2020


This piece was made possible through the Boston Arts and Culture Covid-19 Relief Fund. Thank you for supporting our local writers and creators!