We’re So Grateful Wally’s Café Jazz Club Still Exists

There are legends and there are legends. This South End live music nook is the latter—a 77-year-old family-run italicized legend that's truly the best of Boston's best.

Frank Poindexter, the grandson of original Wally’s owner Joseph “Wally” Walcott, who runs the jazz club’s daily operations with his brothers. / Photo by Pat Piasecki.


Wally’s Café Jazz Club

There are legends and there are legends. Wally’s Café Jazz Club is the latter—a 77-year-old family-run italicized legend. Billie Holiday performed there. So did fellow American jazz greats Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakeley. One of the first racially integrated venues in the region, the South End venue was the first New England nightclub owned by a Black man, Joseph “Wally” Walcott, a Barbadian immigrant and first Black recipient of a liquor license in Boston. More recently, Grammy-winning vocalist Esperanza Spalding and Mark Kelley, bassist for the Roots, cut their chops on Wally’s stage. As the trumpeter Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah told Boston in 2021, “Wally’s is a monument.”

Opened in 1947 under the name Wally’s Paradise, the Mass. Ave. venue originally sat across the street until 1978, when the city took over its location by eminent domain. The following year, Walcott relocated his namesake club to its present digs. Walcott died in 1998 at the age of 101, but except for a COVID-induced hiatus, his family has kept the club open 365 days a year ever since.

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Joseph “Wally” Walcott at the bar of the club he founded in 1947. / Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Located within walking distance of Berklee and the New England Conservatory, Wally’s has always been an incubator for local talent. “As new musicians come into the schools around here, they’re told by the professors, ‘Go down and play Wally’s, and work on your craft,’” says Walcott’s grandson Frank Poindexter, who runs daily operations with his brothers, Paul and Lloyd, while their mother, who is Wally’s legal owner, handles administrative tasks. “It’s a place where you can do that. It’s a safe environment.”

It’s also a welcoming environment, a neighborhood bar that, despite its legacy, lacks all pretension. The kind of playfield-leveling space where conversation comes easily, social and economic hierarchies dissolve, and nobody’s allowed to act a fool. All of which make Wally’s a draw for celebrities. One night, Kayak cofounder Paul English brought Bill Murray, who danced and cavorted merrily; another time, English brought ’80s pop singer Taylor Dayne, who did an impromptu rendition of “Feel Like Makin’ Love” with the musicians on stage. Phylicia Rashad has come by, according to Poindexter, and the cast of The Wire. Blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi, who’s from Norwell, and her Southern-rocker husband Derek Trucks has been and playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005, was a regular. Poindexter says, “Over the years, there’s a whole bunch of people that have come through.”

A scene from Wally’s early years. / Photo courtesy of Wally’s Cafe

Talking with Poindexter, it’s apparent—and deeply heartening—that his family sees Wally’s as not just a business but a social commitment and a community service. “We’re proud of being able to help young musicians and bring some pleasure to people,” he says. “People might be having a bad day…and they can come listen to a band, and it’ll soothe them.”

For the Poindexter family, Wally’s isn’t just one of the last-remaining stewards of a jazz-club tradition, but it’s a model of long-term cooperation. “We want to set an example that it’s possible for families to stick together, to have an endeavor, and to have the patience and fortitude to stay in an endeavor and be able to see the good things that come out of that,” Poindexter explains. Good things like the value of third-space community, or as Poindexter puts it, “Things that can contribute to American society.”

Photo by Pat Piasecki.

In other words, after nearly 80 years in operation, with nine Best of Boston awards (including this year’s) to its name, there’s still something truly magical about Wally’s. “That’s why we keep doing what we’re doing,” Poindexter says. “To create a story that can last a generation or two or three.”

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero@bostonmagazine.com.

A version of this story first ran in the print edition of Boston’s July 2024 issue, as part of the Best of Boston 50: Arts & City Life package.

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