Wally’s Jazz Cafe Defies Gentrification

Wally's, an historic jazz spot in Boston's South End. (Photo courtesy Wally's Cafe)

By Sylvie Stoloff

The South End on a Saturday night can be summed up in one word: bustling. Chic new restaurants spring up frequently along the trendy streets of Tremont and Washington, attracting the city’s most adventurous young adult crowd with candlelit outdoor seating and valet parking.

But a few blocks away, a different kind of crowd forms a queue along Massachusetts Avenue, lining up outside the entrance to the ground level of a residential brownstone. From inside it drift the smooth, nostalgic melodies of jazz, echoing a seemingly forgotten era of South End history–the era when this very street was the hub of a vibrant and nationally-renowned jazz scene.

This venue is none other than Wally’s Jazz Cafe, one of the oldest family owned and operated jazz clubs in existence, and the first African-American owned nightclub in New England, according to jazzboston.org. It has featured the great legends of jazz music–Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, even Billie Holiday.

Founded in 1947 by Barbadian immigrant Joseph L. Walcott, Wally’s is now run by his daughter Elynor Walcott with the help of her three sons.

However, Wally’s is now known not only for its musical accomplishments, but for a distinction slightly bittersweet: it is considered the last remainder of the South End’s jazz heydey. On a street once dominated by the strong cultural presence of dozens of similar jazz clubs, Wally’s now stands alone as the only extant club to have witnessed Boston’s jazz scene at its peak.

It thrives now as a testament to the survival of a cultural element that has been pushed aside at the expense of urban development.

Wally’s is no doubt a central part of its neighborhood’s past, which it increasingly resembles as the neighborhood undergoes demographic shifts. The South End was once the heart of Boston’s black community. As of 2010, however, the neighborhood was 49.5% white, according to Census records. And while it still remains relatively diverse, an increase in its white population and simultaneous decrease in black residents points to an influx of the loaded term “gentrification,” especially since the population of whites in Boston as a whole has declined during the same time period. Rising property values correspond to these changes.

This gentrification is reflected in the neighborhood’s culture, as exemplified by the current conversion of two historically Black churches into luxury condos.

Yet Wally’s manages to keep its portion of the South End’s history alive.

“Wally’s hasn’t changed, only the neighborhood has,” said owner Elynor Walcott. Although the clientele has changed, she added, Wally’s is still “quite a landmark.”

“People who were born and raised here who come back home, they look for Wally’s, and it’s always there,” she said.

Walcott attributes this success to her family’s ties to the neighborhood.

“The people that own and operate it were born into it and raised up into it,” she says. “That’s one factor that has kept Wally’s here.”

In 2011, the Walcotts were honored with the Jazz Journalists Association’s “Jazz Heroes Award,” presented to advocates of jazz who have had “significant impact in their local communities.”

Wally’s was commended for providing young musicians the opportunity to play at this self-proclaimed “musicians’ training ground,” which has played a large role in integrating the South End community.

“Wally’s is an important link between the academic world and the real world,” said Eric Gould, chair of Jazz Composition at the Berklee College of Music. “The location and affordability of Wally’s remove the cost barriers that often make jazz inaccessible to communities.”

And Wallys’ community is thankful for that. Recently, musician Warren Wolf released a track called “427” after Wallys’ address, in honor of the place where he, and many before him, got his start.

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