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A club supreme

Melony Swasey | 10/22/2008, 4:49 a.m.
Black-and-white close-ups line the walls of Wally’s Café Jazz Club, showcasing some of the great performers that have graced the Massachusetts Avenue mainstay’s stage since its opening in 1934. Last Thursday, nonprofit Discover Roxbury hosted “A Night at Wally’s,” allowing visitors to delve into the club’s rich history. Derek Lumpkins

“We’re trying something new,” he said. “We wanted to give younger adults some new options.”

For last Thursday’s gathering, Frank Poindexter, one of Wally’s grandsons, presented a slideshow that included photographs dating back to the time of the club’s opening in 1934 and its later incorporation in 1947, showing the kind of the company his grandfather kept over the decades. Poindexter talked about how Wally, who had been a taxi cab driver working around the State House and was “always networking,” befriended city and state legislator Gabriel Piemonte and Mayor James M. Curley, who helped him establish his business.

Wally died in 1998 at age 101. Elynor Walcott, Wally’s daughter, now owns and manages the club with Frank and her other two sons, Paul and Lloyd. She said her father started the business “so that his people could have someplace to go.”

Noting a few of the “seminal figures” who have lived in the area — including A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan — Frank Poindexter spoke of the thriving black community of that time, which included “intellectuals, major community and social organizations and business associations.”

“There were even debutante balls,” he said. “Wally’s was a place where the black society could go and enjoy our music.”

The intersection of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues was “a major destination on the East Coast for black Americans,” he added, and fostered a “dense concentration of world-class musicians.”

Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Lester Young and other performers flocked to Boston to perform at Storyville in Copley Square and would make their way to the many after-hours clubs in the nearby predominantly black neighborhood. Some of the top names of that time who performed at Wally’s included Sarah Vaughan, bandleader Louis Jordan and pianist Oscar Peterson.

“Two artists who led bands at Wally’s and went on to international fame were pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Alan Dawson. Both were contemporaries of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and both had deep Boston roots,” according to Richard Vacca, a local jazz historian.

But, Frank Poindexter explained, before the influence of Miles Davis rose, the music that Wally was initially able to book came primarily in the form of vaudeville stage shows, which made Wally’s Paradise part of the “chitlin’ circuit” — venues along the East Coast and in the South that welcomed black performance acts during racial segregation.

“Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane — they all started somewhere,” he said. “It was the stage shows, from New Orleans and Chicago to New York. It was the migration of sound.”

Elynor Walcott explained that her father would drive to New York City and Montreal to get performers to Boston. She said many notables stayed at the rooming house that her mother operated in Rutland Square.

“He’d drive to New York and Canada, bring them back and house them,” she said. “Black performers stayed at the homes of black people because they couldn’t stay at white-owned establishments.”

As Boston’s first black-owned club, Wally’s helped usher social integration into the city.