South End jazz: An invisible tradition
By Drake Lucas
the only remaining jazz club on Massachusetts Avenue.
Click the picture to hear Charles
Wally’s Jazz club is packed, as usual. You brush past every
person on your way into the narrow, dark club, so small it is almost
hidden in the brownstones along Massachusetts Avenue. A young band – students
from Berklee College of Music – has squeezed a bass, drums
and guitar onto the small stage. The saxophonist alternately stands
in front of the stage to play and leans against the jukebox to
older man enters, carrying an instrument case, and approaches
the band. He takes a seat at the front table as
they begin to play.
He glances at the faces in the crowd, but doesn’t recognize
the band approaches the song’s end, he takes his trumpet
out of the case, puts on his sunglasses and stands up to play.
He begins the notes of “Straight, No Chaser,” and takes
a solo, soft and smooth, lilting. He nods to the applause and returns
to his seat, taking a sip of his Heineken.
is just stopping in for a set, as he always does when he passes
through town. A physician at UCLA, Richard
Allen has come to Boston
to give a lecture at Harvard Medical School, where he was a student
50 years ago. He remembers sitting in at Wally’s when it
was a large nightclub across the street known as Wally’s
“Where jazz in Boston really has its heart and soul are
places like Wally’s,” he said.
Wally’s today is the only club left of its kind in the South
End, a neighborhood that was a hub of Boston’s popular jazz
scene from the 1930s to the 1960s. The sign outside Wally’s
is the only trace of a music tradition that has all but disappeared
from the neat rows of brownstones along Massachusetts Avenue.
Thriving jazz scene
here for more about a few of the South End’s
popular jazz spots. Map courtesy of the South End Historical
“You could stand at Mass Ave and Columbus in those days
and see five clubs in either direction,” remembers Charles
Walker, 87. “All the way down Mass Ave, there were clubs
everywhere. I started playing music myself at Symphony Hall.”
He was just out of high school, playing clarinet in the symphony
when a bandleader approached his mother and asked if Walker could
join his jazz band. Walker traded in the clarinet for the tenor
sax and became familiar with the South End scene.
pauses, remembering all the names of the clubs he knew. Louie’s
Lounge, Wally’s Paradise, Eddie Levine’s, Morley’s
(known as the Big M), the Professional’s and Businessmen’s
Club, the Wigwam.
saw Sammy Davis, Jr. at the Hi-Hat, once on the corner of Massachusetts
Avenue and Columbus. “You had to have money to go there,” he
says of the club, which had a restaurant and lounge downstairs,
while the music was upstairs.
The Hi-Hat was the first jazz club in the South End. It was established
after World War II, when big bands had gone out and performers
such as drummer Buddy Rich, Count Basie and Charlie Mingus were
traveling with small combos.
“The Hi-Hat sort of became a symbol of jazz in Boston.
It was popular; it inspired other young guys to open clubs,” says
Ray Barron, who used to book the acts for the club. He started
the popular Sunday jam sessions at the Hi-Hat.
says Boston was filled with musicians from the music schools,
such as the New England Conservatory and the Schillinger
of Music, which is now the Berklee College of Music. “There
was an abundance of music students and they wanted a place to jam,” says
O’ Connor, historian and professor at Boston College,
visited a number of the clubs in the 1930s. He remembers the “small,
dingy, dirty” places, like the Rainbow Club, where the dim
lights and heavy smoke made it difficult to see. “It took
you a moment to get your bearings,” he said.
the small combos played, some of the best known musicians, like
Charlie Barnett, Cootie Williams, and Count
would play a gig until 1, maybe 2. When they were over, they would
go to another club and play until 4 or 5 in the morning. These
were jam sessions,” said O’Connor.
After hours: Music until morning
Often the musicians would make their way down Massachusetts Avenue
to The Pioneer, a popular after-hour club. Harold Layne, drummer,
can still be seen doing gigs around town as he has been for 60
played the South End venues, including The Pioneer. “When
the musicians didn’t feel like going home, they would come
there at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, maybe even later
than that.” He compares the club to a speakeasy – you
had to know someone to get in.
Myra McAdoo met many of the musicians when they stayed at the
Bostonian Hotel where she lived with her mother. It was one of
the few lodging houses that would take in black performers.
says that after-hours was the time when musicians from different
bands would play together. “You could go out and hang out
all night. And I do mean all night,” she says. McAdoo remembers
partying late at the Professional’s and Businessmen’s
Club where “we had been known to get a phone call, walk around
the block and come back when the police left.” Boston’s
Blue Laws, which restricted alcohol use, were strict and kept a
watch on clubs to make sure they closed on time.
McAdoo’s mother found another way to get around the Blue
Laws. Events that served alcohol were prohibited on Sundays until
after 8 or 9 unless they didn’t charge. McAdoo’s mother
devised a plan to pre-sell invitations to an invitation-only event.
The guest showed the invitations they had purchased the week before
at the door and were allowed into the event. “That way we
could sell out the place,” she says with a laugh.
remembers the South End in different times when people dressed
up and went from one club to the next right
into the morning. “We
no longer have a society where you can walk down the streets, dressed
to the nines in your diamonds and pearls until 4 in the morning,” she
Jazz: Uniting and Dividing
segregation and racial conflicts throughout the city, the South
End was known as a place where people of
all colors could
mingle. Both black and white bands played the clubs. “Mass
Ave allowed for people of all colors to come,” says McAdoo.
O’Connor describes Boston in the
20th century as a city of neighborhoods, divided by racial and
Invisible lines were drawn and people stayed within them.
That’s what he says was so unusual about the South End in
the 1930s and ‘40s. “The South End was interesting
because in a way there was a kind of a truce,” he says. “People
(from all different neighborhoods) came in and enjoyed themselves.”
He does, however, mention a stratification of the clubs. He describes
three phases of the jazz scene that occurred simultaneously: the
small clubs with small combos, mostly black for a black audience;
the big clubs, like the Hi-Hat where the musicians and the service
people were mainly black, but the audience was white; and then
large dance halls up the street where the musicians and audience
were primarily white, swinging to the sounds of musicians such
as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman.
Barron remembers the bouncer at the Hi-Hat door, there to keep
out blacks unless they looked as if they had a lot of money to
spend. These rules did not apply to the musicians, though. The
Hi-Hat regularly welcomed the talent of premiere black artists.
The South End jazz scene flourished into the 1960s when the music
scene began to change, as did the city. Jazz by its nature is spontaneous
art, disappearing as soon as it is created. What is left of the
Boston jazz scene remains in the stories of the people who were
“A lot of the people I used to play with are gone,” says
Walker, but he always finds a familiar face in the South End when
he visits. “When I get to that area, they ask me, ‘Burt,
Burt, where you been?’”
Boston’s Place in Jazz History