In commemoration of Black History Month, all through February our Vault of Soul series has explored the past, uncovering the lives and lasting influence of historic musical figures from Sam Cooke to Tina Turner.
This month, we also wanted to highlight and recognize people and places in our local community that are actively contributing to Black history and fostering a sense of culture. The widely beloved establishment Wally’s Café Jazz Club immediately came to mind.
Staff writer Mehvish Ali dove deep into the importance of Wally’s Café as a part of the soul of the community. Meeting to talk with Wally’s co-owner Paul Poindexter, she pieced together the venue’s story, its significance, and its plans to return in the wake of temporary closure forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
WALLY’S CAFÉ JAZZ CLUB – A PART OF THE SOUL OF THE COMMUNITY
By Mehvish Ali, Staff Writer
Wally’s Café was opened in 1947 by Sir Joseph L. Walcott, nicknamed “Wally,” who was a Barbadian immigrant. His dream was to construct an environment where everybody in the community could come and enjoy some entertainment.
Sitting down to chat about the historic venue, Walcott’s grandson Paul Poindexter, co-owner and bartender at Wally’s, said, “Remembering that era and how things were different, my grandfather created change. My grandfather didn’t get into this business to sell alcohol. His initial point of creating this business was so people could come and see entertainment, people from all communities in that era. You can drink anywhere, you know? The people are coming in here for the live music. That’s our lifeline to the community.”
And for over 70 years, the family-owned business has done exactly that. Wally’s welcoming, kindred spirit provides a place where people from all communities can come together to enjoy live jazz music as well as provides a training ground for Boston’s young aspiring musicians to practice their craft with other talented artists during live sessions at the establishment. Since its opening, some of the most talented aspiring musicians have made Wally’s a stepping stone in their creative journeys.
ADAPTING TO CHALLENGES POSED BY COVID-19
When the COVID-19 pandemic took over, like many venues, Wally’s Café temporarily shut its welcoming doors to the public. Poindexter said this affected the business and community on many different levels. The closure of the venue not only meant that people couldn’t come in and enjoy the music and the café, but it also deprived the musicians of the chance to practice their craft, performing in front of a live audience.
When Wally’s temporarily closed, the family decided to change their strategy to keep this dream alive. In an effort to preserve Wally’s initial platform to help these musicians explore their creativity, Wally’s started an online live-streaming section where musicians perform live in the café and the performances are simultaneously broadcasted to a virtual audience. Poindexter’s brother Frank, started a campaign with the help of his daughters to create a multi-purpose production facility called the “Student to Student Music Café,” which operates as a resource for Boston’s next generation of musicians.
MEHVISH ALI: HOW DID [THE PANDEMIC] AFFECT THE MUSICIANS?
Paul Poindexter: Well, change is inevitable, okay? Let’s be realistic about it. We created an electronic platform. And those who were smart enough, those who had the initiative not to be stuck saying “Okay I can’t play at a club, I’m going to stay home.” Others looked at the tools they had around them. And that’s how the arts have always morphed and stayed alive. People will always do something new, you know? Some kids went out of music, decided that it wasn’t the choice, some decided ‘hey, let’s stick with it.’ Comes back to that onion that has many layers. Some went one way some went the other, but we will see how things go from this point on.
MEHVISH ALI: CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THE ELECTRONIC STAGE YOU CREATED?
Paul Poindexter: Well, streaming, it’s like watching tv. You have more options on this device here (points at the phone). And anything that comes from this (points to the phone) is the future, that right there (points to TV) it will have some type of sustenance but not as much as this (points back at phone), you can’t bank on that, but you can bank on this (points at the phone).
There are so many platforms they have created with this, it’s unbelievable. And like I said, with the music industry, you can see where it’s going. Not just the music industry but also the movie industry — people are reluctant to go out. Not just because of the pandemic, but other things that preceded that. So, all that wrapped up into that device and anything that comes from it, from my perspective, that’s the future.
MEHVISH ALI: SO, WHEN THEY LIVE STREAM, THEY ARE HERE AT WALLY’S PERFORMING?
Paul Poindexter: Correct, they are here and with the capabilities of this platform. The world is much smaller. You could be some place-in, you can participate in that live performance. There are so many variables you know? And they will monetize it — which they have (laughs).
MEHVISH ALI: DO YOU THINK WALLY’S WILL HAVE THE SAME EXPLODING EXCITEMENT AND ENERGY IT USED TO BEFORE THE PANDEMIC?
Paul Poindexter: Yeah, but the numbers won’t be here (laughs). For instance, before the pandemic, I was able to have 70 people in here. And now you have, especially here in Boston, time limits – certain time periods that individuals can be in that establishment.
Will people still be coming out? Look at a lot of venues that have closed and that are still closing. Those places that did close, you got to ask yourself – why did they close? What put them in that situation where they had forced them to close? If you own the building, or that brick and mortar and you’re paying rent, and they hit you with all the government money coming down, that’s still not going to help. Let’s be realistic about it. I am in a unique position, I own my building. I am not forced to i.e., close like these other clubs.
This industry won’t die. Point blank. It will morph and those who want to stick with it, will stick with it. And those who don’t will close down. I plan on sticking with it. Why? Because this is what I do. I love seeing young people grow, I love being able to see some of the best talent in the world, come through my door at a young age, develop where they are, and then move on. Hopefully, other people who were in here were able to experience that. That’s beautiful.
MEHVISH ALI: HOW DO YOU PLAN TO APPROACH LIVE MUSIC AND RE-OPENING?
Paul Poindexter: All COVID protocols have to be in place. For instance, you must understand the severity of this situation that we are going through, not just locally but on a worldly level. Everyone coming in here will understand the protocols that are in place for that time period. If things change, they will have to adapt just like everybody else or you can’t come in. Safety above everything else.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE OF WALLY'S CAFÉ
In an interview with CBS News from earlier this month, Poindexter said that Wally’s Café has hopes to reopen in the next few weeks. Waiting for the grand re-opening of such a monumental establishment, one might enjoy subscribing to Wally’s Café’s website here and enjoy the live streaming sessions offered while we hope to hear and witness the live music soon.