The Hot Spot
Wally's Jazz Cafe
427 Mass. Ave., Boston
No cover charge, 21+
Wally’s might not initially seem a promising candidate for a classy date. It’s shaped and sized like the box your shoes came in, there’s always an aggressive bouncer checking IDs at the door, and the interior is cramped. The bar takes up half the width and nearly the full length of the place, and it’s hard to talk sometimes, since the solos here go loud and long.
And yet, Wally’s has been hosting some of the best jazz in Boston for nearly 60 years. The busy but cheerful bartenders are quick with the reasonably priced booze. Better yet, there is never a cover charge or a drink minimum. All you have to do is stroll up, prove you’re 21, and sit down for 5 minutes or 3 hours to soak up the talents of young up-and-comers.
There’s a rotating schedule of swing, bebop, latin jazz, and funk, so all breeds of jazzhounds will be satisfied. The stage is about as roomy as the rest of the place, meaning that the enormously appreciative audience might as well be in the drummer’s lap. “Audience participation,” more often than not, means spilling your drink on the bandleader’s shoes.
Many of the performers are students at the New England Conservatory or at Berklee School of Music and are refreshingly free of the ego that more seasoned jazzmen often bring to the table. While you won’t see Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, or Brad Mehldau here, you will see brash young prodigies who hit on sweater-clad girls or run to nearby pizza places between sets. Friday night, most members of the band didn’t even look old enough to get in the door.
“I’ve played at clubs around the world, and there’s no place like this,” says trumpeter Jason Palmer, whose band, the Jason Palmer Jazz Collective, played Wally’s on Saturday night. Palmer, 26, teaches at the Conservatory’s prep school.
“It’s a place where you can really hone your craft and get better,” he elaborates. “I’d come in here every day for two years and not get a dime, but it’d be worth the experience.”
The place definitely has its own unique charm, and evokes a Chicago juke joint in its sparseness: brick walls hung with black-and-white photos, and head-scrapingly low ceilings. All that’s missing is the pall of cigarette smoke, and it’s not too sorely missed by most.
From a Harvard standpoint, Wally’s sole flaw is its location way over in South Boston. It’s near the Symphony T stop, though, and the music gets cooking as early as 9 p.m., so the subway-bound can still get plenty of grooving in before their coach turns into a pumpkin. Sunday afternoons have an added bonus: a 4-7 p.m. sit-in jam session, open to anyone.
If you really want to impress that cute hipster with the Miles Davis t-shirt, take a trip to Wally’s and let the music (and beers) work. Just make sure you’re both comfortable with cozy seating arrangements, because the place is “intimate,” to put it nicely.
—Staff writer Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.