'Live Jazz? It's Dying Here, Man!'

Jazz in the South End

"Live Jazz?  It's Dying Here, Man!
(Only a Couple of Places Left in Boston)

Where did they all go?
The Savoy on Massachusetts av. with its long lines on week-ends waiting to get in for the blast, blare and bounce of Dixieland. The Hi-Hat, a few steps down the street, with its top jazz performers. Jazz on Warrenton st. And Storyville, first in the Copley Sq. Hotel and next in the Bradford Hotel, and now gone like all the rest."[1]

This story appeared in the Boston Globe on January 22, 1962. Its author, jazz-lover George McKinnon, had good reason to be concerned. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of his favorite Boston jazz clubs had disappeared.

I have Jazz on the brain lately. Alison Barnet, Frank Poindexter, Val Hyman, and I are working on a walking tour about jazz. Val and Alison have done a lot of research about South End jazz and Val leads jazz tours through United South End Settlements. Val's father owned Chicken Lane, a South End restaurant that operated during the jazz heyday. Frank is the grandson of Joseph Walcott, the founder of Wally’s Paradise. Now known as , it is the last remaining South End jazz club. 

So what happened with jazz? Swing music became popular in the United States in the 1930s, prompting local Boston business owners to open jazz clubs. By the 1940s these clubs were plentiful, especially in the South End. South End clubs were one of the few public places where whites and blacks met and socialized together. Copley Square and Back Bay club patrons were mostly white while Roxbury club patrons were mostly black. 

In the South End, from the mid 1940s until 1959, jazz aficionados could go to the Hi-Hat, an upscale club on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Columbus Avenue, where the Harriet Tubman House stands now. Performers included Sammy Davis Jr., Flip Wilson, Duke Ellington, BB King, Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, and many others. The Hi-Hat closed in March of 1959 after a fire destroyed the building.[2]  Jazz clubbers could also go to the Savoy, located at 410 Massachusetts Avenue. A young musician named Roy Haynes started playing at the Savoy at 15 years old. Another option was Wally’s Paradise. Wally's opened in 1947 and was located at 428 Massachusetts Avenue until 1978, when it moved across the street to 427 Massachusetts Avenue. Wally's is still there today.

The list goes on - Morley’s at 408 Mass. Ave., the Professional and Business Men’s Club (a.k.a. the P&B) in Chester Square, Eddie Levine’s and later the Wigwam at 425. Mass. Ave., the Pioneer Club on an alley off of Tremont Street, and Slades, Estelle’s, the Rainbow Lounge, the Cotton Club, and Connolly’s all on Tremont Street. There were several others in the Northampton and Washington Street area, on Huntington Avenue, and in the Back Bay. As a young man, Malcolm X worked at the Roseland State Ballroom on Mass. Ave. across from the Christian Science Center. 

Jazz declined in popularity in the 1950s and most South End clubs had closed by the early 1960s. A few, like the P&B, hung on for a few years but Wally's is the only one that remains today. Jazz buffs and scholars list several possible reasons for the decline of jazz popularity: the rise of Rock and Roll, the change of jazz’s sound with the use of electronic instruments, and the growing popularity of televisions in households. Rock and Roll outsold jazz, many radio stations stopped playing it, and records stopped selling.

Want a taste of the 1940s and 1950s South End club scene? Listen to this You Tube clip of Sonny Stitt playing at the Hi-Hat in 1954. Or check out Wally’s at 427 Mass. Ave. Have a drink, look at the great photographs on the walls, and listen to the music. When you leave, look around you. Clubs dotted the streets. People walked between them and hung out outside of them, enjoying their night out.

[1] George McKinnon, “Live Jazz?  It’s Dying Here, Man!,” Boston Globe, January 22, 1962.

[2] “Detour Traffic, Fearing Collapse of Hi-Hat Walls,” Daily Boston Globe, March 14, 1962. 

Much of the information from this post comes from Alison Barnet and Val Hyman.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Alex November 08, 2011 at 03:43 PM
Can you imagine someone trying to open a jazz club today? The NIMBY Ninnies would make it close at 8:00 PM! What happened to the real South End we all knew and loved???
Hope Shannon November 08, 2011 at 11:24 PM
A jazz club opening today would certainly not be the same as a jazz club in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s. The level of popularity of jazz in night clubs is just not the same now. The big names that were starring in South End venues don't exist on the same scale that they did sixty or seventy years ago. If someone were to try opening one, it wouldn't be the same for so many reasons- different reason for opening, different demographic and socio-economic condition of the neighborhood, as well as a different political atmosphere. The essence of the real neighborhood jazz club wouldn't be attainable. Only Wally's has that now, I suppose.
SM_bos November 19, 2011 at 04:02 AM
Hope Shannon November 19, 2011 at 03:18 PM
I wrote about the original South End jazz club scene. These clubs appeared with the initial appearance of jazz on the music scene in the 1930s and 1940s and proliferated with jazz's rise in popularity. The Beehive opened in 2007, I believe. It is a great restaurant with good music but it is not a part of the original South End jazz club scene. It represents a welcome and recent resurgence in the popularity of jazz music. Great question! If you haven't been to the Beehive, definitely go. Great place.


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