After arriving at BU three years ago, Rhode Island native Jake D’Ambra (Questrom’19) had one ambition: to play saxophone at Wally’s Café, the historic South End jazz club that opened more than 70 years ago. Wally’s is a fixture among student jazz musicians in Boston, who regularly pack the tiny bar to sit in during the nightly open jam sessions, which admittedly can be intimidating. “The first time I played at Wally’s, I was so scared,” D’Ambra says. “My hands were shaking, but I just had a blast.”
Now the junior business major regularly hosts Wally’s 5 pm Saturday set.
A jazz musician since the eighth grade, D’Ambra knew he wanted to explore the local music scene during his time at BU. Boston has a rich jazz legacy and continues to attract aspiring musicians from around the world who come to study at the many local conservatory programs. He regularly plays gigs with music students from Berklee College of Music, the New England Conservatory, and the Longy School of Music, to name a few.
Acknowledging that not everyone his age is a fan of jazz, D’Ambra says it’s something you have to experience in person to truly appreciate. Embracing the role of advocate for the music he loves, he routinely drags his Questrom friends to the city’s jazz clubs. Some of them have even learned to like it.
To help you explore the Boston jazz scene, D’Ambra suggests:
Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen
604 Columbus Avenue, Boston
A five-minute walk from the BU Shuttle (BUS) Huntington Ave stop brings you to Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, which has offered high-end Southern cuisine, live jazz, and a lively bar scene since it opened in 2010. Darryl’s features live music Wednesday through Sunday in a variety of genres, including jazz, funk, R&B, soul, and world music.
D’Ambra recommends: Go to Darryl’s for the jazz, but stay for a meal. “The food is incredible. It’s like soul food. Fits the vibe of the place perfectly.”
In Your Ear Records
957 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston
No Boston music experience would be complete without a trip to a great record store to paw through some old vinyl. Although it’s in the heart of West Campus, In Your Ear can be tricky to find (it’s down a flight of stairs, under a Bank of America kiosk), but it’s worth the search. In business for 35 years and counting, the store offers a staggering selection, from vinyl records and CDs to 8-tracks, cassettes, and VHS tapes.
D’Ambra recommends: For folks new to jazz and interested in exploring the genre, listen to Dexter Gordon and Charles Lloyd, both tenor saxophonists (like D’Ambra). He’s partial to Lloyd: “I wish I had heard Lloyd when I was younger. A lot of his stuff is easy to listen to and sets you up for the different types of jazz out there.”
Wally’s Café Jazz Club
427 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston
Founded in 1947 by Barbadian immigrant Joseph Walcott (better known as Wally), Wally’s was one of the first black-owned nightclubs in New England, and today it’s still owned and operated by Walcott’s descendants. It’s long been the go-to spot for aspiring jazz musicians drawn to the club’s open jam sessions, where they can sit in with the house band and show off what they’ve got. Wally’s features live music 365 days a year, with a mix of traditional jazz, funk, Latin, and blues. Wally’s is 21+ after 9 pm, so check out the early show if you’re younger than 21.
D’Ambra recommends: “Be ready to expect anything. The music changes all the time. You’re not going to hear better jazz.” Oh, and you might want to think about getting there early, he says: “The later you go, the larger the crowd.”
D’Ambra’s first exposure to jazz was through hip-hop artists like Nas and MF DOOM, who would sample jazz recordings and mix them into their beats. D’Ambra eventually sought the original jazz recordings they’d sampled and focused on listening to the jazz. Below is a playlist of hip-hop and jazz that tracks his exploration of both.