Alex Stein

Brown University

May 2012


Distracted Listening at Wally's Jazz Club:

Spatialization, Spectacle, and the Jazz Club Imaginary


While the recent shift in ethnomusicology towards "music in our own backyard" has witnessed work on Western Classical music, jazz, and a burgeoning interest in popular music studies, there is a marked difference in the approaches taken within these arenas: whereas the extant studies of European classical music and jazz focus predominantly on communities of musicians to the exclusion of audiences,[1] scholarship on popular musics takes a more holistic approach to the study of music-cultures, encompassing the musicians, the audience, industry, technology, and other intermediary players.[2] In light of this shortcoming – that ethnographic methods have not been brought to bear in studies of jazz as a living, comprehensive music-culture – this paper, and the larger work of which it is a part, focus on the complex audience dynamic at Wally's, one of the premier jazz venues in Boston.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the room is completely packed, with a line of customers waiting outside. From about the third bar stool from the bandstand forward, the audience is attentively focused on the band; but from that point back towards the door, which comprises about ¾ of the room's floor space, people are talking and drinking in twos, threes, and fours, and facing each other, only occasionally looking over towards the musicians or clapping at the end of a song. But their semi-engagement or divided attention doesn't seem to detract from what is a palpably vital musical and social setting. The audience members in the front seem to be adding a necessary intensity; the rest provide necessary numbers.

My project is concerned with two central questions: First, if many of the patrons are not jazz fans per se – if they don't listen to jazz at home or frequent other jazz venues – then why have they come out in such large numbers to Wally's? If, on the other hand, the club's patrons are, as the owner claims, "music lovers", then why do many of them seem inattentive and more focused on socializing and drinking? In other words, what accounts for the presence of so many distracted listeners at Wally's?

            Understanding the predominance of distracted listening at Wally's, I think, requires a dual engagement – with the physical, spatial, and behavioral aspects of the club on the one hand; and with the ideational and associational valences that jazz and live music have for patrons on the other. In this paper, I focus on the former and engage with the latter on a general level; elsewhere, I address in greater detail the question of what brings patrons to Wally's.  Patrons' behaviors, perceptions, and their very presence at the club are necessarily rooted in their ideas about jazz, jazz clubs, nightlife, and authenticity; moreover, both behaviors and ideas need to be considered in the context of the larger structural realities of extended early adulthood, a concomitant increase in disposable income and resulting market for nightlife, and the gentrification of Boston's South End. This paper treats the visual, behavioral, and spatial dimensions of Wally's in detail and gestures toward the ideational, leaving some of the broader issues for exposition elsewhere.



            Wally's is located on the ground floor of a red brick, bow-front rowhouse on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston's South End, near the border of Roxbury. The entrance is removed a good distance from the street and the exterior is unobtrusive, marked only by a bright red door with grille iron bars on the window and a black sign about 10 feet up from the ground with gold lettering that reads WALLY'S CAFE across the top and JAZZCLUB across the bottom; in between are miniature caricatured illustrations of a saxophonist, pianist, drummer, and bassist. A wrought iron saxophone decorates the apparatus supporting the sign; a small wrought iron silhouette of a saxophonist decorates the iron grill over the window on the door. On Friday and Saturday nights, there is a bouncer at the door checking IDs and ensuring that the club does not exceed capacity. He is a completely straight-faced, forty-something African-American man wearing a leather jacket and with a football player's build – he means business, is not interested in conversation, and strikes a purposefully intimidating figure.


The Space

            Inside, the club is deep, narrow, and dimly lit. The bandstand, consisting of a black stage that rises about 1 foot higher than the red linoleum tile that covers the floor of the rest of the club, is all the way in the rear of the club, about 60 feet from the entrance. Behind the bandstand is a door on top of which is a red-lit exit sign; there is some type of vent – perhaps an air conditioner – immediately behind the bandstand, and an ugly silver-but-aged ventilator shaft runs across the rear wall where it meets the ceiling and turns to run another 5 feet or so down the club's left, red-brick wall, ending with another vent. Immediately below the vent, and behind where the keyboardist usually sets up (if there is one in the band) is a digital jukebox that plays a variety of jazz, soul, and popular music.

            A vintage, tabletop Pac-Man arcade game is the first thing along the left red brick wall upon entering the club. The wall is covered with framed black and white photographs of mostly African-American musicians; a framed sketch of the late founder of Wally's, Joseph Wolcott, who died at the age of 101 in 1997; and a newspaper article from 1991 about Mr. Wolcott's fight for the club's survival. Red-topped, two-seater tables, some pushed together, with wooden chairs, line the left wall up to where the jukebox is. The club can't be more than 15 feet wide – so an aisle of only about three or four feet separates the red tables with their wooden chairs from the stools along the bar that runs the entire length of the club's right wall, giving way, a few feet before the stage, to a short hallway that runs rightward to the bathrooms. There is a small nook immediately to the right of the entrance, where two or three people can sit at the bar and face the bandstand all the way at the other end of the club; the rest of the seating at the bar, naturally, faces the right wall, the liquor offerings prominently displayed and accentuated with rear lighting that brings out an array of fluorescent, translucent colors. At the end of the bar, down towards the bandstand, is a television mounted on the ceiling.





            Wally's has been family-owned since its founding in 1947 – it is currently owned and operated by founder Joseph Walcott's grandsons, one of whom is usually bartending at any given time. Wally's was the first African-American owned jazz club in New England, and one of many famous jazz clubs on Massachusetts Avenue, a center of African-American nightlife in the 1940s and 50s; it is the last remaining jazz club from this period. During this time, this area – near the border between Roxbury and the South End – was home to a thriving black middle class community. By the 1960s, however, the area had become rundown and poverty-stricken, and eventually, with real estate prices incredibly low, the processes of gentrification began. Gentrification of the South End has been a slow and drawn out process and the area has only relatively recently become prohibitively expensive. Wally's is one of the few holdovers from the period preceding gentrification when the neighborhood was still largely African-American.


Musicians and Sounds

            Despite Wally's reputation and status as a jazz club, Friday and Saturday are the only nights of the week that feature "straight ahead" jazz – the other nights feature blues, funk, fusion, pop, and Latin jazz. The band members are comprised of mostly Berklee and New England Conservatory students and recent graduates – they dress casually, typically wearing jeans and flannel shirts. Jason Palmer and Lee Fish co-lead the group that plays on Fridays and Saturdays. Their music resonates with much contemporary jazz: they favor original compositions, odd meters, explorational harmonies, and technical virtuosity. In the words of a patron, "This is high energy music." However, the musicians are well-versed in traditional jazz styles and will occasionally draw on a standard, swing, and blues-oriented repertoire.[3]  The instrumentation – keyboard, upright bass, drums, trumpet, saxophone, and guitar – is standard across a range of jazz styles.



            In my experience at Wally's on Friday and Saturday nights, most of the patrons were students and young adults in their 20s and 30s. There were a handful of older African-American patrons, but their presence was undoubtedly diminished from the club's pre-gentrification days, when the clientele was predominantly African-American. I met a number of couples of tourists – from Germany, Iceland, and North Carolina – they had read about Wally's either in a guide book or online. And there were many musicians – professionals and students from New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music.


Spacialization, Spectacle, and Behavior

            My research has suggested that patrons' spatial positioning, both within the club and relative to the bandstand, overdetermines their behavior and the nature of their engagement with the music – in other words, the presence of so many distracted listeners at Wally's is attributable at least in part to the spatial dimensions of the club. The club as I described it has two types of seating areas – the barstools and the tables along the brick wall. On Friday and Saturday nights, the aisle in between the barstools and the tables, running the length of the club, is also packed with standing patrons; there is also standing room at the front of the bar near the bandstand. Patrons' behavior differs with regard to where among these four types of locations they are situated, their proximity to the bandstand, and the size and nature of their party (solo, a group of friends, a couple, etc.).

            The area closest to the bandstand is perhaps the best place to start, simply because the patrons situated there exhibit the most uniform behavior. Within 10 feet of the bandstand, the patrons seated at the tables, those in the aisle and front area near the bathrooms, and those at the barstools are all watching and listening attentively – they might lean over to make a comment to a companion, but the band is the center of their attention. Standing in the aisle in this area might be a couple, side-by-side, arms around each other; and a lot of men holding a beer in one hand and nodding their heads to the music – what you might typically expect at a rock or jam band show. People seated in the barstools nearest the bandstand have turned them to face the music. In her ethnography of bar behavior, Liquor License, Sherri Cavan writes that, "as members of an audience, the patrons of the nightspot have, as a corollary to their right to observe the events, the obligation to express some involvement in them and the obligation not to interfere with their presentation" (1966: 160). Here, the nightspot Cavan is referring to in the 1960s is a more formal cabaret-type performance; nevertheless, one of the patrons I spoke with – while seated at one of the rear tables – remarked that if he were at one of the front tables, he would feel obligated to be respectful of the musicians and pay attention, especially given the fact that he would be in their immediate field of vision.

            One of the effects of the large number of engaged patrons standing in the aisle close to the bandstand is that the sightlines of those seated and standing farther away can be obscured. This, I would suggest, more than anything, is responsible for the spatialization of listening behavior at Wally's and the predominance of distracted listening.[4] Whereas my early research seemed to suggest that the audience members who gravitated to the front of the club were better versed in jazz and more likely to listen at home and go to other jazz venues, this proved not to be the case, as I spoke with both novice listeners in the front of the room and even some musicians and more experienced listeners more focused on socializing in the rear of the club.[5] Moreover, at times when the bar is less crowded and lines of sight to the bandstand are unobstructed, many more people in the club, even in the rear, are attentively focused – looking at and listening to the band.The importance of the visual dimension of 'listening' to live music was underscored in my conversation with Caran, a graduate student at MIT: "When I'm listening closely, I'm looking at the musicians and their facial expressions and movements, and trying to relate them to the more intense moments of the music." His friend Tim added: "I think we're all imbibing rhythmic patterns and visual patterns and trying to associate them."[6] For Caran and Tim, close listening entails a visual engagement with the performers – the spectacular elements of performance cannot be separated from the purely musical.[7] It stands to reason that, when the visual component is inaccessible, maintaining an engagement that relies on both visual and sonic stimuli is no longer possible.

            As I mentioned earlier, patron behavior – listening and otherwise – is influenced by positioning within the club. Sitting at the bar and sitting at a table offer very different physical directional orientations, with implications for social, physical, and listening behaviors. Cavan notes the difference between lateral (barstool) and contrapositional (face-to-face at a table) seating arrangements in their impact on social behavior: in her study, "contrapositional seating generally demarcates groups by separating them spatially from each other and orienting their members in a partial or fully face-to-face arrangement, [whereas group boundaries] in a lateral seating arrangement are much less clear and easier to cross"(1966: 88). At Wally's, because of the sheer volume of the music, initiating a conversation with a stranger at the bar is decidedly difficult; moreover, the vast majority of patrons come in groups of two or more, and have to lean inward towards each other in order to communicate over the music, making intergroup communication at the bar less likely. But because there is limited seating, separate parties frequently end up sitting at the same table together, making it more likely that those seated at the tables will socialize outside of the group with which they came. On one evening, seated by myself at one of the rear tables, I was joined by three Northeastern University students, one of whom later commented, "Whenever I'm at other bars, I mingle, but here I spot up at my table with my friends."[8] The presence of separate parties at the same table is a notable exception to a dominant mode of socialization within pre-existing groups.

            Now, what type of body language and behavior vis-à-vis the music does each seating option foster? According to Cavan, "most activities available in the public drinking place may be treated by the patrons as either a main involvement or a side involvement, as the mood suits them... For those who attend in the company of others... conversation frequently constitutes the major focus of their interest and attention"(1966: 155). I observed a wide range of the degree of engagement with the music, both on a visual level – in terms of looking in the direction of the bandstand – and physically, in terms of tapping feet, tapping the table, nodding one's head, and even dancing. At a table in the middle of the room with partial sight lines to the bandstand, I observed a woman dancing and standing up, one of her male companions nodding his head, tapping both feet, and making a "guitar face" while seated, and another, less animated male companion– all talking, leaning, laughing, and looking at each other while also oriented towards the band.  At a table behind them with three women, two were engaged in continuous conversation and not visibly responding to the music, one of them with her back to the bandstand; the third, on the opposite side of the table, would chime in less frequently, balancing her attention between the music and the conversation. Table seating allows patrons to split their attention between conversation and the music as they see fit, aided by the fact that they can split the difference between facing each other directly and facing the bandstand. Sight lines of at least the keyboard player and drummer are less likely to be obstructed by virtue of the fact that tables line the entire left wall of the club, and hence the patrons in front of them are seated rather than standing.

            At the bar, with the exception of the 2 to 3 seats in the nook to the right of the entrance, the option of sitting side-by-side while facing the bandstand is not available. For two men seated at the bar one Friday night, the music seemed to enable a variety of behaviors – listening, commenting on the music, having a conversation during it, tapping hands on the bar, and occasionally glancing leftward toward the bandstand, but more frequently facing the bar wall, slightly oriented towards each other. Another group of three men seated at the bar demonstrated the music's function as a diversion – seated three across, the man in the middle could only talk to one of his companions at a time. The other would pass the time by checking out the music, looking around the room, or taking a sip of his beer. Music, in this instance, seemed to be taken up when conversation was not an option.



            The spatial and physical dimensions of Wally's foster a range of engagement with the music, from the most attentive, concert-level engagement of some patrons at the front of the club, to its function as mere background to conversation. The obstruction of sight lines to the bandstand seems to play an important role in the distracted form of listening and prioritization of social interaction that predominates farther away from the band. This seems to be attributable to the fact that spectacle is an important part of how many patrons relate to and engage with jazz.


The Jazz Club Imaginary

            In his study of Chicago blues clubs, David Grazian (2003) examines how the commodification and global circulation of Chicago blues generates demand for authentic blues – that is, the desire for a blues experience that conforms to an imaginary born out of the circulated idealized images and sounds themselves. This phenomenon, I suggest, ultimately lies at the root of the appeal of the jazz club for many of my informants, for most of the patrons at Wally's, and for the jazz club-going public at large. In other words, the idea of a jazz club – the imagery of the dimly lit, smoky club featuring African-American performers – has become a facet of the global popular imagination. Although the owner of Wally's dismissed my suggestion that some of the patrons might be connecting with what I call the jazz club imaginary as much as with the musical sounds themselves, I was able to speak about this with Spike Wilner, owner of Smalls Jazz Club in New York City. I asked Wilner, from his perspective as a club owner, what brings people who don't normally listen to jazz to Smalls. Wilner's response highlighted the importance of media in generating the jazz club imaginary: 


The cultural image people have of jazz and jazz clubs is a smoky little speakeasy joint that kind of has this romantic thing to it, and people want to experience that. I know one of the things I hear about Smalls a lot from people as they come in is, 'oh, it's just like in a movie!' It fills some kind of imaginary thing they've had about what a jazz club is – it's like what they imagined it to be. It's a cultural, iconic kind of thing, and people, they yearn for that.[9]


            One of my informants, Don, a lawyer and Harvard graduate in his 40s and dedicated fan of predominantly swing era jazz, seemed to be channeling this imaginary when he excitedly exclaimed, "It's such a classic scene –the instrumentation is the same... it could be Dexter Gordon playing a club date in 1957!"[10] Don's comment begs some questions: How has he become familiar with the type of setting in which Dexter Gordon might have played in the 1950s? And why is the prospect of revisiting such a setting so appealing to him?

            I would suggest that Don's longing for such a classic and authentic setting stems from his exposure to iconic jazz photography and cover art. Benjamin Cawthra (2011) discusses the pioneering and influential photography of Herman Leonard, who documented musicians (including Dexter Gordon) in nightclub performance settings. According to Cawthra, "The black and white image of the African American musician at work in a smoky club became an iconographic image that has come to mean jazz" (2011: 103). It is through the ubiquity of such images – of performers in the context of subsequently idealized club settings – that Don has internalized a notion of an authentic jazz club. As with Grazian's informants, the circulation and commodification of classic jazz images has created demand for the imaginary that they index.       

            Don is especially interesting, because, although he is a jazz fan, he listens exclusively to pre-1960 music, and predominantly swing. The music at Wally's is a contemporary brand of jazz that Don does not like – but the surroundings fulfill his desire to connect with the authentic spaces pictured in iconic photographs and that he imagines when he listens to his favorite recordings at home. When Don is in Wally's he is connecting with the jazz club imaginary at least as much as he is with the musical sounds emanating from the bandstand. In fact, Don seemed happier to talk to me about his favorite classic jazz recordings than to listen to the more contemporary jazz being played in the club.

            Another patron, a professional in his early 30s originally from New Zealand and currently living in Boston, was, owing to his complete lack of familiarity with jazz, able to powerfully articulate the importance of the jazz club imaginary in his experience of Wally's. Moreover, the way in which he came into contact with this imaginary – as a Kiwi reading a Japanese novelist who writes about listening to American jazz in Japanese coffee houses – underscores its participation in global media flows. After discovering that this patron had little to no experience listening to jazz, I asked him what it was that he found appealing about Wally's. He responded:


I think maybe the idea of going to a jazz bar – I read a lot of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, and in every single book he writes – he's a fiction writer – he always writes about jazz bars in Tokyo. So I guess I kind of have this mystique because I really like his stories and I like the association of being in a jazz bar. So even though I don't know anything about jazz, the idea of being in a jazz bar seems more exciting than being in an Irish pub.[11]


Although the presence of live jazz music is indispensable to their experience of Wally's, these patrons, instead of engaging in the type of focused listening that concert settings and certain jazz venues encourage or require, are drawn to the setting, space, and scene as a whole insofar as it resonates with their imaginary conceptions of what a jazz club is. For both men, this jazz club imaginary is the product of circulating images, sounds, and ideas. According to Smalls owner Spike Wilner,


They want an experience. They want to be in a jazz club and be around people – that in itself is an experience beyond the actual music itself. A jazz fan will come in for a specific artist or style that evening, but there are people who simply want to experience what it's like to actually be in a basement – being in that environment – it's rewarding in itself.

The predominance, then, of a less engaged form of listening at Wally's than we have come to expect in many jazz settings, can be in part ascribed to the fact that patrons have come to Wally's for the totality of the experience and its resonance with what they imagine a jazz club to be, and the sounds comprise only one part of this imaginary.



            Over the course of its history, jazz has accrued the trappings of art music: the normativity of focused listening, a belief in the preeminence of the sound object and the separability of "the music itself," and cultural capital to boot. My ethnographic research among audiences at Wally's Jazz Club, however, makes a strong case for considering the spectacular and ideational in an expanded approach that problematizes "listening" among jazz audiences. First, my observation of audience behaviors and spatial positioning vis-à-vis the bandstand revealed that the most traditionally engaged listeners are not necessarily those best versed in jazz, but those with direct and unobstructed lines of sight of the performers. Second, I demonstrated that some patrons were engaging primarily with a jazz club imaginary born of mediated images and ideas, and only secondarily with the sounds themselves as part of the totality of the scene at Wally's. These findings beg further questions: What is it about jazz that becomes appealing – that, by consuming it in this club, allows people to say something about themselves to themselves and to their companions? How do patrons' ideas about jazz and jazz clubs and the activities they engage in inside the club – listening, schmoozing, drinking, flirting – relate to broader structural factors? Addressing these questions holds great promise for productively complicating our understanding of jazz, its many contemporary meanings, and its continuing relevance and appeal.

Works Cited


Cavan, Sherri. 1966. Liquor License. Chicago: Aldine.


Cawthra, Benjamin. 2011. Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Grazian, David. 2003. Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Johnson, James. 1995. Listening in Paris. Los Angeles: University of California Press.


[1]For studies on European classical music, see Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995); and Kay Kaufman Shelemay,"Toward an Ethnomusicology of the Early Music Movement: Thoughts on Bridging Disciplines and Musical Worlds." Ethnomusicology 45, 1 (2001):1-29. For ethnographic approaches to jazz, see Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz  (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994); Ingrid Monson, Sayin' Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996); and Alex Stewart, Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007).

[2] See for example Keith Negus, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (London: Routledge, 1999); Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (Hanover, NH:Wesleyan University Press, 1996); and Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology (New York: Lexington Books, 1991).

[3] For footage of a Wally's performance by Palmer and Fish see:

[4] James Johnson has noted the relationship of sight lines and layout to the listening practices of 18th century Parisian opera audiences. In the early 18th century, the layout of the Palais Royal reflected and reinforced the conception of opera as "a magnificent spectacle, in which [the audience members] themselves played the principal part" and in which "music [was] little more than an agreeable ornament" (10) – "partitions between the boxes pointed not toward the stage but toward the center of the hall, a construction making a clear line of sight to virtually every other box but made seeing the stage all the more difficult" (13). In the later 18th century, a redesigned layout that prioritized unobstructed sight lines to the stage was accompanied by more attentive listening practices (James Johnson (1995) Listening in Paris, Los Angeles: University of California Press).

[5] For a discussion of spatialization of audiences at rock venues, see Sara Cohen, "Men Making a Scene: Rock Music and the Production of Gender." In Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, ed. Sheila Whiteley (London: Routledge, 1997) and Wendy Fonarow, Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics And Rituals of British Indie Music (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006).

[6] Conversation with author, 3/23/2012.

[7] This would seem to give weight to Phillip Auslander's argument that performance studies be applied to instrumental music, in which he observes that jazz musicians "...often have very distinctive personalities as instrumentalists and bandleaders, expressed not only in the way they play but in their appearance, the way they move, the way they address the audience, and the way they deal with their fellow musicians." (Philip Auslander, "Performance Analysis and Popular Music: A Manifesto," Contemporary Theatre Review 14, 1 (2004): 8.)

[8] Conversation with author, 3/23/2012.

[9] Phone conversation with the author, 4/19/2012.

[10] Conversation with the author, 3/31/2012.

[11] Conversation with the author, 2/25/2012.