Berklee Riffs: On Stage at Wally's

By 
Lesley Mahoney
November 3, 2010
Matt Johnson on keyboards (filling in for Sean Alexander), Phillip Young on tenor saxophone, Jo Jo Streater on trumpet, and Anthony Truss on alto saxophone
From Miles Davis to Sarah Vaughan, a who's who of the jazz scene has played at Wally's.
Matt Johnson on keyboards, Kirjuan "Free" Freeman on drums, Phillip Young on tenor saxophone, Jo Jo Streater on trumpet, and Anthony Truss on alto saxophone
Before the show, Jo Jo Streater and Anthony Truss.
Matt Johnson on keyboards, Kirjuan "Free" Freeman on drums, Keithen Foster on bass, Jo Jo Streater on trumpet, and Anthony Truss alto saxophone. Not pictured: Justin Faulkner.
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice

It's a bit grittier than the Berklee Performance Center and a whole lot smaller. But the stage at Wally's Café carries some serious prestige. Since its founding in 1947, the Mass. Ave. venue, located just a few blocks from Berklee, has been host to plenty of jazz heavyweights, including Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, the Marsalis brothers, and Nikki Glaspie. Known as a training ground for young musicians, Wally's roster is chock-full of Berklee talent.

One such group, Elevation Theory, holds a coveted Wednesday night spot, one it was graced with after making its mark at the club. "Playing at Wally's is so historic," says drummer Kirjuan "Free" Freeman, the urban fusion band's leader and a third-semester music/business management major. "It was our very first engagement."

Frank F. Poindexter Jr., president of Wally's, credits Elevation Theory's hard work, diligence, and talent for its swift trajectory. "Elevation Theory's evolution at Wally's comes from playing together in front of a live audience, which is a form of practicing. Their musicianship has increased because of the two-hour sets at Wally's that force musicians to gain endurance with their instruments," he says.

Elevation Theory is just one example of Berklee students who have made a name for themselves at the club. "Berklee students are one of the pillars of Wally's. They bring talent, hard work, dedication, humility to learn their craft, and their love of music," says Poindexter.

On a recent Wednesday night, the crowd went wild for Elevation Theory, grooving and clapping to each solo. Building on the pedigree of Wally's, Elevation Theory has secured other gigs around town, from Ryles to Scullers to the Beehive. "Wally's is our first platform. It created Elevation Theory," says Freeman. "It gave me everything I needed to know about live performing: how to direct the band, how to get feedback, how to promote, how to effectively touch our fans."

Playing out on the Boston scene is invaluable, Freeman says. "Nothing is more refreshing than to know that you have gained enough respect on campus, and you're coming together off campus to gain a consumer's perspective."

To be sure, all of this wouldn't be possible without Berklee's preparation, from ear training to harmony to sight reading to lighting skills. "Berklee gives you so many hooks to your plan," says Freeman. "I can arrange, score, and replicate everything in the classroom to the live experience. . . Berklee gives you the proper ingredients to make what you do sound better."

Berklee Riffs offer snapshots of day-to-day life at the college.