The world of the 1950s Indiana Avenue jazz scene in Indianapolis is legendary—future jazz greats such as Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, and David Baker could frequently be heard along the Avenue in clubs like Henri’s and George’s. But hardly any audio documents of the scene have survived. Musician Jack Ost was a young jazz fan and Indiana University student in the summer of 1957 when he and a friend made what might prove to be the most notable live recording ever to emerge from Indiana Avenue’s golden age.
“It was really a lot of happenstance,” Ost says. He and Leo Chick, an IU journalism major and fellow rooming-house resident and jazz buff, drove up to Indianapolis one evening in search of some live music. The two brought along Chick’s Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder, which Ost says was about the size of a small suitcase. They spotted some activity outside George’s Orchid Lounge, a club on Indiana Avenue, and Ost recalls being drawn in by the club’s purple neon sign, which advertised a group called the Jazz Contemporaries.
Jazz Stars In Waiting
Bassist Larry Ridley was the nominal leader of the Jazz Contemporaries, who had landed the gig at George’s on the recommendation of Ridley’s uncle. The group included three musicians who would go on to gain international stature, partly through their appearances on classic 1960s Blue Note jazz recordings: Ridley, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding. Drummer Paul Parker would soon play on the leader debut of guitarist Wes Montgomery. That summer of 1957 nearly all of the group members were still in their late teens, with the exception of pianist Al Plank, who was in his mid-20s, and they were playing at George’s six nights a week.
After talking to the club’s management and to Ridley, Chick and Ost set their tape recorder up on a table next to the bandstand. Ost says the small, primitive microphone the two used forced Chick to stretch out, so to speak: “When Al Plank would play, Leo would take his hand and stretch it as far as he could toward the piano, because it wasn’t picking up the piano as well as the rest of the group.”
A Band Very Much Of The Day
The Jazz Contemporaries lived up to their name, playing a bebop and hardbop-oriented repertoire that drew heavily on the music of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and other modern small-group jazz ensembles of the mid-1950s. Though unknown outside of Indianapolis, they performed at a level that left Ost and Chick deeply impressed. Still, the two Indiana University students had no way of knowing that they were recording several future stars of jazz. “I don’t think we realized exactly where we were and what we were hearing,” says Ost.
That night Ost and Chick accompanied some of the musicians to an apartment after the gig at George’s and listened to some of the music that had been taped. The 75 minutes or so that have survived reveal a band that crackles with a raw but already-polished vitality, with Hubbard and Spaulding still under the spell of respective influences Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker. The set-list includes tunes “very much of the day,” as Ost notes, such as “Tadd’s Delight” and “What Is This Thing Called Love.” While the piano is indeed more distantly heard than the other instruments, the audio quality of the tape is comparable to many other amateur on-site recordings from the same era and gives a vivid sense of the plateau the young band had already reached.
Ridley’s Plans For The Tape
Hubbard would move to New York City the following year, launching the long career that would establish him as one of the world’s most renowned jazz trumpeters. Ridley would follow and would go on to become a leading jazz educator as well as a highly respected bassist who worked with Thelonious Monk and many other jazz greats. Spaulding would move to Chicago and do a stint with Sun Ra’s Arkestra; he, too, eventually appeared on a number of classic 1960s Blue Note jazz recordings, and has built a global reputation as a jazz artist.
Through Chick and Ost, the tape of the Jazz Contemporaries at George’s in 1957 made its way to Larry Ridley several years ago. Freddie Hubbard heard it before passing away in 2008 and expressed his hope that it would eventually be made available to the public. Ridley says he’s working to make that happen: “I’ve had it (the tape) remastered and I’m going to put it out and use it to establish some sort of scholarship fund with the proceeds that come from it.”