Night Lights Classic Jazz

Indiana Avenue: From Glory to Decline

(This is a continuation of a previous post, Along the Avenue: the Legacy of Indianapolis Jazz.)

To understand the enormity of what transpired, one would have to have been there, somewhere in the beginning, during that time when hope boogalooed, time-stepped and literally “ran wild” down the Avenue and throughout the flurry of neighborhoods that comprised the city’s black community.–Mari Evans, “Ethos and Creativity”

Lockefield GardensIndianapolis in those days was sharing in the euphoric glow of the post-World War II economy. Lockefield Gardens, the expansive and beautiful housing complex built during the Depression to provide affordable housing for African-Americans, still served as an anchor for the Avenue. The city remained deeply segregated, however. “The only white people I usually saw were on television,” says Wilma Gibbs, program archivist for African-American history at the Indiana Historical Society. Polk's Milk bottle cap She recalls that Riverside, the amusement park on 30th Street, would admit blacks only on special “Polk’s Milk Days,” when they could use saved-up bottle caps to gain entrance. An “Up South” attitude dominated, preventing any kind of real equality in the workforce or the school and transportation systems.

For white people, however, the Avenue was not off-limits. Many white musicians such as Dick Dickinson made their way to the Avenue in search of musical experience, and white fans did not feel uncomfortable there either. “It was not a place where white people would congregate, but people who were interested in the music went there and nobody gave them any trouble,” says Duncan Schiedt, a photographer and author of The Jazz State of Indiana.

Carolyn Autry, a librarian at the Indiana Historical Society, remembers going to the Avenue on Friday nights in the early 1950s with friends from Tech High School (Freddie Hubbard’s alma mater). “We’d go to the clubs that let us in,” she says. “We couldn’t order anything, but they’d let us sit in the back. We went primarily for the jazz. Wes Montgomery was playing then. The Hampton Sisters were so much fun. There was a great blues singer at the Brass Rail named Ophelia, a big woman who could also pick up 50-cent pieces with various parts of her anatomy. We really enjoyed ourselves; it was a community within a community.”

Gunther SchullerSometimes the white visitors were famous. Gunther Schuller, the composer and scholar associated with the Third Stream movement (an attempt to merge jazz and classical music), heard David Baker’s 18-piece big band in early 1959. “It scared him out of his wits,” laughs Baker. “He said, ‘What else is out here?’ So I took him to the Missile Room to hear Wes’ trio.”

The Missile Room sat next to a funeral home across the street from the Madame Walker Theatre, and was run by a policeman named Jacques Durham. Schuller wrote about his experience in an issue of The Jazz Review: “Wes keeps the listener constantly on the edge of his seat as he steadily pursues this target over a period of six to 10 choruses, eliminating one musical obstacle after another until the ultimate goal has been reached… the three of them seemed as if they were possessed, and the impossible things they were doing became almost painfully unbearable.” Schuller pronounced it

a caliber of jazz quite superior to the often blase big-name jazz of the metropolitan centers.

Wes MontgomeryThis was the same club where Cannonball Adderley, Lennie Tristano and George Shearing would drop in four months later after a gig at the Indiana Theater. Adderley was so excited by Montgomery’s performance that he tried to call Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews at three in the morning. The Missile Room had no phone, so Adderley went to a filling station, which had no phone either. No matter; on his next trip to New York City, Adderley persuaded Keepnews to come out to Indianapolis and hear Montgomery. Keepnews did so, offered Montgomery a contract on the spot, and produced more than a dozen of his albums over the next four years. Those recordings constitute a good part of Montgomery’s jazz legacy today.

Even Montgomery, as active as he was locally in the 1950s, was forced to hold down a day job, working at Polk’s Milk and also as a welder. “Everybody worked full-time,” says Baker. Indianapolis had a thriving club scene; there were many clubs along 30th Street too, like the Hub-Bub, Mr. B’s and the 19th Hole, while 16th Street sported the Turf Bar and the 16th Street Tavern. But the city lacked two of the key elements that Ted Gioia identifies for a regional scene to hold onto its players: record companies and concert promoters. Around 1960 several important musicians left town, with Freddie Hubbard and Larry Ridley going to New York, and Wes Montgomery and the Montgomery Brothers heading to the West Coast. Other changes were at work as well.

“Jazz was no longer as important,” Baker says. “TV had begun its ascendancy.” Big-name acts still came through the city, but they sometimes reflected unwelcome aesthetic developments. Baker remembers going to see the John Coltrane Quartet in September of 1965, at a club called the Pink Poodle on Senate and Indiana Avenue.

“Everybody thought they were going to hear ‘My Favorite Things,’” says Baker. “But Trane had moved on to something else.” The Quartet unleashed a wave of furious sonic majesty that night, giving the crowd a generous serving of complex, aggressive, strangely beautiful 1960s free jazz. The crowd wasn’t having it.

“The place was really hostile,” Baker recalls. “The club was emptying out after the first hour.” A poster outside the club announced a show for “John Coldtrain.” Baker showed the poster afterwards to Coltrane, who shook his head and said, “Well, every time I think I’m getting some place…”

Indiana Avenue IUPUIThe most influential changes were socioeconomic and political. Integration was taking hold; Indiana Avenue was no longer the enforced town-within-a-town. And then there was the specter of “urban renewal” and Interstate 65. The highway and the expansion of IUPUI cut away and destroyed significant African-American neighborhoods. Lockefield Gardens was closed. Homes, schools, businesses and churches crumbled under wrecking balls and bulldozers. A community and a way of life that nurtured the development of so many gifted artists disappeared in a matter of years.

“They tore down all the landmarks, everything except the Walker Theatre,” says Baker. “And now Lockefield’s an upscale condo that I don’t think many wealthy people could afford, with a display out front of Jimmy Spaulding’s brother’s saxophone sculpture.”

“What I remember about the Avenue was a sense of possibility,” says Indianapolis poet and educator Mari Evans, whose essay “Ethos and Creativity” in Where We Live: Essays About Indiana addresses the issues facing African-American artists and residents in mid-century and present-day Indianapolis. “And then I remember wrecking balls wiping out houses.”

Many people seem to think of Indianapolis, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, that “there is no there there.” There was a there there, though, in the Indianapolis jazz world of the 1940s and 1950s. “Nobody could’ve seen the significance of it at the time, so it wasn’t that well-chronicled,” says Baker. The Indiana Historical Society has done much to preserve documents of the era in its archives, and Baker is at work on a book about it, as is Indiana Avenue historian David Williams. “If a book on Indianapolis jazz isn’t done soon, almost all of the primary sources will be gone,” says Baker.

Perhaps the Indy Jazz Festival will revive some of the spirit of the Avenue and the music that helped sustain it, if only for a day or two. In the future people might say, “I saw Sonny Rollins at the Madame Walker Theatre!” History will happen again, but this time with a sense of itself, not, as it did 50 years ago, as a bustling procession of mostly-unknown women and men carrying out life in the stores and offices and streets and making music in the night.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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