On the heels of this past weekend’s Great Day in Indy photo homage to Indiana jazz musicians, here’s an article I wrote several years ago about some of the Hoosier state’s lesser-known but interesting artists:
If you walk the streets of Indianapolis today, you’re bound to find scattered glimpses of the city’s past preserved amid the present. The architectural majesty of buildings such as Union Station, the Indiana Roof, and Madame Walker Theater conjures an era when couples went dancing and hundreds of passenger trains came through town daily. The crumbling-brick ruins of the factories and warehouses just south of downtown speak of a time when meat packing and the manufacture of automobiles played important roles in Indianapolis industry. Streetcar systems known as interurbans crisscrossed the state and coal was delivered via horse-drawn carts.
Crispus Attucks High School is a reminder that segregation once set down strict physical and cultural boundaries in a metropolis that boasted the highest percentage of African-American citizens in any city north of the Ohio River.
This was Indianapolis in the 1920s, a decade in which radio, phonographic records and talking motion pictures all burst into the nation’s consciousness, creating the media culture that set the template for the way we live today.
It was the era of sound, and the sound was jazz.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously dubbed it the “Jazz Age,” and the first “talkie,” or movie with sound, was The Jazz Singer. What was the sound of jazz in the city and throughout the state of Indiana? Who were some of the unsung artists who helped perpetuate this new music that would later flower so spectacularly along Indiana Avenue, the “main stem” of Indianapolis’ African-American community?
Hail an anonymous Indy native on the sidewalk, and chances are that he or she has at least heard of J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard, who sprang from the Indiana Avenue scene of the 1940s and ’50s. There’s a decent chance that the name of David Baker, who came from the same place and time and who is now one of the leading jazz educators in the world, will bring a sign of recognition as well. And, of course, Hoagy Carmichael’s moniker will provoke an assertive nod.
But what of Reginald DuValle, the African-American musician who tutored Hoagy in the ways of jazz when Carmichael was a lonely, depressed teen-ager, living on the city’s Westside across from the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane?
What of Emil Seidel, the Indianapolis composer, pianist and publisher of ragtime music, whose orchestra was the first to record Carmichael”s legendary “Stardust”?
Or Charlie Davis, whose group used to serenade dancers under the stars at the Casino Gardens on the banks of the White River? Or the Parisian Redheads, one of the nation’s most famous “all-girl” bands? Or Andy Secrest, the trumpeter from Muncie who replaced Bix Beiderbecke in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra when Beiderbecke, succumbing to alcohol and depression, began his descent into the early death that sealed his reputation as the doomed young romantic of jazz history?
Even Indiana jazz fans may not know of Speed Webb, who assembled a band that rivaled those of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Or Jack Purvis, the Kokomo-born artist who allegedly fled police over rooftops in southern France, climbed the Alps barefoot, ran guns in Mexico and managed to record a number of solos on trumpet, from 1929 to 1935.
How did it happen? How did Indiana, a state so often considered behind the cultural curve, nurture such a hotbed of jazz talent? And who were these long-dead and forgotten artists who provided the soundtrack for a decade of change?
Not a cultural backwater
“Jazz seemed to have come north and settled famously in Chicago,” says Duncan Schiedt, eminent Indiana jazz historian and author of the definitive book on the topic, The Jazz State of Indiana. “However, Indianapolis was a waystop for travelers, and many found the Hoosier capital hospitable and already well-populated with blacks from earlier migrations. There was a thriving middle class among the black population, with professionals in every walk of life, including music. And World War I had taken many young men out of state and abroad for the first time in their lives, and they came back ready for something new.”
He adds that the formation of campus bands played an important role, too: “Every sizable college that permitted dancing at all had its own band or bands.”
Schiedt also traces some of the city’s burgeoning musical culture to its location and its strong German-American community (33 percent of the population in 1890), as does scholar John Edward Hasse, whose 1981 Indiana University dissertation, The Creation and Dissemination of Indianapolis Ragtime 1897-1930, provides a fascinating look at the origins of the jazz scene in Indianapolis.
Situated in the geographic center of the state, Indianapolis was also very nearly the center of the United States population from 1890 to 1920. The National Road (U.S. 40), the gateway to the West, ran right through it. “People growing up here were subject to an immense number of diverse cultural influences,” says historian Richard Sudhalter.
The city and the state were not the cultural backwater that many might think; literature, in particular, flourished here. Hasse cites a 1947 study that showed Indiana as having the second-highest number of best-selling authors from 1900 to 1940, right on the heels of New York State.
Indianapolis was also awash with pianos. Hasse estimates there were more than 25,000 in the city by 1920. Having a parlor piano in the home was a sign of middle-class achievement in the early 20th century, as well as a source of entertainment. The growth of the piano and sheet music industries roughly accompanied the rise of ragtime, a music which is, by Hasse’s definition, “a style of American vernacular music which features a syncopated melody against an even accompaniment.”
J. Russell Robinson, born in Indianapolis in 1892, is known today, if he is known at all, for having been a pianist in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (or ODJB), the first recorded jazz band. He was also the composer of “Singin” the Blues” (a song immortalized as a jazz performance when Beiderbecke, Eddie Lang and Frankie Trumbauer recorded it in 1927), “Margie,” “Beale Street Mama,” “Swing Mister Charlie,” “Portrait of Jenny” and “Meet Me at No Special Place” (both recorded by Nat King Cole in the late 1940s) and Cab Calloway’s hit “Reefer Man.” It was in ragtime, however, that Robinson, who suffered constant pain in his right arm as a result of childhood polio, got his start. “That Eccentric Rag,” written for sheet-music publisher Isadore Seidel at the music counter of Block’s Department Store, eventually “became a staple of traditional jazz repertory,” according to Hasse, republished as “Eccentric” in 1923 and recorded at least 30 times by 1981.
From 1913 on, Robinson worked in motion picture theaters and in vaudeville, performing with his wife Marguerite Kendall, who co-authored many ragtime hits with him. He also made dozens of player piano rolls before joining the ODJB, and he was widely esteemed as a “hot” pianist; African-American musician Spencer Williams described him as “the white man with colored fingers.”
His wife died in 1921; Robinson continued to compose songs and re-joined the ODJB for a brief, unsuccessful revival in 1936. He died in California in 1963. Hasse says that Robinson, of all the Indianapolis ragtime composers, “cut more piano player rolls and sound recordings and achieved more fame as a pianist, had the largest number of national hits among his popular songs and spanned the greatest number of years with his compositional output.”
“That Demon Rag”
Another Indianapolis ragtime composer of early renown, now forgotten, was May Aufderheide. Born in the city in 1888, she came from a German-American family and studied piano with her aunt. She began composing ragtime around the time she got engaged, publishing her first piece, “Dusty Rag,” in 1908, just six weeks before her wedding. According to Hasse, she published 19 compositions between 1908 and 1912, and several of them became hits. Her compositional career ended rather mysteriously, however, after 1912.
Hasse notes that “Dusty Rag” and her composition “The Thriller Rag” “were each issued by no less than six different piano player roll companies, and were among the first rags to be resurrected when ragtime was revived in the 1940s. This fact suggests a final irony: May Aufderheide enjoyed more immediate success with her rags than did any other Indianapolis composer, yet after only four years of composing, she seems to have stopped for good.” Hasse suggests that her artistic silence may have been brought on by her husband’s failed aspirations as an architect; she continued to play piano all of her life, however, and died in California in 1972.
Russell Smith, born in Kentucky in 1890, grew up in Indianapolis and composed a number of ragtime pieces, among them minor hits such as “Princess Rag” and “That Demon Rag.” More importantly, Smith formed one of the first significant African-American dance orchestras in the city. In 1911, his band became the first to play the Severin Hotel, an engagement that lasted for three years. Other members of the band included Noble Sissle, who later created the smash Broadway hit Shuffle Along with Eubie Blake, and Reginald DuValle. Smith eventually joined the nationally famous orchestra of James Reese Europe and played in the road companies of Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies, Sissle and Blake”s 1924 follow-up hit.
In 1935, Smith moved back permanently to Indianapolis. “He was shiftless but likable,” his niece told Hasse. “When he died he had nothing.” Hasse writes that Smith was working with a jazz trio or quartet in the late 1940s and early 1950s at Sandy’s, a tavern at 22nd and Meridian; he worked days as a janitor at a downtown bookstore. In 1956, he played at the first meeting of the Indianapolis Jazz Club, although he was no longer physically able to play piano rags. He died in Indianapolis in 1969.
Smith’s bandmate, Reginald DuValle, never left Indianapolis. He formed a band, the DuValle Blackbirds, that drew a packed house for the opening of the Madam Walker Theatre on Dec. 26, 1927. He was billed as “the Rhythm King” and hosted a weekly 15-minute program on Indianapolis radio station WKBF. DuValle’s son told Hoagy Carmichael biographer Richard Sudhalter that his father played “a style with the left hand working in a sort of stride manner. He had such big hands, he had a big stretch … he was way ahead of his time, especially with his chords – though his ‘feel’ was still ragtime.”
Indiana bandleader Charlie Davis referred to DuValle as “the elder statesman of Indiana jazz.” Carmichael paid him due respect in his memoirs: “Reggie had the new black music tricks,” Carmichael wrote, and he credits DuValle with teaching him the art of improvisation. “Never play anything that ain’t right,” he told Carmichael. “You may not make any money, but you’ll never get mad at yourself.” In his Carmichael biography Stardust Melody, Sudhalter reports that Smith continued to lead bands in the 1930s while working days at the Linco Gas Company. He remained active in music and died in 1953.
A historic session
Another major pianist and bandleader in 1920s Indianapolis was Emil Seidel, who came from a family of musicians and music-store owners. The stores, known as Seidel’s, had several downtown Indianapolis locations. Duncan Schiedt, in his book The Jazz State of Indiana, says that Emil started as a child pianist in the pit of the Lyric Theater, and that he once sat in as the leader of his older brother’s combo at the Granalba Cafe at the corner of Massachusetts and Ohio streets. In the early 1920s, he went to New York City, where he made piano rolls and played in orchestra pit bands. Upon his return to Indianapolis, he joined the house band at the Apollo, a theater on Illinois Street; by 1925, he was leading the group, and he honed it into one of the city’s finest working bands. In 1927, he was approached by Hoagy Carmichael, who had a new composition he wanted to record. The composition was “Stardust.”
“Though the song had no formal orchestral arrangement, Hoagy had a lead sheet, which he brought to the Apollo, where he persuaded Emil to give the tune a try,” Schiedt wrote in Jazz State. “[Seidel arranger] Dick Kent recalls that he, Byron Smart and Gene Woods would stroll the alley with Hoagy, as the composer went over every phrase, harmony and nuance with them, humming the solo parts and suggesting voicings until they all got the picture.”
“Stardust” was recorded for the first time by the Emil Seidel Orchestra at the Gennett Recording Studio on Oct. 31, 1927. Rick Kennedy, chronicler of the Gennett story in Jelly Roll, Bix and Hoagy, says of this original uptempo version that “it would have benefited greatly from a little more rehearsal, more formally arranged scores, and perhaps, some rest before making the 70-mile drive to Richmond … One saving grace is Carmichael’s meandering, but beautiful, piano solo.”
“Stardust” did not become a hit until it was recorded by Don Redman and Isham Jones two years later. Seidel’s orchestra recorded a dozen more songs through early 1928 at Gennett; later that year, he went back to New York, where he became renowned as a radio accompanist.
In Jazz State of Indiana, Duncan Schiedt writes of the “terrific competition” Seidel had faced as an Indianapolis bandleader from the Charlie Davis band, which held down a standing gig at the Ohio Theater. Davis, whose father was a trombonist in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, began his musical career playing in various groups on the Notre Dame campus. After graduation, he led bands in Indianapolis, playing in silent film pits and hotels and eventually becoming the foremost purveyor of hot music in the city.
In 1924, they were playing Davis’ original composition “Copenhagen” at the Ohio when a struggling young Midwestern band named the Wolverines heard them. (“Goddam, I wish I’d written that,” J. Russel Robinson reportedly said upon hearing “Copenhagen.”) The Wolverines loved Davis’ song and asked him for permission to record it at Gennett. He agreed, and on May 6, 1924, the Wolverines, led by trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, recorded “Copenhagen,” which went on to become a jazz classic. (The sheet music subsequently published stated that “this arrangement is red hot as written. Play what you see and the horns will start smoking.”)
The session was historic for another reason: The Wolverines waxed “Riverboat Shuffle,” the first composition of a young songwriter named Hoagy Carmichael.
Davis’ band continued to evolve, growing larger as the novelty of small jazz combos began to wear off in the mid-1920s. Davis and co-leader Fritz Morris had 19 musicians by late 1927, and Schiedt says, “The orchestra was marked by a tight discipline rarely found in Indiana bands … Excess consumption of liquor, or the slightest hint of narcotics, would have meant instant dismissal.” Its singer was Dick Powell, who would later gain fame in Hollywood. Though the band never toured, it recorded for both Gennett and Vocalion, appeared on numerous radio broadcasts and, in 1930, shared the marquee with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. While there, they shot a 10-minute movie musical called “The Jazz Reporters” at Paramount’s Astoria, Long Island studio. The band broke up in the early 1930s and Davis entered the furniture and linoleum business in Oswego, N.Y. He recounted his career in a 1981 self-published book entitled That Band From Indiana.
Speed Webb, born in Peru, Ind., in 1906, led a band initially called the Hoosier Melody Lads, which cut a lost session for Gennett and appeared in several late-1920s movies. In 1929, the band featured Teddy Wilson on piano, Roy Eldridge on trumpet and Vic Dickenson on trombone – all of them veritable jazz hall-of-famers. Wilson, in later years, compared them to the Count Basie band, and others have ranked them with the Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway orchestras. They recorded two sessions for Okeh Records in 1929, but the recordings have never been found. Schiedt blames some of their failure to gain wider recognition on the lack of a white promoter, which was considered crucial to the success of African-American bands in those days. Webb eventually left the music business, got a college degree in 1942 and became involved in South Bend politics.
The Parisian Redheads were an all-girl band put together by an Indianapolis show business agent named Charlie Green. Most of the members were classically trained at music schools, colleges and high schools, according to Schiedt. Based out of Indianapolis, they played summer resorts, ballrooms and the vaudeville circuit, culminating in a performance at the famed Times Square Palace Theatre in New York in 1928. A year later, they played the Palace again, receiving top billing over the Marx Brothers. Around this time they were forced to change their name to the Bricktops after the Babe Egan Hollywood Redheads threatened legal action against them.
The group had two recording sessions, only one of which was released, on the Brunswick label. A number of key players in the Bricktops went on to join the Phil Spitalny All-Girl Orchestra, a 1940s group that merits much discussion in Sherrie Tucker’s recent book Swing Shift.
Two trumpeters of note
Finally, there are at least two Indiana trumpeters of note who are rarely mentioned in jazz histories. Andy Secrest, a hot trumpeter from Muncie who played with the Royal Peacock Orchestra, Ted Weems and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, got his big break when Paul Whiteman hired him as a backup for the fast-deteriorating Bix Beiderbecke in February 1929. Secrest sounded so much like Beiderbecke that record collectors were sometimes unable to tell the two apart in later years. “Perhaps more than any other white jazzman of his period, he suffered the curse of living in another man’s shadow,” wrote Sudhalter and co-author Philip R. Evans in their biography Bix: Man and Legend. “I idolized the guy … thought his style and tone were ahead of the times,” Secrest told the authors. “I started playing that way because it was the style I wanted to obtain, and by the time I joined the Whiteman band I sounded a good deal like him.”
“Secrest never achieved much range on the horn,” Sudhalter says, “but he played very well-ordered middle register solos. Not surprisingly, he moved away from the Bix approach as time went on.” Secrest re-located on the West Coast after leaving the Whiteman band and recorded with Bing Crosby as well as a number of prominent radio and recording studio orchestras. He eventually retired from music and entered the real estate business in the late 1950s. “His solos on [the] Bing Crosby recordings … are excellent jazz cornet playing by any standard,” Sudhalter and Evans wrote in their Beiderbecke biography. “Andy Secrest has remained, unjustly, the man who was unable to assume instant immortality as a surrogate Bix Beiderbecke.”
Sudhalter, in his excellent but controversial jazz history Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915-1945, has documented extensively the story of another lost-legend Indiana trumpeter, Jack Purvis, whom the Ellington trumpeter Rex Stewart declared “the swingingest white trumpet player I ever heard.” Among jazz musicians, a mythology has sprung up around Purvis, who was born in Kokomo in 1906. As a teen-ager he played both trumpet and trombone, and in 1923 joined Hal Denman’s band. Denman’s pianist remembered Purvis as being “awfully good – too good for us around here.”
In late 1929, he made his first recordings with Hal Kemp, sounding “passionate, dramatic – but at this point nervous, and his ideas incompletely formed,” writes Sudhalter in Lost Chords. His later recordings gained in majesty and drama, featuring “daredevil leaps to the high register, double-time outbursts, dramatic intensity.”
Colleagues, according to Sudhalter, recalled Purvis as a tall, good-looking man who sometimes wore a mustache, “dressed like a dandy and was always mooching money.” He took up flying and allegedly shipped out as a ship’s cook in the South Pacific in the early 1930s. His recording career ended in 1935; after that his run-ins with the law increased, landing him in jail in Texas for robbery in 1937. Downbeat wrote about his prison swing band that broadcast once a week in 1938; the broadcasts were allegedly so popular that one prisoner on death row won a stay of execution so he could listen to “my pals” one last time, the article stated.
After his release from prison in 1940, Purvis’ historical path tends to surface and disappear like an underground river. In 1962, he was found dead in a San Francisco roominghouse – supposedly. As Sudhalter reports, cornetist Jim Goodwin encountered a man in a San Francisco club six years later who claimed to be Purvis, somebody who “was the right age. Said the right things. Seemed to know a lot about the old days.” Goodwin saw him twice in one week, then never again. In many ways it’s a fitting end for the legend of Jack Purvis.
Children of the past
These, then, were some of the men and women who graced the Indiana jazz scene and beyond in the early 20th century. Their lives and pictures can be found here and there in museums and books; their music is even scarcer, and in many cases non-existent. They have faded far behind us, as has the world they came from.
Duncan Schiedt, describing the Casino Gardens on the banks of the White River, where Charlie Davis and Bix Beiderbecke”s bands played, says, “It is recalled as a place of Japanese lanterns, with moonlight dappling the quiet river below, and park-like surroundings in which neighborhood residents and their children would stroll in the music-filled air. Along the nearby road, motorists would listen, and honk their horns in appreciation after each number. Inside, as a precaution against Prohibition raids, each table was equipped with a little pocket into which one could quickly drop one’s liquor flask.”
It was just one of the places in Indiana where youth, hot jazz, romance and forbidden alcohol all mingled with no thought for the future, a future that would choose to remember only a few of the children of the past.