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Along the Avenue: the Legacy of Indianapolis Jazz

Organist Melvin Rhyne, who first made his reputation playing with Wes Montgomery during the halcyon days of Indianapolis' Indiana Avenue scene, performed in Bloomington this past Sunday at Tutto Bene as part of a benefit for local collective Jazz From Bloomington. His tenor saxophonist was a longtime favorite of mine, David Young, who played in the legendary George Russell-David Baker sextet. Indiana Avenue archivist David Williams also brought along a wealth of memorabilia, celebrating the era when Rhyne, Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Larry Ridley, and many other future jazz stars could be seen and heard jamming regularly along Indianapolis' main stem.

A few years ago Sonny Rollins, who's performing at Carnegie Hall this evening (you can hear him talk about it here), came to Indianapolis as the star attraction of the first Indy Jazz Fest. He played at the Madame Walker Theatre, which is the only significant landmark that remains on Indiana Avenue. It was the first time I'd seen a jazz artist of Rollins' stature, and when I walked into the amber-lit, 1920s Harlem Renaissance style auditorium with Kind of Blue playing in the overhead speakers, it felt like I was entering a church... the way entering a church should feel. At the time I had just written an article about Indiana Avenue for Indianapolis' alternative newsweekly, NUVO, which published it as part of a commemoration for Rollins and the inauguration of the festival. Here's part 1 of the article:

Indianapolis, the past recaptured: Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery sitting in with Sun Ra at the Senate Avenue YMCA. Cannonball Adderley stretched out ecstatically in his chair at the smoky afterhours Missile Room, his eyes closed and his thumb raised in hipster benediction as he hears Montgomery's blues-buttered octaves for the first time. Pookie Johnson and Buddy Parker throwing down on saxophone with bebop legends Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray at a post-gig jam session. David Baker's progressive-bop band holding court at the Topper on 34th Street before going on to form the nucleus of the revolutionary George Russell sextet. A group of young turks known as the Jazz Contemporaries kicking out 1950s hardbop at George's, a bar at the intersection of Indiana and Senate Avenue and Vermont Street; their ranks included Hubbard as well as Larry Ridley and Jimmy Spaulding, future sidemen on many classic Blue Note albums of the 1960s. The Montgomery Brothers and the Hampton family establishing musical dynasties like forerunners of the Marsalises in New Orleans.

This is the jazz history of Indianapolis, as rich and deep as the soil our crops come from, shadowed by the political agents of segregation, economic dislocation, and cultural change. Its soundtrack, if it could be heard today, would be the music that spilled out into the streets on summer nights in the days before air-conditioning, the doors propped open, the Avenue alive and a town unto itself, with pool halls, restaurants, barber shops, shoe shine stands, pharmacies, doctors' and lawyers' offices, stores, apartments and houses and the crown jewel of the African-American community, the Madame Walker Theatre. It alone still stands today.

"By the time I was in high school (1945), the Avenue was jumping," says Indiana University professor David Baker, an internationally renowned musician, composer, and jazz educator. "There were clubs from one end of it to the other, from Ohio Street to Lockefield Gardens. There was the Cotton Club, the Sunset Terrace, the Missile Room, George's Bar, Henri's, the Red Keg... There was the Sky Club, with tap dancers and pantomimists and female impersonators too. You name it and it was happening."

These were the places where Indianapolis musicians learned to survive and thrive, when jazz education took place in the clubs and in all-night musical jousts known as "cutting contests," in which players tried endlessly to top each other's riffs and licks. Montgomery, Hubbard, Ridley and J.J. Johnson all honed their art along the Avenue, as did so many others, less well-known but certainly compatible in terms of talent: pianists Erroll Grandy and Melvin Rhyne, guitarist Paul Weeden, trumpeters Virgil Jones and Maceo Hampton, saxophonists Charles Cox, Jimmy Coe, David Young, and the aforementioned Johnson. They jammed freely with the big names that came through town and often bested them. "Any out-of-town musician that walked into those after-hours sessions did so with trepidation," says Baker. "There were no secrets in the jazz world. Everybody knew who these cats were."

Then there were the homegrown virtuosos who left Indianapolis for the West Coast, including the Montgomery Brothers, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and pianist Carl Perkins. "No one talks about an Indianapolis school of jazz, but you could," says Ted Gioia, Palo Alto-based author of the critically acclaimed books West Coast Jazz and The History of Jazz. "The players from there always had a distinctive style, a tremendous but relaxed sense of swing. They fit in really well with the West Coast sound; their music always cooked along, but without ever sounding anxious or rushed. I always wondered, 'Is there something in the water out there?'"

Gioia believes that Carl Perkins, an immensely gifted pianist who died of alcoholism at the age of 29 in 1958, is "one of the most undiscovered talents in jazz history." As a child he developed an unusual style of playing with his left arm held sideways because he couldn't quite reach the keyboard; he sometimes used his elbow to hit bass notes. He was an integral part of units led by Art Pepper and Curtis Counce, and widely respected among musicians. "Whenever Miles Davis was in California, he would spend hours with Carl exchanging musical ideas," says Gioia. "The body of work he put together is too strong to be forgotten."

If there was a ground zero for this explosion of Indianapolis jazz that reached across three decades, it was Crispus Attucks High School, founded in 1927 as a means of diverting black students from other Indianapolis schools. "Indianapolis schools were not actually segregated until the 1920s, when (KKK leader) D.C. Stephenson proclaimed, 'I am the law,'" says Baker. Attucks became a haven of African-American scholarship and achievement, with legendary music teachers such as Russell W. Brown, Norman Merrifield and Lavern Newsome tutoring students like Baker, J.J. Johnson, Spaulding, Vinnegar, Montgomery, the Hamptons and countless others. Ruth McArthur's conservatory down on the Avenue provided valuable instruction as well. Outside the nurturing confines of Attucks, the students went where there was opportunity, and the opportunity was jazz.

"People tend to to excel in the areas that are open to them," says Baker. "At that time, a black was expected to play religious music, R & B or jazz. I can remember auditioning for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and being told, in no uncertain terms, that even though my audition was the best, there was no chance that I'd become a member."

Fortunately there was no shortage of work on Indiana Avenue, otherwise known as the "Black Man's Downtown" or the "Street of Dreams." The Avenue and the area around it had been a center of African-American residency and business activity since the turn of the century. In its earliest days it spawned musical careers of note in ragtime, the blues and big bands. Ragtime composer Russell Smith got his start there, as did Noble Sissle, who went on with Eubie Blake to do the musical Shuffle Along ("without it there would be no West Side Story," says Baker). Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, the most popular blues duo of the 1930s, met waiting tables at Dee's Paradise. Speed Webb put together one of that era's hottest bands-sadly unrecorded-which featured Roy Eldridge on trumpet and Teddy Wilson on piano. The Ink Spots began as a street corner group, then known as the Riffs. Champion Jack Dupree jump-started his barrelhouse-piano legacy with a spell in Indianapolis during the early 1940s, when he was often featured at Denver and Sea Ferguson's four-story Cotton Club on Senate and Vermont.

Such a history would be impressive in its own right, but the players that came out of Baker's generation left the imprint of Indianapolis on American jazz forever. J.J. Johnson practically reinvented the trombone as a jazz instrument, introducing what Ira Gitler called "a swift, extremely legato, eighth-note style." Wes Montgomery's notes-to-octaves-to-chords way of constructing a solo influenced jazz guitarists around the world. Wes' brother Monk pioneered the use of the Fender bass in Lionel Hampton's band. Baker has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, founded the jazz studies program at Indiana University and become director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, dedicated to preserving the history of American jazz through performance.

"Jazz was still an underground music when I was growing up in Indianapolis," Baker says. "You heard Nat King Cole and Louis Jordan on the radio. If you wanted to hear jazz, you had to listen to 'Randy's Record Shop,'" a program that came out of Tennessee. There were half a dozen record stores on the Avenue, one of them owned by an ex-fighter named Kid Edwards (Champion Jack Dupree's sponsor) but Baker says none of them carried much jazz, stocking mostly gospel and R & B instead. He and his friends headed down to the Lyric Record Shop on the corner of Illinois Street, across from where the bus station is now.

"Everybody went down to the Lyric on Thursdays, when the records came in," says Baker. "You knew the label by the color of the record-Dial was yellow, Savoy was purple... We'd go and listen to new 78s by Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon and then hand them back to the people behind the counter. That was the record store-white, black, it didn't matter, if you were looking for jazz you went there."

Baker and his friends also encountered nationally famous jazz acts at the many venues in town that hosted them. The Circle Theater, the English Theater, and the Indiana Roof all featured national acts, as did the Cotton Club and the Sunset on the Avenue. The bands and performers that came through included Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford, Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Illinois Jacquet. Many of them jammed afterwards at Henri's, where a sign above the entrance read, "Through these portals pass the world's finest musicians."

(To be continued. Part 2: Indiana Avenue: From Glory to Decline.)

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