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Indiana Avenue: One of the greatest influences on jazz you never heard

By Vernon A. Williams

Like most who don’t live in Central Indiana, when I moved to Indianapolis 18 years ago, I knew nothing about the city’s Indiana Avenue District.

Several weeks ago, I declared an extension to Black History Month since February 2019 was replete with news that insulted, injured or marginalized African Americans.

In truth, March wasn’t much better, particularly with the news of the Mueller Report unable to confirm collusion between the administration and Soviet Union leadership. But there were a string of positive events and advancements during the addendum to Black History Month. And frankly, it felt good just commandeering the extra time to celebrate.

While I have posted Black History facts and firsts from March 1st and will continue to do so until March 31, clearly the greatest learning experience for me – and likely several hundreds of people who filled each of the three performances – was the presentation of the original play, “The Price of Progress: The Indiana Avenue/IUPUI Story.”

The concept for the stage production was the brainchild of Dr. Khalilah Shabazz and Karina Garduno of the IUPUI Multicultural Center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

The two sought a culturally-sensitive event that spoke to the unique relationship between the campus and the Black community that existed in that downtown location before the 1969 birth of IUPUI. Shabazz and Garduno brought me in as playwright and producer. It was a challenge that required extensive research and conversations with dozens who lived on the Avenue.

The end result was a two-act, multimedia stage experience filled with drama, comedy, dance and song – not to mention a wealth of information about both the university and the neighborhood before its arrival. The three sold-out performances at the Campus Center Theater were as educational as they were entertaining.

To summon the essence of Indiana Avenue, conjure thoughts of Stony Island and the South Side in Chicago, 25th Avenue and the Midtown District in Gary, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis. The heyday of Indiana Avenue coincided with the much more widely renowned Harlem Renaissance in New York.

Indiana Avenue was a mecca for jazz musicians. The ambiance and flavor that attracted the legends to this modest African American community in the state’s capital exceeded the lure and lore of Kansas City, Detroit, anywhere in the U.S. when it came to that musical genre. Everybody who was anybody came during the height of the district.

Famous Black musicians headlining segregated clubs in downtown Indianapolis, rarely left town without dropping by Indiana Avenue where they would jam to the delight of their own people at jumpin’ after-hour spots up and down The Avenue. A few of those stars were Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald. Nat King Cole. Cannonball Adderley. Count Basie. Sarah Vaughn and more!

Even more impressive is the lineage of jazz greats raised, nurtured or influenced by Indiana Avenue. The legendary Wes Montgomery heads that list of Indianapolis homegrown jazz icons.

The musical honor roll included Freddie Hubbard, Eubie Blake, Dave Baker, J.J. Johnson, Larry Ridley, Jimmy Coe, Noble Sissle, Erroll Grandy and the Ink Spots – to name a few.

Indiana Avenue was the main Indy corridor slicing through the near-west side. It rapidly became home to Black-owned businesses, churches, social institutions and jazz clubs. Completion of the Walker building in 1927 brought additional prominence to the area. The building housed Madam C.J. Walker’s manufacturing company, a theater that attracted national artists and performers, and office space for Black professionals and entrepreneurs.

Through collaborations with IUPUI and funding provided by the Eli Lilly Foundation, the Walker is undergoing a facelift that will bring that national landmark into the new millennium. Closed for the massive renovation, the Walker building turnstiles are expected to resume turning in 2020.

Just as Gary Roosevelt High School was the outcome of discrimination that did not welcome Black students to matriculate alongside white peers, Crispus Attucks was an educational refuge and life training ground for the brightest young and best African American scholars in Indianapolis. The two institutions referred to each other as “cousins” in the sixties – both producing an endless list of high achieving Black Americans.

The Indianapolis near West Side became the place for African Americans to create their forcibly segregated slice of the American Dream over more than 50 years. Irrefutably, the decline of the once vibrant Indiana Avenue community during the 1950s and 1960s was a precursor to the inevitable construction of IUPUI.

The university opts to honor that history by engaging in activities designed to sustain the cultural significance of Indiana Avenue as well as create platforms for dialogue on race.

The lively and colorful production was an exhilarating, sensory reminder to some, and revelation to most, of a defining era in the culture of Black Americans. The Indiana Avenue Story is one that needs to be told and retold over and over for all; to affirm for unborn generations the glory of another example of Black cultural and intellectual excellence!

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society.Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

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