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The Once-Thriving Jazz Scene Of ... Indianapolis?

The Madame Walker Theater is one of the surviving iconic buildings on Indiana Avenue.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Madame Walker Theater is one of the surviving iconic buildings on Indiana Avenue.

In the segregated years of the 20th century, many American cities with significant black populations had what was known as a "main stem": a primary boulevard of business and cultural activity for the African-American community. In Los Angeles, it was Central Avenue; in Detroit, it was Hastings Street; in Harlem, it was 125th Street; and in Indianapolis — the city that bequeathed us jazz greats such as J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, David Baker, Slide Hampton and Wes Montgomery — it was Indiana Avenue.

Indiana Avenue and Indianapolis jazz history have been in the spotlight recently as a result of the new Wes Montgomery CD Echoes of Indiana Avenue, which presents previously unknown studio and nightclub recordings of Montgomery made in Indianapolis in the late 1950s. They provide further evidence that "India-no-place," as the city was once derisively called, is a significant jazz capital, knowledge that Gunther Schuller was already hip to in 1959. That's when he wrote in Jazz Review that Indianapolis offered "a caliber of jazz quite superior to the often blasé big-name jazz of the metropolitan centers."

Today, few of the original buildings from Indiana Avenue's glory days remain, save for the majestic Madame Walker Theater. Like many once-thriving black city neighborhoods, the area faded in the decades following WWII, a victim of interstate highway construction, "urban renewal" schemes and changing residential patterns. The clubs, the businesses and most of the people who inhabited the avenue at the height of its vitality are gone. But the influence of the era lingers, like light from a vanished star, in the artists who have come of age listening to the recordings of Johnson, Hubbard and Montgomery — and studying with David Baker.

While the contributions of those masters have been well-documented, the Indianapolis scene, like those of other major jazz centers, produced numerous other musicians who made the sound of mid-20th-century American jazz flourish. Organist Mel Rhyne, saxophonist David Young, trumpeter Virgil Jones, drummer Killer Ray Appleton and the Hampton Sisters are among those who made their mark, both in the city and beyond. Here are five recordings by other artists that further reflect the musical legacy of Indiana Avenue:

Copyright 2012 WFIU

David Brent Johnson is the host of Afterglow and Night Lights. An Indianapolis native and IU alumnus, David began his radio career at Bloomington community radio station WFHB, where he hosted the weekly jazz program All That Jazz. A writer who’s published frequently in Bloom Magazine, The Ryder, the Bloomington Independent, and Indianapolis Nuvo, he has won two Society of Professional Journalists awards for his arts writing.