Last modified: Thursday, February 12, 2004
IU's David Baker and fellow jazz masters to revisit Indianapolis jazz scene of the 1930s and '40s
During the 1930s and '40s, when swing was king and bebop was beginning to blast off, the Indianapolis jazz scene was one of the hottest in the country, and at the heart of that scene was the Circle City's own Indiana Avenue.
"(Indiana Avenue) was very much like a section of Harlem, with two or three major ballrooms and clubs dotted all the way from Ohio Street and Indiana Avenue to Lockefield Gardens. It was the center of black culture, a place where music played six nights a week, all night long," recalled David Baker, Indiana University Distinguished Professor of Music and one of the many jazz greats who started out there on the path to stardom.
Baker has gathered a team of musicians, including fellow Indianapolis jazz master David Young, IU jazz professor Luke Gillespie and bassist Frankie Smith, to recreate the city's legendary jazz scene in a concert on Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. at the John Waldron Arts Center Auditorium in Bloomington. Also appearing as part of the "Indiana Avenue Revisited" concert will be the Hampton Sisters, who will be accompanied by Indy saxophone titan Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson and percussionist Lawrence Clark III. The concert is part of a series of events scheduled during IU's 20th annual Arts Weeks celebration.
"David Young and I not only played together, but we played two years together at the Topper (a jazz hotspot on 34th Street in Indianapolis). This will give us a chance to recreate the tunes we played back then," Baker said. He added that he welcomes the opportunity to perform at the Waldron auditorium, which will offer an intimate, almost club-like setting.
A one-mile stretch of road, just northwest of Indianapolis' Monument Circle, Indiana Avenue once was filled with jazz clubs, restaurants, cafes and theaters. The neighborhood served as a training ground for a who's who of the century's greatest jazz musicians, including J.J. Johnson, the Montgomery brothers (Wes, Buddy and Monk), Slide Hampton, Leroy Vinnegar, Freddie Hubbard, Larry Ridley, Jimmy Spaulding, Virgil Jones, Jimmy Coe, Carl Perkins, Melvin Rhyne, David Young and Baker himself.
Indiana Avenue also hosted some of the biggest acts of the day. B.B. King, Count Basie's Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis all made stops at "The Avenue" to headline venues like the Cotton Club, Sunset Terrace and the Walker Theatre. The latter was built by Madame C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist who became the nation's first self-made black millionairess. The Walker Theatre opened in 1927 at 617 Indiana Ave. and soon became the center of the jazz scene. A $2.3 million renovation of the theatre was completed in 1987, and today it is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Indianapolis was still a segregated city during the heyday of the city's jazz boom, and several musicians, including Baker and his mentor J.J. Johnson, were products of the all-black Crispus Attucks High School. Yet Baker said that the clubs on Indiana Avenue refused to reciprocate in the racial discrimination. "There were black and tan clubs where whites were welcome and any musician could come to cut his teeth," Baker said. "I can't remember any one club being all black. Everyone was welcome."
Indiana Avenue continued to thrive until the end of the 1950s, Baker said. However, the next decade ushered in the era of urban renewal and desegregation. The avenue underwent a gradual change, Baker said, but by the late 1960s it had ceased to be the jazz mecca it had previously been. Most of the musicians who had honed their skills there had moved on to make their marks in cities like New York, Chicago and New Orleans. By the late 1950s, Baker and David Young had left Indianapolis to become founding members of the George Russell Sextet. By the end of the 1960s, Baker had learned a new instrument (the cello), established a jazz studies department at IU Bloomington and set forth in his current role as a cultural leader and advocate for jazz education.
Still, Baker said, there was a time when Indiana Avenue was "the place to be." Most nights he could be heard playing with his group at the Topper on 34th Street. The Dave Baker Quartet featured Baker on trombone, Young on tenor saxophone, Harold Gooch on bass and "Killer" Ray Appleton on drums. The musicians would play until 1 a.m., then hop over to one of the after-hours clubs, such as the Missile Room, and sit in with groups led by the late guitarist Wes Montgomery or trombonist J.J. Johnson, who passed away in 2001. In the 1940s and '50s, it also was fashionable to go listen to the soulful sounds of the Hampton family, which included sisters Aletra and Virtue, who are still going strong in their sixth decade of performing swing, and rhythm and blues.
When the Hampton Sisters and Baker's group get together in Bloomington on Feb. 28, they will represent a generation whose legacy will be felt for years to come. Baker is excited about introducing a new generation of jazz lovers to the sounds made famous on Indiana Avenue. "We're going to try to recreate what it was like at the Topper," he said.
Ticket prices are $12 for the general public, $10 for students and senior citizens, and $6 for children 12 and under. For more information about Arts Weeks events, visit https://www.indiana.edu/~artsweek/.