Saturday, November 1, 2014

Indianapolis Jazz



from Dave Rowe-
What follows is a review of David Leander Williams' Indianapolis
Jazz. The excuse is that most of it is about the time when Jazz was
acoustic and it IS about Indiana music. The review is by Matt Howard
(not the Matt Howard who played basketball so well for the Butler
Bulldogs and, by the way, I am not the Dave Rowe who played football
so well for the five different teams, including the Baltimore Colts.
Whatever became of them?). The review's title, Back to the Avenue,
refers to a previous, long article by Matt about D. D. Ferguson who
ran the South's music Chitlin' Circuit from Indianapolis' Indiana
Avenue. Will repeat it here in Acoustic Indiana if there is an
overwhelming demand from the readership. Say, five people. But be
warned, that's long. It was spread over two issues of The Reluctant
Famulus and totaled 10 small type pages.
This time around thanks go to Matt and TRF's editor, Tom Sadler,
for permission and text.


Back to the Avenue
by
Matt Howard

Indianapolis Jazz
The Masters, Legends and Legacy
of Indiana Avenue
David Leander Williams
The History Press 2014


   Thirty years ago David Williams returned from Ethiopia to New Jersey and was boasting to his friends about the old jazz scene in his native Indianapolis. One New Jerseyite with more ignorance than money offered $100 to Williams if he could prove his “fantasy.” Next time Williams was in Indianapolishe checked the central library for books on Indianapolis' jazzheritage and could not find a single one. As a result of this brief,unrequited search, he spent the next thirty years scouring old newspapers and requesting interviews. As a result he has nowproduced the very book he was originally looking for.
   Before going any further, let's take up metaphorical arms against that uniformed friend from the Garden State who certainly should have known of such Hoosiers as Wes Montgomery, the finest and most individual bass guitar player until Jimi Hendrix made it big. Or J.J. Johnson, one of the outstanding musicians who helped create Miles Davis' seminal Birth of the Cool. Or Grammy Award winning Freddie Hubbard. Or Leroy Vinnegar who laid the bass on the first jazz LP to sell over a million copies. Or...  well, you get the picture even if our New Jersey friend didn't.
   And where in Indianapolis did they all come from? From the early 20th Century when it first,
hit, jazz in Indianapolis WAS Indiana Avenue. The Avenue. Where the black folks lived, worked and had their party. Where Sea & D.D. Ferguson built their music empires.
   David Baker, notes in his foreword “This street was the heart and soul of the Indianapolis I knew.”
And of the music it nurtured, Williams added “Music was a metaphor for trails and tribulations that African Americans encountered. Contained within the lyrics of songs of many genes were the stories
that reflected the history of Indiana Avenue.” Such as Edmonia Henderson's “Brown-Skin Man” which was about “coloring,” which is the discrimination within the negro communities between
those of lighter and darker skin. That number ignited a controversy that had been brewing for sometime and still does, unfortunately.
   But The Avenue was a place with “the laughter and merriment of neatly attired high-stepping music lovers prancing down the Avenue in cadence with the sounds of the blues and jazz escaping from the Cotton Club. The hustle and bustle of everyday people hurrying to and fro enjoying the ambiance and warm handshakes and sincere hugs given and received by good folks happy to see one another.”
   Most performers from out of State, would play for one night and then leave on the “next thing
smoking.” Whereas the “stay-at-homes” of The Avenue were only celebrated in black Indianapolis but were not household names in the jazz world, so Williams' book has saved many from total obscurity.
   Like Noble Sissle who went on to produce Broadway musicals. “Doc Wheeler” Morin who arranged the Ink Spots' mega-hit “If I Didn't Care,” and Buck 'n' Bubbles, a tap dancing duo who were the first blacks anywhere to appear on television. They performed in the inaugural program of the world's first live telecast from London in 1936.
   There were those who should have been famous, such as Flo Gavin, who in the early '50s broke the racial barriers on local TV and downtown nightclubs. Aretta La Marre who once beat her room-mate in a New York singing contest. Her room-mate was Billie Holiday. And saxophonist Jimmy Coe, who replaced Charlie Parker at Harlem's Apollo Theater. During one of Coe's solos, Parker made a point of being in the front row and falling asleep.
   Then there were the characters like Clark “Deacon” Hampton, father of “Slide” Hampton and the
Hampton Sisters, who during the jam sessions in his basement would provide the musicians with an extremely, sweet Kool-Aid mix, concocted in his washtub. Guitarist Floyd Smith who at the age of
ten was given a string-less ukulele. Unable to afford wire-strings he made replacements out of cotton strings soaked in water. And drummer Willis Kirk who at the age of fourteen joined the 440
Nightclub band by lowering the octaves of his voice and painting a mustache above his upper-lip with mascara.
    Those, and many many more, and all their fifteen minutes of fame are recorded in Indianapolis Jazz.
   Two names, that were NOT jazzmusicians, that come up time and time again in Indianapolis Jazz areCrispus Attucks and Russell Brown. Crispus Attucks was the blackHigh School close to The Avenue and Russell Brown was one of itsmusic department instructors. He'd stay late hours, all unpaid, withhis students, encouraging them to “testify” which meant to pushthemselves to the very limit of their artistic abilities. ReadingIndianapolis Jazz, you get the impression he produced more
outstanding musicians than Nashville and Liverpool combined. Such was his influence as a teacher.
   As for David Williams, his writing can surprise at times. In the opening chapter he refers to “before
segregation” but the explanation doesn't come until the book's final pages when he recalls “the changing racial attitudes of the mid- to late 1920s. Heretofore, both black and white students
attended school together in relative harmony. “However, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and its fiery, racist leader D.C. Stephenson, the Indianapolis School Board moved to total segregation” which is why Crispus Attucks High School was built.
   This history of Indy jazz spans from the early 20th Century to 1970 when The Avenue “died.”
Hopefully, someone will write a history of jazz in Naptown from 1970 on. After all, it would have to catalog an excellent jazz ensemble named after Douglas Adams' character Beeble Brox which included drummer Dan Vonnegut who was distantly related to Kurt.
   The death of The Avenue was inflicted by three harpies, according to Williams. Highway construction, illegal activities and urban renewal. Highway I-70 severed the area in 1973. Drugs, “sex-workers,” and especially gambling had always been in the background on The Avenue but with middle-class flight, it came to the fore. The “Black Dollar” “which had circulated and recirculated on Indiana Avenue since before the Civil War, began to disappear.” In 1930 there were 332 businesses on Indiana Avenue, by 1970 there were just 78. Then IUPUI moved in, tearing down buildings that included Crispus Attucks and the expansive Lockefield Gardens Housing Development and replacing them with the Indiana University & Purdue University in Indianapolis.
The initials alone would have been enough to bury The Avenue.
   Now there are only twenty businesses or less on what is left of Indiana Avenue.
   The book itself starts out with fire and vigor, with the explosion of jazz and blues, with the
degradation of being black in first half of the 20th Century, but with Chapter Two on it slows to a pedestrian pace.  Informative but pedestrian. And only rekindles belatedly in the  second-half of the last chapter.
   So what could be said to be missing?
   Firstly, a discography. Although that would have easily doubled the length of the volume and left David Williams tearing his hair out. Secondly, more about the clubs that fostered the jazz, places like the British Lounge, the P&P Club, the Place to Play, and the Udell Tavern. They ranged from the ritzy down to the desolate dives. One of the latter was The Hole in the Wall. That place was so dangerous that folks will tell you the legend of the infamous bank robber and murderer, John Dillinger, who swaggered in one day but having assessed the level of the clientele, waited for a tactical moment and beat a discretionary retreat.  Thirdly, there really should have been more than just the brief mention of The Avenue's only record company, All Indy Records.
   And the earliest history of The Avenue isn't there. The reason WHY The Avenue was black.
   This dates back to 1820 when the position of Indiana's capital was decided by drawing an X across the State map and where it crossed the capital would be. One small fault with this plan was where the X crossed was in part, flood-land. And the part that flooded was Indiana Avenue. So this was where the second-poorest of the poor went to live. That is the Irish-Americans and the Italian-Americans. Until a massive flood in the 19th Century brought with it a deadly plague of Malaria. That was when
the second-poorest of the poor moved out and the very poorest moved in. Those were the blacks, most of whom were ex-slaves, but they built the music scene on The Avenue into one that the State and Nation could be proud of.
   Indianapolis Jazz is a slim volume, just 206 pages, but at long, long last, we have a record of the vibrant time when The Avenue was alive and the incredible musicians who called it home. Let's hope
Williams gets his $100.