In its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s, Indiana Avenue was called by many names. There was The Yellow Brick Road, Funky Broadway, The Grand Ol’ Street. There was also a simpler name, one that has survived the years and is still recognized by many: The Avenue.
As Indianapolis’ hub for African Americans, Indiana Avenue was a city within a city. Shops, restaurants, clubs and theaters lined the street, giving African Americans and other minorities locked out of housing in the larger city a sense of home and belonging. Indiana Avenue was also a haven for African American jazz musicians and fans. With June being Black Music Month, the Recorder will dedicate this page for the next four weeks to highlighting the music and musicians that brought life to Indiana Avenue and the city as a whole.
Some of the era’s best jazz singers and musicians got their starts on Indiana Avenue. They included The Hamptons, Wes Montgomery, Leroy Vinegar, Jimmy Coe, J.J. Johnson and Earl Walker. In April, Resonance Records released “Back on Indiana Avenue: The Carroll DeCamp Recordings,” a collection of early unheard work from Montgomery. The collection features 22 songs.
Some of the great ones — Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, to name a few — also came to Indianapolis to perform. Indiana Avenue was known to have the best jazz in the city. At one time there were more than 30 jazz clubs.
One of the most famous icons of Indiana Avenue, the Madam C.J. Walker Building on the corner of Indiana Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, dedicated some of its space to jazz performances. The building is the only jazz venue from the era still standing. It’s also one of the only remaining monuments to what Indiana Avenue once was.
Few of the original buildings from Indiana Avenue’s glory days remain. Historic communities such as Ransom Place have been almost completely uprooted by commercial development, highway expansion and gentrification. The Avenue began to change by the 1950s, when some neighborhoods started to fall to commercial development and the IUPUI campus began creeping in from the west.
But Indiana Avenue — the people and musicians who blessed the street’s culture in the early 20th century and continued to fight for its survival — cemented a legacy long ago that no amount of butchery or invasion can wipe away.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.