The Indiana Avenue jazz scene needed more than just musicians to become a cultural hotspot. After all, musicians need somewhere to play. The Avenue’s clubs were as much a part of the experience as the jazz itself, and few of Indiana Avenue’s clubs reached the heights of the Sunset Terrace Ballroom.
Denver and Sea Ferguson, brothers and business partners, opened the Sunset Terrace Ballroom in 1938. They were successful in the entertainment industry, also owning two other local clubs and a talent agency. The Sunset Terrace Ballroom was one of the Ferguson brothers’ most successful ventures due to its ability to attract the biggest local and national talent. Louis Armstrong, Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis are among the list of jazz musicians who played there.
“It really helped transform The Avenue from an area where only local artists were playing to a major entertainment hub in the Midwest,” said Kyle Long, a local DJ, music journalist and radio host of “Cultural Manifesto.”
Long said the Sunset Terrace Ballroom has a storied history, with one of the most famous incidents involving a Miles Davis performance. Davis’ drummer missed the train and couldn’t make it to the gig. Desperate to find a drummer, Davis recruited a local 16-year-old known for playing the drums at different clubs on Indiana Avenue. When it was time to play, the teenager had no trouble keeping up with Davis’ band. Long said this 16-year-old was Willis Kirk. Kirk would later become an acclaimed Indianapolis jazz drummer who played alongside names such as Wes Montgomery.
The club continued booking the best in jazz until the late ‘50s. A combination of changing music tastes and less foot traffic due to desegregation caused the club to close and eventually be demolished. While it doesn’t stand any longer, Long said music in Indianapolis would not be the same today if the club never existed.
“Maybe another promoter would have seized that opportunity to create a ballroom of that magnitude but maybe not,” Long said. “If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know if The Avenue would have had the rich history it ended up having. The presence of the Sunset Terrace allowed the musicians here to see the biggest, most influential bands of that era up close and personal, and that really enriched the quality of music the local artists were playing.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.