Spring is by far my favorite time to be in Indiana. The first warm, sunny days of the season feel indescribably good after months of shivering through snowstorms. During this time of year I often find myself reminiscing over childhood memories of warm spring evenings spent outdoors at the old Bush Stadium, watching Indianapolis Indians games with my mother.
While the Indians' current venue Victory Field is certainly great, for me it holds no comparison to the rich historical charm of Bush Stadium's ivy-cloaked brick walls and art deco facade. But these days when I drive past the old stadium's 16th Street home, I just feel sick to my stomach. After languishing abandoned in a state of disrepair for years, a decision was made in 2011 to convert Bush Stadium into a high-end apartment complex. While elements of Bush's original facade have been preserved, to me, the end result of the hybrid construction is an architectural eyesore that doesn't honor Bush's important historical legacy in Indianapolis.
The stadium came to life in 1931 as Perry Stadium, named after then Indians' owner Norm Perry. The stadium was designed by the local architectural firm of Pierre & Wright who are responsible for a handful of fantastic Downtown constructions, from the Old Trails building on West Washington Street to the Indiana State Library on Ohio St.
In addition to serving as a home for the Indianapolis Indians from 1931 to 1996, Bush Stadium also provided a base of operations for the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns were one of Negro League's most significant franchises. The Clowns walked a fine line between slapstick entertainment and serious sport, earning a reputation as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. But the Clowns were no joke and the team's legacy can boast several important firsts, from providing hall of fame legend Hank Aaron with his first professional contract in 1952, to signing Toni Stone as the first professional female baseball player in 1953.
This is only scratching the surface of Bush Stadium's exciting past, which happens to include a link to a long-forgotten slice of Indianapolis music history.
Exactly 45 years ago this month, a group of local promoters staged what must be considered one of the most ambitious music festivals in Indianapolis history. Bush Stadium's three-day Jazz & Rock Festival assembled some of the greatest icons in music history during the height of their power as performers.
B.B. King, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Ike and Tina Turner, Roberta Flack, and Sonny and Cher were headliners, with fantastic acts like Bobby "Blue" Bland, Ramsey Lewis, and South African musician Hugh Masekela rounding out the line-up. For a mere 15 dollars – adjusted for inflation, that price would probably be about 90 bucks today – music fans could purchase a pass to experience all three days of the festival's offerings.
The concert looked to be a surefire hit, and local media accounts from the period indicated there was a great sense of anticipation. In the May 16, 1970 edition of the Indianapolis Recorder, an uncredited writer previewed the Jazz & Rock Festival suggesting it was "by far one of the greatest attractions ever sponsored in Indianapolis" while speculating the event would "attract music buffs from all surrounding towns, and as far away as Louisville, Dayton and Cincinnati."
But somehow the festival flopped. A June 13, 1970 headline from the Indianapolis Recorder summed it up. "Million dollars worth of top talent goes begging for lack of buffs at jazz-rock show." The uncredited writer lamented the financial beating the promoters took, and postulated that Indianapolis wasn't ready for "big-time attractions."
Despite the festival's dismal fate, it makes for a fascinating footnote in Bush Stadium's history. It's just a shame the stadium's history hasn't been more diligently preserved. But isn't that frequently the case here in Indy? It seems that preserving our history always takes a backseat to making a fast buck.
I guess those of us who care about preserving Indy's culture should be thankful that Bush Stadium wasn't completely leveled during construction of the new luxury lofts. But it would have been nice if the stadium had been left intact and preserved as an athletic venue, or perhaps even converted into a museum for Negro League or Minor League Baseball. But it's far too late to complain now. At least we don't have to add Bush Stadium to the long (and growing) list of Indianapolis architectural casualties that have been totally lost to wrecking balls and empty lots.
Issues regarding equality in Indiana have been making national headlines since Mike Pence signed RFRA into law last month. Among these concerns we must certainly consider the problem of gender inequity in the Hoosier state. According to recent statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau, women in Indiana earn 26 percent less money than their male counterparts. That figure places Indiana as the 44th worst state for gender pay equality in the U.S.
Our local music scene has not been immune to disparities in gender equality as Hoosier women are underrepresented on concert bills. Fortunately there are several local individuals and organizations committed to confronting this issue, including the subject of this week's column, women317.
Regular readers may recall I spoke with the group's cofounder Reese Maryam last year. As the group prepares for its fourth event installment, I caught up with the group's other cofounder (and NUVO contributor) Elle Roberts.
The group's May 1 event at Tin Comet Coffee features performers Rehema McNeil, Azieb Abraha, Sukie Conley and others. The diverse lineup covers everything from spoken word, and hip-hop to folk music, and while the event is primarily focused on women performers and women's issues, Roberts reminded me that women317 is "open to everybody."
NUVO: How did women317 develop?
Elle Roberts: My best friend Reese Maryam was working at the Boner Community Center on East 10th St. as part of Public Allies. She started coming to Tin Comet Coffee and found out the owner's were interested in starting a First Friday event there. So Reese and I decided to do an all women's show at Tin Comet in March of 2014 to celebrate Women's History Month. It was going to be a one and done kind of event, but it turned out to be so successful that we decided to keep it going. We did three women317 events last year.
I did most of the booking. I'm not a promoter, but I called up some of my favorite artists. All of them were women that I'd seen in performance at some point and their music really spoke to me. I wanted to create an opportunity to share that with others.
It was our first time doing anything of that magnitude in regard to organizing a show. We were frazzled running around trying to get everything ready from getting the P.A. set-up, to making sure we had snacks. But it was like the universe brought everything together and the show came together so perfectly.
NUVO: You mentioned that the initial women317 event was intended be a one-off. What kind of response did you get from the audience that inspired you to keep it going?
Roberts: The general consensus I got from the audience was that it's really a powerful thing when women are speaking their truths through their art. The event wasn't thematic or planned out at all. It was an eclectic narrative of women's stories and how the world affects us and how we fit in the world. There was an overabundance of emotion from the audience connecting to the spoken word, the music and the dancing. The event definitely impacted the audience.
NUVO: It sounds like the opportunity to create that first event came at you rather randomly. Had you considered developing an arts showcase for women prior to meeting the folks at Tin Comet?
Roberts: It's something that I'd been mulling over for awhile. The jobs I'd worked at had all been women-centered. It's very rewarding work. Some of the positions were more difficult than others. For example I worked for a domestic violence shelter for awhile. Seeing the gaps in service showed me there's a space for women that isn't being filled. But I wasn't sure how to go about trying to approach that. When the opportunity to do women317 came about it was the catalyst to do all the things I'd been thinking about.
I really wanted to fill that gap in space I'd observed. After doing some research I found that pretty much all programs for adult women had to do with careers and networking or very issue focused themes like domestic violence or health and wellness. There was really nothing for that eighteen to thirty-something group where you could just go and figure out what womanhood meant to you and to express that however you needed to. I figured that would be our lane so to speak and we used women317 to kick it off.
women317 is part of a larger organization I started called Shehive. Our mission with Shehive is to create safe spaces for people to confront, address and most importantly deconstruct gender inequity. That sounds really broad but we've narrowed it down to three initiatives that include performance art shows, workshops and intimate discussions geared specifically toward women. I see it as a place for women to rediscover what womanhood means and have a place to express those things.
NUVO: You're also a musician [Roberts' current project is called The MO]. How have your experiences as a performer shaped your thoughts on the role of women in the local music scene?
Roberts: In my experience I've found it's much easier to be a woman in the music scene when you're attached to a group of men. I say that as someone who hadn't branched out on a solo tip until recently.
It's heartbreaking to me to have seen all these different women perform and to have seen how wonderful they are and how well they interact with an audience - yet when I see bills for different shows around Indy, these are names I see missing all the time.
This issue is too big to talk through and unpack quickly and I think it's a conversation that needs to be had with promoters. Those are the folks who are plugging different artists into shows. What I'm hoping to see as a run-off from women317 is that more promoters will notice that there are incredible women here and that we're trying to cultivate more women in the arts. As we continue to cultivate that in girls and women there will be more women artists here that perform at a high caliber and can play bigger venues and draw bigger crowds. That's what I want to see happen.
NUVO: At the beginning of our conversation you specifically noted that you're not a promoter. I only know of a few women who consistently promote shows here. Is that a role you could see yourself stepping into?
Roberts: I could see women317 becoming that. The reason I say I'm not a promoter is that each of the artists we've worked with have donated their time and performances. If there was an exchange of money then I guess I would technically be a promoter.
A goal for me has been to find the funding to start paying the artists. When I go out and perform the highest thanks I can get is being able to share an exchange with an audience. But it's important to get paid. Paying artists shows that there is value in the arts, and that Indianapolis is a place where artists can make a career and feed themselves off their work.
NUVO: How would you like to see women317 develop in the future?
Roberts: A lot of our growth has happened organically and I think it will continue to expand in that way. We've enjoyed our first year at Tin Comet, but I could see it becoming bigger. It would be really cool to do a festival event. So far we've worked with around thirty women artists and we have eight more scheduled for this upcoming show on May 1. I can see us becoming a database for women artists in the same way the Arts Council is a resource for information on all sorts of artists in Indianapolis. That's already starting to happen where people come to me asking to be connected to an artist and I can go back and look though all the performers we've featured and I can personally vouch for all of them.
After the May 1 event we'll be able to say we've had 40 women perform for us. The proof is in the pudding and there are women here who are creators who really embody what it means to be an artist in Indianapolis. They deserve to be invested in.
The fact that Indy's longest running and most successful alternative weekly was born in 1990 seems fitting to me. That's the year when the hazily defined genre known as alternative music began to bubble up into the mainstream consciousness. It was in 1990 that Nirvana signed to DGC records and began the process of writing songs for their breakthrough LP Nevermind. 1990 was also the year that R.E.M. recorded their classic Out of Time album. To the surprise of almost everyone in the music business, both of these records would reach the top spot on Billboard's album charts during 1991. These albums and the movement they helped to spawn changed the direction of American popular culture, and officially ushered in the era of alternative music.
The term alternative music was nearly inescapable during the early and mid-'90s and there was great debate about how the genre could be defined musically. Personally, I found the term obnoxious and took every chance I could to ridicule it. "What's alternative about a group of white men recording pop songs on a corporate-owned record label?" I'd complain to friends. If you would've asked me who I thought the truly alternative music acts of the early '90s were, I probably would've answered John Cage, Diamanda Galás, or Sun Ra. Definitely not Pearl Jam.
But I don't think the term alternative music ever really intended to address musical structures, it had more to do with an attitude, or a particular sort of world view. Whether or not I agreed with the term's application as a musical genre, I appreciated the fact that the best artists designated with the alternative tag promoted viewpoints that were in direct opposition with the prevailing conservative attitudes of the era.
I think it's important to look back at what preceded the alternative movement for context. Popular American rock was dominated by hair metal in the '80s. While some great bands came out of the '80s American metal scene (e.g. Slayer, Metallica) metal culture itself was rife with overt expressions of misogyny along with strong undercurrents of homophobia and racism. It was a time when one of the most popular bands of the era Guns N' Roses felt confident to write and record the following lines."Immigrants and faggots
These lyrics were penned by Hoosier-born Axl Rose for the song "One In A Million" off his band's hit 1988 EP G N' R Lies. While the lyrics roused some minor controversy at the time of the EP's release, I believe Rose's commentary accurately reflected values shared by many in America's dominant cultural group: straight white males. Accusations of racism/homophobia leveled against G N' R did nothing to diminish their popularity with that demographic.
But in 1990, a new spirit was rising, and the cultural tides would soon make an abrupt turn. A generation raised during the greed, racism and moral conservatism of the Reagan era were eager to make their voices heard.
As alternative music icons like Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe rose to pop stardom, they used their fame to promote cultural pluralism. Cobain went to great lengths to advocate artists working within the feminist branch of punk rock, riot grrrl. Cobain also became a great ally to the LGBTQ community, singing lines like "God is gay" and "everyone is gay" while commenting in interviews that gay men were the only white males he personally identified with while growing up.
Michael Stipe demonstrated an equal or greater influence in that capacity, consistently speaking in support of a variety of progressive issues. In the mid-'90s Stipe became the first major American rock star to openly address and embrace non-heterosexual lifestyles.
This is the cultural shift NUVO was born into, and for the last 25 years the publication has been dedicated to continuing the dialogue on alternative viewpoints within politics, race, social justice, environmentalism, and the arts.
The paper's tagline is "Indy's Alternative Voice." When I first started writing, several years ago, I thought a lot about what exactly that meant, and I consider it every week when I sit down to write my weekly Cultural Manifesto columns. Our culture is constantly in flux, and by default then so too is the definition of what the alternative is.
As I look back on Indianapolis over the last 25 years, I think the biggest change has been the arrival and flowering of a large international immigrant population. Vast commercial areas that were once filled with boring chain stores and bad fast food joints, are now a base of operations for thriving immigrant entrepreneurs who've created amazing restaurants and exciting live music venues that have significantly enhanced the quality of life for all Indianapolis citizens.
For me, the immigrant community represents the most significant alternative culture in Indianapolis today. And that's why so much of my writing for NUVO has focused on music stemming from African, Asian and Latin American cultural traditions. It pleases me greatly to see my articles about Indy-based African music DJ Stephan Vohito, or local Mexican-American accordion player Amanda Reyna resting neatly alongside stories on the psychedelic hip-hop explorations of Oreo Jones and DMA, or a review of the latest Gloryhole Records' garage noise release.
I think NUVO's editorial staff sensed this shift in Indy's alternative cultural space before I signed on to the publication. And I think it's a big part of the reason they asked me to begin contributing in the first place. I'd already established a reputation for connecting with Indy's immigrant population as a DJ. Even if that's not the case, I appreciate NUVO for giving me free license to address issues of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of immigrants in the local arts community. I believe opening up honest dialogue on sensitive issues like these provides a crucial step toward correcting inequalities.
Last summer, NUVO published a cover story I wrote about the massive Latin music scene on Lafayette Road. The piece focused largely on a concert by Los Tigres Del Norte and the rebellious political/social commentary found in the band's lyrics. For the first time in NUVO's history the story was published in both English and Spanish. I can't think of a better example of NUVO's commitment to fostering the growth of alternative culture within the arts.
As one alternative subculture gets sucked into the mainstream vortex, another school of alternative thought is inevitably born to replace it. I can't wait to see what alternative cultural movements NUVO will be covering at age 50.