Musical family traditions are a trademark in the Indianapolis jazz community. But while Hampton, Montgomery and Johnson roll off the tongue, one family has quietly been making significant contributions to maintaining this city’s jazz legacy.
The Finnell brothers — Al and Rudy — not only share a family name; they’re also bass players, music educators and jazz enthusiasts. My column this month will focus on just one of the Finnells, Rudy, one-time director of bands at Broad Ripple High School and longtime figure in Indianapolis jazz.
Finnell is hesitant to the point of being self-effacing when talking about his music career, but he agreed to chat about his life, starting at the very beginning.
Rudy Finnell came from a musically-inclined family, with a mother who was a music major in piano and voice. He attended Tech High School, and played tuba in the school’s orchestra, later developing an interest in the string bass.
“A teacher there, Raymond Brandis, who was the orchestra director, one day asked me what I was planning to do for the rest of my life,” Finnell recalled. “I said I didn’t know. He said, ‘You should think about being a music teacher. You seem to help people real well with music.’”
Jazz bass came into Finnell’s life when he started to hear his older brother Al play. “My brother Al was working in the band of organ player Al Walton,” Finnell said. “He took me to a rehearsal and I liked what I heard.”
Finnell’s musical education soared after that, and he began to take private lessons from David Baker (before Baker’s appointment as director of jazz studies at Indiana University).
Finnell earned his music education degree from Indiana Central and went on to acquire his master’s degree in music at the University of Iowa in 1977. During this period, Finnell honed his playing skills, performing with local bands led by Larry Ligget and Dickie Laswell and working in and around Chicago, where he led his own Rudy Finnell Trio for a couple of years.
What really shaped Finnell musically as a bassist and entrenched his love of the big band sound was playing with legendary Jimmy Coe’s Big Band and combo for 16 years.
The urge to teach and pass on his academic and performing skills led Finnell through jobs in elementary schools and a Gary high school. He eventually settled in at Broad Ripple High School as director of bands in 1979 until his retirement in 2003.
During his time at Broad Ripple, his skill in developing student talent was remarkable. Broad Ripple achieved 17 years of consecutive First Division ratings for jazz ensemble performances.
The Jazz Band performed for the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention in Anaheim, Calif., in 1985, was opening band for Indiana Black Expo’s Jazz Under the Stars from 1985-1989 and even played for President Bill Clinton at an Indy Park dedication.
Some outstanding students, particularly those in the jazz curriculum, found their musical way under Finnell’s guidance. “Billy Meyers was in the band; I taught him bass, he also played trumpet,” Finnell said. “Saxophonist Anthony Avant is now a music teacher in the Lawrence school system and he plays in my band. David Allee was playing trumpet in my best band, saxophonist Jason Curry now in New York and John Harden are just a few of those I taught.”
Finnell has never stopped playing professionally and, most recently, he’s been carefully developing his latest band, the Finnell Factor. Essentially, the Finnell Factor is a small big band: two saxes, trumpet and a rhythm section with his nephew Vincent Finnell on drums.
In his 32 years of teaching instrumental music, Rudy Finnell has encouraged many of his students to pursue careers as performers and educators. Five years after retirement, he’s concerned about trends in arts education.
“I see a decline in music and basically in the arts,” he said. “There is so much emphasis put on testing and test scores. I lost a lot of students that way; I don’t see any improvement.”