There’s a quiet cultural renaissance underway in Indy’s African-American performing arts community. Over half a century ago, jazz converged on the legendary Indiana Avenue, with its 33 clubs bustling with the sounds of jazz and blues. But this latest cultural revival is more diverse and dispersed, with new venues in the Northwest, North and Northeast sections of the city.
While each venue is distinct, the tie that binds is a return to the cultural roots of jazz, often with a contemporary update to the music and decor. Here’s a look at one of the innovators in this cultural movement, a builder, artist and jazz musician.
Greg Sansing is a man of many talents — he owns a successful auto customizing business — but his passion is playing jazz. Since 1995, Sansing has led his own group, the Jazz Setters, using unconventional jazz instrumentation. Passionate about music technology, Sansing performs on digital wind-blown instruments, like the digital saxophone, Yamaha Electronic Wind Instrument and a Digital Wind Controller. “I love the technology side of music,” Sansing explains. “I was a keyboardist and guitar player before digital instruments you could blow into arrived.”
Sansing has satisfied his longtime dream to build a performance venue with the Midtown Arts & Coffee Lounge at 519 E. 38th St., a former recording studio that will celebrate its one-year anniversary as a club next month. “It’s always been my dream to have a place where local artists, musicians and poets could come to,” explains Sansing, who owns the lounge along with partner Craig Myers. “We could have our own venue and set it up the way we want. To get back to the old style of performing with people coming in and sitting in with the groups performing there.”
The lounge has been nearly entirely designed and built by Sansing. The façade, an eye-catching opaque white, opens into a modest building with capacity for 86. What’s impressive is how Sansing has laid out his floor plan in order to make the space seem bigger. It has three levels, and to reach the highest level, I climbed mauve carpeted stairs with a flowing waterfall underneath bathed in pastel green lights. On that third VIP level, French blue chairs surround magenta colored tables with pewter colored bases.
The color scheme of lilac and pastel purples — with contrasting accents of soft green and grays — appears to favor feminine taste. “Seventy percent of my clientele are women,” Sansing states. “They feel comfortable here for their conversations and beverages as they enjoy the atmosphere and the artist.”
He is also passionate about using lights as a decorative tool. They are used tastefully everywhere, with various hues of rope lights accenting seating at the bar. “I am obsessive about lighting,” he says. “It adds to the total picture.”
The fourth Sunday of each month, the lounge hosts jazz and poetry on adjoining stages: a smaller stage for the poets tucked behind a larger area for musicians. That fourth Sunday falls on Sept. 29 this month. Admission is $5.
On Oct. 4, the lounge will inaugurate a regular Saturday jazz date with Greg Sansing & Jazz Setters featuring Stevi. Admission is $7.
Doors open for Saturday and Sunday events at 8 p.m. with shows beginning at 9 p.m. Appetizers, wine and beer are available.
American Pianist Association Cole Porter Jazz Fellow Dan Tepfer toured Eastern Europe this summer with his trio. He says it was a moving experience to perform in those great concert halls. He spoke by phone about the people in the various nations on the tour, who have endured hardships and remain passionate for music. His trip to Georgia just before war broke out was particularly memorable.
“We went in there with a U.N. convoy,” Tepfer said. “It was very intense. People are going through hard times over there. Georgia was still recovering from a civil war in the early ’90s and they just have an incredible appreciation for American jazz. Art is the one thing the people of those nations count on. For them it will always be beautiful in spite of their hardships.”
Tepfer, who has been performing in the States with jazz icon Lee Konitz, returns to the Jazz Kitchen with his trio Wednesday, Oct. 1 for shows at 7 and 9 p.m. Admission is $12.