Bush Stadium's new look

Jazz and Rock Fest poster

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.

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Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.