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Discussing the Musical Legacy of Indiana Avenue with David Williams

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Discussing the Musical Legacy of Indiana Avenue with David Williams

David Williams was around during Indiana Avenue’s heyday. In fact, the Indianapolis Jazz author even remembers when Wes Montgomery used to come over to his house as a child.

Now decades down the line, however, Williams is fighting to preserve the historic street’s musical legacy. Known for it’s cultural vibrancy, Indiana Avenue fostered the careers of jazz legends like Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, and Wes Montgomery. Nevertheless, the Avenue’s historic significance remains unknown to most Indy residents today.

After discussing Indy’s current jazz community with Amy Crook and Chris Pitts, I wanted to chat with Williams to get a better understanding of how jazz fits into Indy’s musical framework. Below, you can read our full conversation, which is filled with numerous Indiana music history nuggets.

SETH JOHNSON: When and how were you first introduced to Indiana Avenue back in the day?

DAVID WILLIAMS: I was born and raised in Lockfield Gardens, which borders Indiana Avenue. Indiana Avenue was a world within a world. A person could conceivably live there their entire life and not have to go two or three miles in any other direction because everything was right there. That was our world.

In the early days, [I remember] going to the supermarket in Lockfield. There was a barbershop, a beauty shop, funeral homes, doctors, accountants, and what have you. So you were just introduced to your world from a very, very early age. You knew that was your universe.

JOHNSON: When did you begin diving into the music on Indiana Avenue?

WILLIAMS: Music was all around — it was a metaphor for Indiana Avenue. As you would walk from 10th Street all the way down to Capital Avenue, you would maybe pass 50 or 60 different clubs with all types of music. At that early age, you weren’t really able to distinguish genres — you just heard music. [You had] the downbeat and the gutbucket blues. At the Panama Club, there would be a different kind of blues. Then, you’d go by George’s Bar, and there would be jazz. The Walker Casino would be rhythm and blues.

So it all kind of blended into one genre, which was a combination of many genres.

JOHNSON: Around what time are you referring to?

WILLIAMS: That was the mid-to-late ‘50s and early ’60s when I was a kid in Lockfield and around that whole environment.

JOHNSON: Around that time, what were some of the more notable clubs on the Avenue?

WILLIAMS: As far as jazz and pop were concerned, the biggest club was the Sunset Terrace Ballroom, which sat right on the corner of Indiana Avenue and Blake Street. As a little kid, you’d see these great stars coming in and out. You’d see Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Nat King Cole. But for us, these were just people from our neighborhood. We were too young to understand the significance of seeing these great people, who would be internationally famous years later.

JOHNSON: The Madame Walker Theatre is one of the only Indiana Avenue structures that still remains today. What role did that theater play in the community at the time?

WILLIAMS: The Madame Walker was really [where we got] our entertainment. On Saturday morning, there would be three theaters where we could go. Some of the downtown theaters were segregated, or we would have to sit in the balcony. But we could go to the Lido Theatre for nine cents and see what they called the shoot ‘em ups, like Captain Marvel and Sunset Carson. And then, we’d go to the Walker Theatre further down the Avenue to see the more sophisticated movies. They’d cost 10 or 15 cents. And then, going closer to downtown, there was the Colored Indiana Theater. So those were our places of entertainment for movies.

JOHNSON: Who were some of the more notable names that were playing on Indiana Avenue when you were there?

WILLIAMS: Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Louie Jordan and His Tympany Five, B.B. King. They were part of the landscape. You would see them, and there wasn’t really distance between a great, great star and a fan. You might just walk past them coming down the Avenue.

JOHNSON: With the audiences at these shows, was it mostly people from Indianapolis, or did people travel into the city from far and wide?

WILLIAMS: [They came from] all around town. And then, this idea that Indiana Avenue was all black…that’s not true. There were whites who would come to the Avenue that wanted to listen to the best music around. The clubs were what they called “tan clubs.” There would be whites and blacks there together.

JOHNSON: If you did venture away from Indiana Avenue, what other venues were there where you’d go to hear live music?

WILLIAMS: Indiana Avenue was it. Over on Meridian Street, there was a very exclusive, expensive nightclub called The Keys. A lot of the heavy rollers would come to town [and play there], but it was segregated. There were people in my building in Lockfield who worked there. And during the ’50s, they would bring home $300 or $400 a night in tips. Movie stars and big Hollywood people would be there.

Then, there was the Embers — that was a club. It was segregated, but the entertainment was African American. They would have a fantastic local rhythm and blues singer by the name of Flo Garvin. She would be there during that time period.

JOHNSON: What made you want to write about Indiana Avenue so many years later?

WILLIAMS: I went to school at Colorado State University, and I would go down to Denver on the weekends to get my hair cut. In the barbershops, I would see the Indianapolis Recorder, and I’d read it. Because there were people who would transfer from the Army Finance Center here to the Air Force Finance Center in Denver.

So I’d read the paper, and in each edition, I’d see something missing. An iconic jazz, R&B, or blues venue would just disappear, so I knew something was going on. This was during the time of Unigov. So, IUPUI was coming into the neighborhood, and they were buying homes for little to nothing. I could see something was going on.

I said, “Someone will have to document this history, or it’ll be lost to the ages.” So I was probably a sophomore or junior in college when I said, “Maybe I should just write little notes about what’s going on.” I had no idea that later on I would actually write books about it.

JOHNSON: Who were some of the key people who helped you with writing the book when it came to research?

WILLIAMS: One of the most outstanding [sources of help] was Wilma Gibbs. I miss her dearly. She was the state African American archivist at the Indiana Historical Society. She said, “David, you really have a passion. Why don’t you put your passion on paper?” A lot of the jazz people were leaving here, so she said, “It’s very, very important right now to get your paper and pen in hand and start interviewing these people.”  

So at that time, I was able to go around with my RadioShack tape recorder and get tapes of all these great people. I still have those tapes as well.

JOHNSON: Who were some of the more memorable people you interviewed for the book?

WILLIAMS: Jimmy Coe, the great saxophonist. Larry Ridley. The daughters of Sea Ferguson and Denver Ferguson. They were some of my most outstanding interviews because both ladies were so wonderful and so elegant. Pookie Johnson, the great saxophonist. Flo Garvin, who I just mentioned. Al Coleman from Al Coleman’s British Lounge. There were so many people.

JOHNSON: Were most of these people still living in Indy at the time?

WILLIAMS: Some had moved away. As a matter of fact, I had to go to New York for one of the interviews I did. Her name was Sarah McLawler. She came out of the class of 1943 with my mother at Crispus Attucks High School. She left here in the 1940s, went to New York, and did great things. She was a jazz organist.

JOHNSON: To this point, we haven’t even talked about musicians like Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, and J.J. Johnson, who are now seen as Indiana jazz legends. Did you ever have interactions with any of them?

WILLIAMS: Wes Montgomery would come to my house on the weekends in 1960. He would play matinees. The jazz places [at that time] were Mr. B’s and Topper. Afterwards, he would come over to my house, and he’d be around the house in the afternoon time. My dad was in electronics, and he would work on Wes Montgomery’s sound system.

Wes Montgomery’s guitar was in our basement for an entire year on a giant speaker that we called Big Bertha. I would go down there and pluck it. [laughs] He was Wes Montgomery, but we didn’t know that he would become the greatest jazz guitarist of all time.

Afterwards, he and my dad would go down to Bar-B-Q Heaven. Forest Jones Sr. would be there. They would get the barbecue and bring it back. They’d sit around, and sometimes Wes would play the guitar on our front porch.

JOHNSON: With all of the knowledge you have on that time period, how do you feel the city of Indianapolis has done with handling the history and heritage of Indiana Avenue?

WILLIAMS: I think the whole concept of how Indiana Avenue’s cultural component was destroyed is horrid, terrible, disastrous. Any of the adjectives that I could throw at you.

IUPUI came in with this idea of, “We want to have one little building here.” But it metastasized like a virulent cancer. After five or six years, people were uprooted. They told ‘em, “We want your property. We have no federal funding to help you relocate, but we want your property.” And with that, the whole culture of Indiana Avenue was extinguished. That really hurt me, and it still hurts me. To this day, I’m extremely bitter because I was born there. That was my world.

JOHNSON: I know the Madame Walker Theatre still remains from that time period. Are there any other remnants that still remain from Indiana Avenue’s heyday?

WILLIAMS: Nothing. Everything is gone. I have a lot of archival material dating back to the Civil War from Indiana Avenue. I had wanted to open an Indiana Avenue cultural museum.

The building that I wanted was right there at the point, where Indiana Avenue and West Street come together. There was a club right there on the point. But now, I think they’re going to make it the Kurt Vonnegut Library building. To me, that was the last nail in the coffin. Because I wanted so badly to preserve the culture of Indiana Avenue, but it’s gone now.

JOHNSON: Are there still musicians around Indy today that you knew from Indiana Avenue?

WILLIAMS: Oh yeah. There are people here who played on the Avenue. Jimmy Guilford played with many of the groups. He was a fantastic singer. He sang with the Four Sounds. There’s Al Coleman. He had Al Coleman’s British Lounge. He had the Three Souls. He’s still around.

Bobby Bernard sang with a group called the Monograms. They were a rhythm and blues group that formed at Tech in the 1950s. He’s still here. And Bill Penick, the great saxophonist. He played with Wes, Monk, and all the greats. He’s still here. So there are still people here who are from the Avenue.

JOHNSON: The city has seemingly pushed the culture of Indiana Avenue aside, but there are still plenty of musicians here who are carrying on the jazz torch. Does it make you happy to see that happening?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I’m very, very happy. And I hold David Allee in high esteem because he has really preserved the jazz culture here with the Jazz Kitchen. If it weren’t for David Allee, we would be totally dead, but he’s keeping the music and the culture alive.

JOHNSON: Are you ever reminded of your days on Indiana Avenue while you’re out experiencing the Indianapolis jazz of today?

WILLIAMS: When I hear a player like Rob Dixon, I’m taken back to the 1950s. Another fantastic saxophonist’s name is Sophie Faught. It was one of the jazz festivals, and I was at the Jazz Kitchen. I was inside eating and was talking to a guy from New York. He was a school teacher who had come all the way from New York to the Jazz Fest. We dropped our food and ran out there.

I said, “Who is she?” I pulled her to the side and told her, “Sophie. I’m the person who wrote the book on jazz. When I listen to you play, I can see all the great saxophonists. You are a spirit from the 1940s. You don’t realize what is inside of you.”

JOHNSON: You mentioned that you were trying to do some sort of museum in honor of Indiana Avenue. Is that still something you’d want to do if everything fell into place?

WILLIAMS: I would love to. I have music and photographs of people who nobody would even remember. I’d be able to have a cultural museum highlighting jazz, blues, R&B, and all the genres. I have all this stuff, but I have no place to exhibit it at. It’s out in my storage locker, which costs me $100 a month. I might as well put it in a museum.

Author's Note: After reading this story, what are your thoughts on Indiana Avenue and its importance to Indy's musical framework? Do you believe our city should celebrate Indiana Avenue more? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Seth Johnson, Music Editor at NUVO, can be reached by email at sjohnson@nuvo.net, by phone at 317-254-2400 or on Twitter @sethvthem

Writer - Music, Comedy & Sports

An Indianapolis native, I love all things music, especially of the local variety. My other passions also include comedy, social justice, and the Indiana Pacers.