Consuming Indiana Avenue: Memory, Marketing, and Jazz Heritage in Indianapolis
In 2004 a typical Indianapolis Star celebration of jazz history fantasized performers and audiences united by music, suggesting that Indiana Avenue “was known for an atmosphere of camaraderie. … What’s most notable is that this was the only place in which blacks and whites could mingle socially prior to integration.” Jazz history is routinely invoked in Indianapolis to suggest that music has long been an expression of White and Black peoples’ common humanity. African-American expressive culture has an undeniably rich heritage in the theaters, clubs, churches, schools, and homes dotting the near-Westside. From the end of the 19th century, ragtime, vaudeville, blues, gospel, minstrelsy, dance, theater, burlesque, and drag were all part of an African-American performance tradition that flourished along Indiana Avenue until urban displacement razed the last clubs in the 1970s. Yet history-makers uneasy with the heritage of racism and segregation routinely gravitate toward romantic accounts of music as a democratic space in the midst of a segregated world.
Jazz is now celebrated as Hoosiers’ cultural patrimony, but jazz and life on the Avenue inspired decades of anxiety among city officials. Rather than nurture an “atmosphere of camaraderie,” ideologues were eager to patrol inter-racial leisure and morality along the Avenue and leery of music’s potential to subvert segregation. For instance, during a December 1921 raid on the Golden West Cabaret, police arrested White customers who “were found in the place listening to the jazz orchestra that plays the syncopated music, as it is only found on `de Avenoo.’” Prohibition had forced African-American entrepreneur Archie Young to transform his saloon at 532 ½ Indiana Avenue into a soda parlor known as the Golden West Cabaret, and jazz performers often played the club. In 1921 the Indianapolis Star complained that Young’s club was known to be “frequented by both colored and white persons who are seeking night life in Indianapolis.” The Indiana Daily Times reported that “orders were issued to put the lid on the `avenue’” because “of “fear that trouble may be the result of white persons visiting negro cafes and dance halls in the `black belt.’” Archie Young argued “there is no law under which the police can stop white persons from visiting the cabaret.” The Police agreed that “they are aware there is no law to prevent white persons from visiting the cabarets, but they contend they can take names and search those who are found there … until the white persons are eliminated.”
The surveillance of Archie Young’s club was part of a persistent police effort to stigmatize and eliminate inter-racial leisure, often by taking aim on jazz. The Star painted Young’s cabaret as a “wide-open and iniquitous jazz parlor where whites and blacks mixed mule [i.e., moonshine] and dances with careless abandon.” Three White men and one of their wives were arrested for Prohibition violations in the December 1921 raid, with newlywed husband Don Williams telling the court that he was “`showing her some of the sights of the city.’”
Such violations of segregation were enormously unsettling to some White ideologues: the attraction to the Avenue confirmed the broad appeal of jazz and African-American performance, it repudiated at least some forms of racist segregation, and it was a transgression of White discipline. The Star dismissed this as “slumming,” arguing in 1921 that “it got to be quite the thing for venturesome young men to take their sweethearts and young wives to the place for an hour or two of shivery entertainment, the innocents shivering to think how degrading and bohemian it was for whites to mix carelessly with the negroes sitting at adjoining tables, listening to the same music watching the dancing and replenishing glasses surreptitiously from concealed bottles.” Little of this inter-racial leisure inspired more anxiety than dancing, and the Star invoked this fear when it indicated that “reports were current that White girls frequenting the place danced with colored bucks and vice versa. The proprietor, however, insists it has always been his policy to preserve racial lines.” Two nights after the December raid the Star reported that Young was not admitting White guests: “last night white folk, attracted down the avenue in hope of spending an hour or two in Young’s establishment, reputed to be so delightfully wicked, were politely shooed away.” The Star reported that Young’s security officer, former Indianapolis Police Officer Charles Carter, turned away White patrons and informed them “that the cabaret had had an unpleasantness, sah, with the police, and that the management had requested white folk to remain away, sah, till the little difficulty passed over.”
It may warm 21st-century imagination to feel Hoosiers sought a common humanity in a shared love of jazz. However, that fantasy ignores that the appeal of African-American expressive culture flourished alongside the White social acceptance of racist segregation and appropriation of African-American music. African-American expressive culture has always enjoyed a legion of White fans who furtively entertained their fascination with Blackness in popular performances like minstrel shows and music from the 19th-century onward (compare Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class). That fandom reflected some genuine appreciation of African-American music, but Indiana Avenue and jazz were routinely reduced in the White racial imagination to expressions of Black “authenticity.” In 1968 an Indianapolis News columnist launched an especially fevered fantasy of African-American life and music on the Avenue when he wrote that “It is no secret … that Negroes know, among many other things, how to have a good time and the Avenue was a living testimony to that during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. For many, it was the refreshing opportunity to laugh loud, party hard and thus release the pent-up anxieties and frustrations suffered in drab ghetto life, and in the continuing tug-of-war match with the white man. … The Avenue, in its heyday, was for many the spot to hop and it really swung. It was burlesque, sassy, the naughty Babylon of the ghetto.” That fantasy imagined life on the Avenue as an unadulterated experience outside bourgeois discipline: “most of all, it had ‘soul,’ pure, concentrated, unadulterated ‘soul,’ the first and last kernel of naked humanity.”
Much of Indianapolis’ mainstream history of jazz fixates on a handful of postwar African-American jazzmen and the visual imagination of lone guitarists in smoke-filled clubs, but the performance tradition was much broader. In the first decade of the 20th century African Americans began to perform blues, folk, and ragtime in a handful of Avenue theaters as the neighborhood grew rapidly and became quite strictly segregated. The African-American vaudeville tradition featured performers who could sing and play a vast range of music alongside dancing, theater, comedy, and burlesque. Ben Holliman, for instance, was born in 1886 and came to Indianapolis from Dallas around 1905. By 1909 Holliman was performing in a minstrel show with Ben Young, and the two men were performing together as a duo for Chicago audiences in September 1909 and in Cincinnati a month later. The “Two Bens” became a well-known duo who performed comedy and played ragtime music. Holliman played with performers including Reginald DuValle, Sr., whose orchestra would be at the opening of the Walker Theater in 1927; Frank Fowler Brown; and Noble Sissle, all of whom played together in the Bethel AME orchestra.
The music known as jazz emerged from this early 20th-century musical tradition. The term jazz was first used by Chicago Tribune reporter Gordon Seagrove in 1915 to describe a “harmonious, yet discordant wailing, an eerie mezzo that moaned and groaned and sighed and electrified, a haunting counter strain that oozed from the saxaphone [sic].” Seagrove observed in July 1915 that “in a few months it has become the predominant motif in cabaret offerings,” with one musician informing Seagrove that the music’s roots were in blues that “started in the south half a century ago and are the interpolations of darkies originally. The trade name for them is `jazz.’” Ben Holliman’s friend Reginald DuValle was among the earliest Indianapolis performers to embrace the jazz title, playing the new music for a White Indianapolis dance studio by Fall 1917, when the DuValle band was variously billed as “DuValle’s Cabaret and Jazz Orchestra,” “DuValle’s Syncopated Jazz Orchestra,” or “DuValle’s Camouflage Orchestra.”
In March 1939 the Indianapolis police attempted to once again enforce segregated landscapes when they launched a series of raids on Avenue clubs to prevent “social intermingling of races in night revelry.” Chief of Police Michael Morrissey targeted the Ferguson Brothers’ clubs after warning Denver and Sea Ferguson that “white persons must not be permitted to patronize establishments catering particularly to colored persons.” Denver Ferguson was born in Brownsville, Kentucky in 1895, and in January, 1914 the determined Ferguson was living in Brownsville when he advertised in Muncie, Indiana’s Star Press that he was an “intelligent, ambitious, energetic (colored) Kentucky country boy. Aged 19 years. Have education and good references. You need me, yes you need me. I can do anything.” Denver was indeed an ambitious and creative entrepreneur, working as a printer in Kentucky, and after serving in World War I he came to Indianapolis in 1919, where he continued his printing business. The products of Ferguson’s Indianapolis print shop included lottery slips and baseball pool tickets that became part of a far-reaching gambling operation (with scores of police raids on the Fergusons, including June 1928, August 1928, 1931, 1935, 1940, and 1943). In 1927 Denver opened the Rainbow Palm Garden restaurant, and Sea opened the Trianon Ballroom in December 1931. The end of Prohibition led to an instant explosion of clubs along the Avenue, and Sea’s Cotton Club opened in October, 1933 and would become one of the Avenue’s most famous night-life spots; Denver opened perhaps the Avenue’s most famous club, the Sunset Terrace, in December 1937. The Fergusons were among the most influential club owners in the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a network of Southern and Midwestern clubs and theaters in which African Americans performed beginning around 1940 (compare Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock n’ Roll).
In March 1939 Police Chief Michael Morrissey took aim on the Ferguson clubs in a “drive against white-and-colored night spots,” telling the Indianapolis Times that “squads visiting Indiana Ave. resorts were warning proprietors against admitting white women.” The surveillance of the Ferguson clubs was part of a long pattern of obstructing the most prominent African-American club owners, and Morrissey suggested the raids were a response to African-American community complaints. On March 18, 1939 Emma Lewis implied the same thing when she wrote the Indianapolis Recorder to applaud the Sunset Terrace, indicating that she and her husband David “go there once or twice a month.” The Lewises lived at 425 North California Street, but Emma worried that “There are not enough patrons to keep open.” Lewis charged that African Americans were “making complaints against the Sunset Terrace, owned and operated by a colored citizen, because he catered to white patrons as well as colored. While they are trying to bar the white patrons away from the Terrace they are also running Mr. Ferguson out of business, because there are not enough colored people that have the money to spend to keep the Sunset Terrace in business.” Lewis indicated that she and her husband had been to a show at the Sunset on March 11, when the Whitman Sisters opened an engagement, but Lewis reported that “there was only 30 or 40 colored patrons there. There were about 250 White patrons turned away because of the complaints of their patronage.”
White patrons may have been turned away when Emma Lewis visited the Sunset, but the Star reported on March 27th that police found Whites at both the Sunset Terrace and Cotton Club. Chief Morrissey acknowledged that he had “warned the operators previously that white persons must not be permitted to patronize establishments catering particularly to colored persons. But the warnings obviously were ignored.” Muncie’s Star-Press quoted Morrissey as saying “`We don’t want any ‘black and tan’ resorts in Indianapolis … because they eventually lead to trouble.’” On April 1st the Recorder reported that Morrissey confirmed “The purpose of the raids was to acquaint proprietors of the establishments with the fact that the department does not want white persons permitted entrance.” Morrissey rationalized the raids as a response to neighbors’ complaints, telling the Recorder that “I acted, as I always do, when substantial citizens complain of law violation.”
The 21st-century celebration of African-American expressive culture acknowledges the consequence of jazz and African-American performance on American popular culture. Nevertheless, jazz history-making on the Avenue has always risked appropriating music to serve contemporary social and political reasons (compare a similar history in David Rotenstein’s 2019 Blues ghosts in the Black Mecca: Appropriation and erasure in Helena, Arkansas [subscription access]). A group of African-American business people dismayed by the razing of the Avenue met with city planners in 1968 and championed a development project they called “Operation Avenue.” The group aspired to create “a ‘Bourbon Street’ atmosphere on the avenue. Bourbon Street is an entertainment section in New Orleans known as the birthplace of jazz music.” Committee Chair Willard B. Ransom advocated a commerce and leisure district whose aim “would be to attract tourist money to the area, especially during the 500 Festival month of May.” However, members of the committee “expressed doubt about the feasibility of capital outlays for property improvements in view of the uncertainty of the expansion plans of Indiana University Medical School.” Indiana University was indeed contemplating purchasing neighborhoods south of the Avenue for the IUPUI campus, but the plans were unsettled and “it will be several years before the I.U. project and a proposed urban renewal program begin to affect the area.” Mayor Richard Lugar acknowledged in January 1968 that he would only support Indiana Avenue projects that conformed with the University and city planning projects, indicating that “he believes the idea would be worthy of his support but pointed out the possibility that the Indiana Avenue plans might conflict with those of I.U. and the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission.”
Operation Avenue’s ambitions to transform the Avenue into a retail and leisure district celebrating its African-American musical heritage have been repeated continually over the subsequent half-century. For instance, when Indiana Avenue became the city’s sixth Cultural District in 2004, the district pinned its distinction on its African-American jazz history, and street banners were decorated with stylized saxophone images and the motto “Rhythm. Reborn.” In 2018 Indy Chamber once more linked development and music when it funded a city-wide economic development project it calls “Indy Music Strategy.” The Chamber hired the firm Sound Diplomacy, which pointed to Indianapolis’s jazz heritage as the foundation for the city’s “musical legacy” and seized upon the symbolism of “culture-bearers like J. J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery and the jazz clubs on Indiana Avenue.” Johnson, Hubbard, and Montgomery certainly deserve the reverence they are often accorded, but the fixation on a few postwar jazzmen and the absence of reflective historical and ethnographic research hazards reducing those performers and jazz simply to symbols. Shallow histories of expressive culture, fantasies of jazz as an integrating mechanism, and the underlying racist essentialism of Black music ignores structural inequalities or projects them into the past rather than the contemporary world. Such a jazz heritage misses the chance to confront the heritage of race and expression and instead hopes to entice contemporary bourgeois downtown to shop, go to school, and perhaps even live where a music landscape once flourished.
Indiana Avenue 1956 image from O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Indiana Avenue 300 Block Looking Northwest image from Indianapolis Bicentennial Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Sunset Terrace circa 1953 image from Indianapolis Flanner House: Helping People Help Themselves, Indiana Historical Society