Indiana Avenue

One of the four original diagonal streets of the 1821 plan for Indianapolis, Indiana Avenue tells an important part of the story of African American life in Indianapolis, much of which was centered here on the near northwest side of the downtown area. In 1860, the African American population of Indianapolis numbered only 498, but just forty years later it reached more than 15,000, with the center of the African American community already firmly entrenched in and around Indiana Avenue. While the Indiana Avenue that we see now consists mainly of commercial, housing, and university related buildings, this street contained some of the most prominent jazz clubs of the mid-1900s.

The Beginnings of Indiana Avenue

Originally swampy land that was believed to be unhealthy because of its location near the Central Canal and the White River, the Indiana Avenue area went largely undeveloped until the nineteenth century when it began to evolve into an industrial center populated by mostly by white residents. Then, beginning in the 1860s following the Civil War, African Americans migrating north into Indianapolis and facing segregation settled on this stretch of land. Before long, a thriving African American community developed, due in part to the area's geographic isolation.

Businesses along the avenue, particularly the 400 and 500 blocks, provided food, housing, entertainment, consumer services and, most importantly, a sense of community for African American residents of the city. Some businesses were run by European immigrants but interspersed among those were African American owned businesses. By the late 19th and early 20th century, more and more African American business owners, residents, and consumers frequented Indiana Avenue. Because segregation and prevailing negative attitudes towards African Americans defined this era, the residents of Indiana Avenue had to become self-sufficient and provide for their basic needs. The Indiana Avenue of the 1920s provided goods and services for African Americans not admitted to downtown stores.

The office of the Indianapolis Recorder was also located along the 500 block of Indiana Avenue from 1920-1975. Established in 1895, the Recorder is the third oldest black newspaper in the United States. Residential areas like Ransom Place were nearby and helped foster a neighborhood atmosphere. People could walk to their destinations and such foot traffic helped to add to the liveliness of the area. Ransom Place was also home to several prominent local black professionals such as doctors, attorneys, and politicians.

Jazz on Indiana Avenue

Perhaps the most influential and dominant aspect of life on Indiana Avenue for the first half of the twentieth century was its lively nightlife and music scene. When jazz began to emerge in 1915 as a popular musical form, rooted in African American culture, Indiana Avenue stood poised to play a major role. Many of the jazz bands from Chicago and New York that flooded the radio strongly influenced local jazz bands of the Midwest.

The 1930s not only brought with it the end of prohibition, but a great increase in dancing and nightclub life. At the time, Indianapolis’ only clubs were spaces open only to whites. However, clubs for African Americans soon began to open up near and on Indiana Avenue. Helped along by brothers Denver and Sea Ferguson, who owned several clubs and a booking agency, Indiana Avenue, also known as “The Avenue”, hosted national names like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie, and cultivated local talent like Noble Sissie, Errol Grandy, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Coe. As a result, Indiana Avenue grew into one of the premier music scenes, rivaling other larger cities like Chicago and Kansas City. The cultural identity created by segregation led to the Harlem Renaissance atmosphere of the area.

In 1931, Sea Ferguson opened up the Trianon Ballroom on 244 West Vermont St. The Recorder called it the finest ballroom in Indiana. The ballroom featured jazz orchestras such as Spaulding’s Brown Buddies, Zack Whyte, and Bernie Young. By 1940, there were over 25 clubs on Indiana Avenue and, it became a stop for many African American acts. Musicians like Freddie Hubbard and J.J. Johnson (among others) made Indianapolis a regular stop and developed a derivation of jazz known as “Indy Sound.” Numerous jazz clubs planted roots in the area, including The Cotton Club, George’s Bar, Henri’s Cafe Lounge, Dee’s Paradise Ballroom and probably the most well-known, Sunset Terrace.

Located at 511-513, George’s Bar regularly supplied late-night jazz enthusiasts with jam sessions. Hosting such acts as Les (Count) Fisher—nicknamed by mentor Count Basie—and soon-to-be jazz greats like Freddie Hubbard, George’s consistently brought in both Midwestern black and white audiences. Local bands like guitarist Wes Montgomery and his brothers often kept patrons of all ethnicities enthralled at George’s.

The Civil Rights Era through Today

The jazz clubs on Indiana Avenue were some of the few places that had a racially mixed crowd at this time. This integration caused controversy, and some saw the clubs as an inappropriate environment for whites. After a couple of club raids, there was an increase in police presence and violence that created a bad reputation for the club scene. By the 1950s, the clubs had not disappeared but dispersed to areas outlying Indiana Avenue.

As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, expanding job opportunities and housing availability pulled and pushed residents from the Avenue, and its jazz scene vanished. While the Walker Theatre continues to anchor the district’s entertainment scene, it primarily performs formal large-scale productions.

Many have aimed to keep the memory Indiana Avenue jazz alive. For instance, “Jammin’ on the Avenue,” a sculpture created by John Spaulding in 1989, stands on Indiana Avenue at the south entrance of Lockefield Gardens, commemorating the scene that used to be. An Indiana Historical Bureau historic marker also resides at the intersection of Indiana Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Street to commemorate the site’s history.

Images

Indiana Avenue

Indiana Avenue

John Spaulding's untitled statues of jazz musicians | Source: Courtesy of Indiana DNR View File Details Page

Indiana Avenue

Indiana Avenue

Street view from the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street and Indiana Avenue | Source: Courtesy of Indiana DNR View File Details Page

Indiana Avenue

Indiana Avenue

Historic Marker | Source: Courtesy of Indiana DNR View File Details Page

Ransom Place Historic District

Ransom Place Historic District

Historic Marker | Source: Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau View File Details Page

Indiana Avenue Apartments

Indiana Avenue Apartments

Now an apartment complex near the IUPUI campus, this is roughly where Sunset Terrace would have been located. | Source: Keenan Salla | Creator: Keenan Salla View File Details Page

Sunset Terrace

Sunset Terrace

Crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of jazz bandleader Dizzy Gillespie before his performance at Sunset Terrace. | Source: O. James Fox Collection | Creator: James O. Fox, courtesy of Indiana Historical Society View File Details Page

Henri™s Cafe

Montgomery Brothers and Willis Kirk performing at Henri™s Cafe Lounge on Indiana Avenue. | Source: Willis Kirk Collection, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society View File Details Page

George's Bar

George's Bar

Photo of George™s Bar on Indiana Avenue | Source: Emmett I. Brown Jr. Photography Collection, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Emmett I. Brown Jr. View File Details Page

Cotton Club

Cotton Club

Advertisement for Sea Ferguson™s restaurant, the Cotton Club | Source: Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles View File Details Page

Denver Ferguson

Denver Ferguson

Owner of Sunset Terrace, Denver Ferguson | Source: Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society View File Details Page

Jazz Mural

Jazz Mural

Mural commemorating jazz on Indiana Avenue. This mural is located on the side of Musician™s Repair and Sales (332 N Capitol Ave.) that is facing Indiana Avenue. | Source: Jonnie Fox | Creator: Jonnie Fox View File Details Page

Jammin' on the Avenue

Jammin' on the Avenue

Sculpture created by John Spaulding in 1989. Located at the south entrance of Lockefield Gardens on Indiana Avenue, as a tribute to the jazz history of Indiana Avenue. | Source: Courtesy of City Gallery Indy View File Details Page

Crown Garden

Crown Garden

This 1898 Sanborn map shows the design of the Crown Garden Theatre and how patrons had to enter through the Indy Avenue foyer rather than directly into the auditorium. | Source: Courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives | Creator: Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps View File Details Page

Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton

This Indianapolis Freeman article shows Jelly Roll Morton before he became a piano-playing jazz legend. Morton performed in vaudeville with his sister, and they had an early appearance at the Crown Garden Theatre, where he was billed as Ferd Morton. | Source: Courtesy of IUPUI University Special Collections and Archives | Creator: The Indianapolis Freeman View File Details Page

500 Block 1956

500 Block 1956

The Avenue could be quite quiet during the daylight hours. However, the street would come alive at night. | Source: O. James Fox Collection, courtesy of Indiana Historical Society | Creator: O. James Fox View File Details Page

500 Block around 1963

500 Block around 1963

Here you can see the gradual urban decay of the 500 block of Indy Avenue. The restaurant to the right of George's Bar is quite noticeable as the awnings clearly are deteriorating. | Source: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, courtesy of Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Indianapolis Recorder View File Details Page

Les Fisher

Les Fisher

Here, the Count performs one of his many spectacular drum solos at a nightly jam session at George's. | Source: Emmett I. Brown Jr. Papers, courtesy of Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Emmett I. Brown View File Details Page

George's Bar in the 1950s

George's Bar in the 1950s

Bar patrons begin to line the sidewalk before the establishment opens for the evening's jam session. | Source: Emmett I. Brown Papers, courtesy of Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Emmett I. Brown View File Details Page

Inside George's

Inside George's

Bartenders at George's also entertained guests with their drink mixing skills. If you can, take a look at how prices have changed since the 1950s. | Source: Emmett I. Brown Jr. Papers, courtesy of Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Emmett I. Brown Jr. View File Details Page

Street Address:

Indiana Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46202 [map]

Cite this Page:

Braden Catt, Carey Nigh, Jonnie Fox, Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, “Indiana Avenue,” Discover Indiana, accessed October 19, 2018, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/242.

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