Buried Treasure

Last year the musical hit of Broadway was “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” The production won four Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical, and was nominated for ten Tonys. The original production of 1921 was the first all-black musical on Broadway that was not a minstrel show, and introduced worldwide musical stars Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. Poet Langston Hughes hailed that original musical as the launch of The Harlem renaissance, an artistic and cultural revolution in America. One of the show’s songs became an all-time popular hit – “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”

Did you know that the co-author of the song and of the musical, Noble Sissle, was from Indianapolis? And he went to Butler? Oh – and did you know he wrote The Butler Fight Song (“We’ll sing the Butler War song/ we’ll give the fighting cry. . .” I didn’t either. It’s part of the great history of jazz and black music that was born and flourished here on Indiana Avenue and never acknowledged (much less celebrated) by the city’s establishment.

Other cities promoted and made tourist attractions of their jazz history – Bourbon Street in The French Quarter of New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis. Kansas City has a Jazz Museum and claims to be “one of the cradles of jazz.” It lists other jazz “cradles” as New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City.”  The jazz mecca of Indiana Avenue is not even mentioned, and is only a blip in the Ken Burns documentary of jazz. We spent millions of dollars luring a Super Bowl in order to promote tourism and attract business, but we hid our brightest musical lights under a bushel of neglect.

I wrote in a blog last week of a new book on Indiana Avenue being written by Aleta Hodge (who you heard on “The Uncle Dan Story Hour” on WFYI Monday night, and can soon be heard here on my website.) There are two good books on that legendary musical thoroughfare already available: Indianapolis Jazz: The Masters, Legends, and Legacy of Indiana Avenue by David Leander Williams [The History Press] is an excellent and thorough survey of the birth and flowering and death of the Avenue.

Indiana Avenue: Black Entertainment Boulevard by Rev. C. Nickerson Bolden [Author House] takes a hard and honest look at the demise of the once brilliant musical showplace and the healthy neighborhood that once grew around it. Bolden says sadly and truly that “The Indiana Avenue community was an amenity. Few past or current city officials have really acknowledged this fact.”

I have a book on the history of the city and another one of the state. Neither mentions Indiana Avenue or any of the world-renowned artists it spawned. The fine documentary “The School That Changed a City” tells of the important careers of successful graduates of Crispus Attucks in sports, law, medicine, and the military, but no mention is made of its famous musicians (except for one opera singer) or the superb music department that launched them. One of the musicians who taught there was Jerry Daniels, an original member of “The Ink Spots.” I wish I had known that he and his quartet were talented young men from Indianapolis when I was a kid loving their music. I might have learned that there were other black Americans besides Amos and Andy and Jack Benny’s bug-eyed “Rochester” and the bandana-bonneted Aunt Jemima on the pancake box.

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An Introduction to Tasha Jones’ Poem “From Pyramids to Plantations to Projects to Penitentiaries.”

I first heard Tasha Jones’ poem “From Pyramids to Plantations to Projects to Penitentiaries” when she performed it at a “Resist” Poetry Reading after the recent election. Twenty-five people read poems, but I don’t remember a single one of the others. I could not forget Tasha’s. I don’t know of any other poem that projects an accurate arc of history. The very title of the poem sums up the history of black people in the United States, from their distinguished origins elsewhere to the unspeakable tragedy of slavery and the unrelenting persecution of their race through a series of ingenious forms of legal and social diminishment.

The distinguished poet Karen Kovacik, professor of English at Indiana University- Purdue University at Indianapolis, and former poet Laureate of the state of Indiana, highly recommends the poem “for those who still imagine we live in a post-racial society.”

Tasha Jones not only gives us the arc of this shocking history, she personalizes it in images and phrases that are as vivid as they are valid. Most remarkably, she
makes beauty out of horror, and evokes for me as a Christian the sorrow and compassion of the Jesus of the Gospels:

“Follow me to the good book
Where people are metaphors for trees
And peace is found
In the stillness of streams
Follow me to the good book
Where the end is known in the beginning
And the beginning is known in the end…

Follow Tasha Jones’ poem to a deeper understanding of injustice and endurance, of suffering and survival. Pray that we who call ourselves “white” may not forever be blind, that words like these may teach us to see.

Hear Tasha Jones perform her poem tonight on “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour,” 9 PM on WFYI (90.1 FM.)

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Our Hidden Hoosier Treasures

When I was a boy growing up in Indianapolis in the 1940s I loved listening to “The Ink Spots” on the radio. They were a pop vocal group who became internationally famous in the 1930s and 1940s, and in 1939 their hit song “If I Didn’t Care” sold nineteen million copies; in 1989 they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.

I had no idea they were from Indianapolis. I had no idea that one of their original members, Jerry Daniels, once taught music at Crispus Attucks – nor did I realize the music department of that high school was as highly regarded as their Oscar Robertson team that twice won the state basketball championship.

I knew that guitarist Wes Montgomery and trombonist J.J. Johnson were from Indianapolis, though I didn’t know that they got their start on Indiana Avenue, nor did I know that Indiana Avenue had once been the seedbed and performance center of some of the great jazz musicians in this country – Indianapolis natives who were known throughout the world, though not by the white population of their hometown. Such are the fruits of segregation.

I learned about this from Aleta Hodge, a former fellow writer on The Shortridge Daily Echo, who is writing what promises to be an important book called Indiana Avenue: Life Along and Near the Avenue and a Musical Journey from 1915 to 2015 (Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, Spiritual, Bebop, Doo Wop, Motown, Opera and Hip Hop.)

Aleta is a guest on “The Uncle Dan Story Hour” that will air on WFYI (90.1 FM) on Monday night, August 14 at 9PM. Be sure to tune in on this, the last of our nine shows scheduled by WFYI. Other guests are poet Tasha Jones, Cindy Booth of Child Advocates, and Pam Blivens-Hinkle of Spirit and Place.

This may be our finest hour. (Our time slot will be taken over in the fall by Andrew Luck.)

Tune out with your mental memory of our star saxophonist Sophie Faught playing her plaintive rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield