History of Jazz infographic The history of jazz in Indianapolis and Indianapolis Public Schools is as rich and deep as the soil our crops come from. It’s shadowed by segregation, economic dislocation and cultural change. Its soundtrack, if it could be heard today, would be the music that spilled out onto Indiana Avenue on summer nights in the days before air conditioning. The doors propped open, a town unto itself, with pool halls, restaurants, barber shops, shoe shine stands, pharmacies, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, stores, apartments and houses and the crown jewel of the African-American community, the Madame Walker Theatre, which still stands today—Indiana Avenue was alive!

The other local community anchor was Crispus Attucks High School. Its music department exemplified the attitude of excellence that permeated the school. Instrumental music teachers LaVerne Newsome, Norman Merrifield and Russell W. Brown were outstanding musicians and had trained at some of the finest music schools in the country. Newsome, a graduate of Northwestern University, taught orchestra, string classes and music appreciation and was known for his dedication to his students. Merrifield, chairman of the Crispus Attucks music department, was a pianist, choral director, band director, composer and arranger. He held bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from Northwestern University. The Crispus Attucks music department thrived under his leadership, embodying the values of post-Reconstruction black American life, which blended African heritage with European art music.

The result of Crispus Attucks’ nurturing environment and the nightly exposure to great music was a crop of young jazz musicians that excelled at their craft and were essential to the language of jazz.

  • Trombonist J.J. Johnson is acknowledged as one of the most talented and prolific jazz trombonists in history. 
  • Guitarist Wes Montgomery created a new style of playing using his thumb to mute strings, and his Riverside Recordings have become models for jazz guitarists around the world. 
  • Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard became known for his high-energy approach to ensemble playing, and his modern jazz songs became standard repertoire for every aspiring jazz musician. 
  • Trombonist Slide Hampton was the youngest member of the Hampton family, a family band of 12 siblings–most famously The Hampton Sisters. The Hampton family toured for years before settling in Indianapolis and becoming mentors to the music community. 

A wonderful mural picturing several of these artists can be found today at 332 North College Avenue.

The tradition of jazz in IPS has continued to this day. Broad Ripple Magnet High School for the Arts and Humanities Senior Bryan Thompson credits Hubbard, Johnson and Montgomery as inspiration for his musical studies.

Thompson, a gifted saxophonist, recently found out he has been accepted to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, one of the top music schools in the country.

“Playing the saxophone has given me a chance to achieve huge amounts of success while in high school,” Thompson said. “I have always loved music and playing the saxophone has helped me develop a desire to learn more about music and different genres.”

Thompson, who plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies while at the Jacobs School, will have the opportunity to learn from another outstanding IPS alum, Dr. David Baker.

Baker, an award-winning educator, musician and composer, serves as the chair for the Jazz Studies Department at the school. He thrived in the Indianapolis jazz scene and even served as a mentor for fellow alum, Hubbard.

“I believe we can help shed light on the strong jazz history that Indianapolis has,” Thompson said. “Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta are not the only cities with strong musical backgrounds.”

While many of the institutions along Indiana Avenue no longer exist, one stands strong to this day, the Madame Walker Theatre Center. Its hallowed hall has seen the music of countless prolific jazz musicians over the years, including Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

The Madame Walker Theatre is continuing the jazz tradition by hosting monthly “Jazz on the Avenue” events that feature local jazz musicians.

One day we may even see Thompson on that stage. For now, he has advice for the younger musicians in the community.

“It is hard work being a musician,” Thompson said. “Spend time with your instrument in order to become better. Never compare yourself to other musicians. The fact that we all are different in our music keeps an ever-changing musical variety, and it is what makes us unique.”

IPS is proud to be a part of the unique tradition of jazz in Indianapolis. We are excited for Thompson as he continues his musical endeavors and hope to see his name among the likes of Baker, Hubbard, Johnson and Montgomery in the future.