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Freetown Village highlights vibrancy of Indiana Avenue

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Highlighting the former glory of Indiana Avenue’s jazz scene, Freetown Village will present “A Musical Journey of Indiana Avenue” as part of its annual Musical Journey series.

The program, which takes place April 29 at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, will focus on the historical significance of the Avenue, the music and businesses that once resided there, and the community it fostered. Ophelia Wellington, founding director of Freetown Village, said the living museum aims to educate the community about African American history through theater performances, storytelling, music and educational workshops and programming.

Wellington said the “Musical Journey” series was started four years ago to place an emphasis on how music is part of Black culture and heritage. Although they were not able to practice and perform live together during the pandemic, Wellington said the Indiana Avenue theme has been in the works for a while.

Emmy-Award winner Bill Myers will join the Freetown Village singers for a performance highlighting the heyday of Indiana Avenue’s jazz scene. (Photo provided by Bill Myers)

“You know, a lot of people think of jazz and New Orleans, but Indiana was also out here with jazz,” Wellington said.  “Up and down Indiana Avenue in its heyday, there were a lot of jazz clubs, so people could go from one club to the other up and down Indiana Avenue, listening to music and having a good time.”

Bill Myers, Indy-based jazz musician, actor and educator, said jazz singer and Freetown Village member Sandy Lomax asked him to help with the project due to his experience with and knowledge of the musicians who once made Indiana Avenue a cultural hub. 

Although Myers himself never played in any of the former clubs of Indiana Avenue, he said his music career took off early thanks to older jazz musicians such as Buddy Montgomery, Melvin Rhyne, Slide Hampton and the Hampton sisters, Jimmy Coe, Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson and many others who took him under their wings.

“You never forget where you come from,” Myers said. “Wherever I went, I took those guys with me because they taught me about performing … They challenged me — I mean, they literally threw me in the water and either I would sink, or I would swim — thank God I swam.”

Indiana Avenue was essentially the “Harlem of Indiana,” and Myers said this project is so important because Indianapolis’ famed historic venues no longer exist — except for the Madam Walker Legacy Center and Crispus Attucks High School. Telling the stories of Indiana Avenue is imperative, as Myers said the stories are all they have left, and it can prevent “revisionist history” from replacing the history of Indiana Avenue with a new story.

Sandy Lomax, Indy-based jazz singer and member of Freetown Village. (Photo provided by Bill Myers)

“A Musical Journey of Indiana Avenue” will feature the Freetown Village singers performing gospels and spirituals, as Myers said faith has always been integral to the Black community and jazz. The program will also include musical performances from Sandy Lomax, a jazz trio and Myers himself as well as video clips, featured interviews and anecdotes with renowned Indiana Avenue musicians and residents.

“I think it’s important that we’re able to continue to honor the legacy that they left behind, which doesn’t even resonate solely in Indianapolis,” Myers said. “When you say ‘Indiana Avenue’ in New York, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Europe… they know what you’re talking about, and it’s this same community of musicians that has such a tremendous impact worldwide.”

Myers said he hopes that audiences will leave with a deeper understanding of how the musicians from the Indiana Avenue scene were “revered globally for their contribution to jazz and their greater contribution to the black culture of Indianapolis.”

Freetown Village’s “A Musical Journey of Indiana Avenue” takes place April 29 at 6 p.m. at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, 5136 Michigan Road. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at freetown.org.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.

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