Early Musical Development of Selected African American Jazz Musicians in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940s

By May, Lissa Fleming | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Early Musical Development of Selected African American Jazz Musicians in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940s


May, Lissa Fleming, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


I propose, by way of definition that creativity is the reaction of the human spirit to the variety of its experiences; a reaction expressed through forms and structures (which may be tonal, verbal, written, visual or physical).... Significantly the creative fruit is both determined by, and is as unique as, the intensity of the experiences and the quality of the response.

--Mari Evans (1)

Introduction

Indianapolis, a city of approximately 365,000 in 1930, was home to nearly 45,000 African Americans who lived, worked, worshipped, and learned in a close-knit segregated community. For these citizens, it was a city of contradictions. Members of the Ku Klux Klan dominated positions of power in city and state government, (2) racial tension was high, and neighborhoods, parks, businesses, and schools were segregated. Yet a spirit of hope and optimism prevailed in the African American community. Indianapolis poet Mari Evans wrote, "Black folk were firmly convinced that with hard work and a 'good' disposition the future was theirs for the taking." (3) As was the case in many other Northern cities, the growing African American community in Indianapolis was a result, in part, of the "Great Migration," which Peretti defined as "both the physical movement of blacks from plantations to Northern cities after 1900 and the intellectual and cultural adventurousness to which this movement gave rise." He proposed that the Great Migration "profoundly altered the values, daily goals, and self-expression of blacks." (4)

Music was an integral part of the lives of many African Americans--in their homes, schools, and churches. Centrally located with ready access to train and air travel, Indianapolis was a frequent stop for vaudeville acts, traveling shows, and nationally famous musicians and bands. The city offered a particularly rich musical environment for those who were interested, and many were interested. Musicians who have since distinguished themselves in the field of jazz, such as David Baker, Erroll Grandy, Slide Hampton, Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Virgil Jones, Wes Montgomery, Larry Ridley, Melvin Rhyne, and Jimmy Spaulding, are among those whose early musical development took place in Indianapolis. What variety of experiences coalesced for these young African Americans in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940s and came to creative fruition through the form and structure of jazz? How did they acquire the necessary technical skills and musical knowledge? What factors contributed to their early musical development?

Methodology

Interviews were conducted with ten African American jazz musicians who developed musically in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940s. Previous research studies; transcripts of interviews; biographies of musicians; primary sources such as public records and archives from city government and public schools; and ethnographic, sociological, and historical writings provided data which complemented and corroborated information from the interviews and also supplied contextual information.

Themes

To illuminate the events and practices contributing to the development of young African American jazz musicians in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940s, the results of this investigation have been categorized into three overarching themes: formal music education, informal music education, and the contributing political, social, and cultural environment. Formal music study through the public schools, as well as private instruction by individuals and institutions, provided young players with technical skills and a strong musical knowledge base. Informal music education, which occurred through exposure to musical families, participation in jam sessions and big bands, and access to radio, recordings, and live performances, offered a highly charged creative environment for experimentation. The social, political, and cultural conditions that existed in Indianapolis for young African Americans supported the growth of jazz and jazz musicians. …

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