Public Art Proposal Celebrates Indiana Avenue's Golden Era of Jazz

 sculpture mockup

Head down to the Indianapolis Artsgarden between now and November 18, and you can check out scale models for the five finalists in the city's latest public art competition.  Commissioned by the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC) and the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the winning project will add to the Indianapolis Cultural Trail a piece of art that celebrates the contributions of the African American community to the city of Indianapolis.  Two HCA studio artists, William Rasdell and Atsu Kpotufe, are among the finalists, and the only locals on the short list for this competition, which includes artists from New York, Chicago and Houston.

The piece proposed by Rasdell and Kpotufe, “Tribute to Jazz on Indiana Avenue” is a giant 8th note, 25 feet in length and rising from the base to 8 feet in height.  The musical note is held up by LED-illuminated acrylic panels with etchings of historic handbills from past shows as well as a street map that highlights many of the clubs that once dotted the Avenue.  Motion sensors trigger an audio element and use both music and narration to communicate the rich history and sounds of the era spanning from the 1930s through the 1960s.  The base, which is in the shape of a grand piano, is embellished with the lines of a musical staff.

Rasdell, an Indianapolis native, initially conceived of this piece in 2011.  When GIPC and the Arts Council announced a project for the Cultural Trail that would celebrate African American culture in Indianapolis, he knew this was a perfect fit.  He approached fellow HCA artist, Atsu Kpotufe, knowing that Kpotufe's experience producing 3D work would lend itself well to the project and give structure to his design.  Kpotufe was excited to be a part of the project and began working on a feasibility plan and budget while Rasdell fine-tuned the proposal.

indiana ave fliers

Rasdell is compiling research that will be incorporated into the sculpture.  He describes how he grew up in the jazz tradition and reminisced that his first date was to a show at Clowes Hall to see Cannonball Adderly, adding that it was difficult to find a girl his age who shared his enthusiasm for the music.  Al Coleman, a drummer who played on the Avenue, was a family friend who Rasdell has known his whole life.  They have kept in touch, and Coleman, now in his 80s, will provide some input about the scene.  During its hey day, more than 40 clubs were located on or near the Avenue and the list of musicians with Indianapolis ties who performed there include jazz giants like Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton and Freddie Hubbard.   Rasdell explained that much of the success Indiana Avenue enjoyed was due to the efforts of the Ferguson Brothers, who started establishing various businesses on the Avenue around 1931.  The two not only owned several clubs, but also a hotel where traveling musicians often stayed and a booking agency that attracted big name acts to the city.  The brothers helped make Indiana Avenue a major stop on the African American entertainment circuit.

The contributions of African Americans to the cultural history of Indiana Avenue and the music scene that thrived there cannot be overstated. Artists William Rasdell and Atsu Kpotufe want to tell the story because it brings attention to an important part of the city's history that so many are unaware of, an era when Indianapolis developed a strong cultural identity across the country as a great jazz center.

The model of “Tribute to Jazz on the Avenue” is on display, along with the other 4 finalists’ projects, through November 18 at the Indianapolis Artsgarden.  The Arts Council and GIPC are soliciting feedback from the public here. The selection committee will choose the winner in January, 2014.  We wish them the best of luck!