Commentary: Music at Indiana’s forgotten crossroads

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – They try to solve two mysteries.

One musical.

One historical.

John Krull, publisher,

I talk over the air with musician Rob Dixon, WFIU Jazz Director David Brent Johnson and Kyle Long, host of WFYI’s Cultural Manifesto. We’re discussing Indiana’s rich musical heritage but paying closest attention to the state’s potent jazz legacy.

Long, Johnson and Dixon detail the state’s splendid jazz history. They describe the clubs on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. They list the talent that took flight here – perhaps the greatest jazz guitarist ever Wes Montgomery, jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, composer, educator and musician David Baker, among others.

They bring to life a musical scene as varied and full-bodied as any in the world.

I ask them two big questions.

The first question asks why more isn’t made of this important piece of Indiana’s history and culture.

Dixon, Johnson and Long all say the city and the state could and should do more to honor and celebrate this part of our heritage. People in other parts of the world know the role Indianapolis played in developing jazz, a major and vital form of artistic expression, but Hoosiers too often are blind and deaf to their own legacy.

They don’t know the magic that happened here.

That leads to the second question, a two-parter.

What made Indiana such a magnet for musical talent and what allowed us to grow so many spectacular musicians here?

Long says part of the reason Indiana became such a jazz mecca lies in the state’s nickname – the crossroads of America. At one time, we were just that, a place many, many people came through. Often, they stopped here.

In the process, they created audiences for musical talent – and helped build the lively stable of jazz clubs along Indiana Avenue.

Because the audience was sophisticated and worldly enough to appreciate great and creative musicianship, the best players came here.

Many great players also came from here.

Dixon says a large part of the reason Indiana turned out so many first-rate musicians was that the music education in many state high schools – particularly Crispus Attucks – was phenomenal. Dixon starts listing the great Attucks music teachers. Soon Long chimes in with still more names.

It’s clear that, like one chorus following another, those teachers formed a long line of excellence. In the process, they incubated generation after generation of musical prodigies.

The calls start to roll in.

Some callers offer testimony to their passion for the music. Their voices almost throb as they speak.

Other callers talk about the difference music education has made in their lives or the lives of their children. Parents describe the hunger their children have for music and how having a chance to learn about it satisfies them in ways no other subject can.

Dixon, Long and Johnson shake their heads.

They say this is one of the reasons Indiana’s musical history remains a mystery to too many Hoosiers. In an era of tight school budgets, music programs too often are among the first to be cut.

As the conversation flows, I realize that the cutbacks in arts education are only one of our self-defeating gestures.

Another involves denying that we are the crossroads of America by attempting to choke off immigration to our state and even deny refugees a place here.

Jazz, like so many inherently American art forms, was an amalgam, a marriage of different cultures and experiences that gave birth to a form of expression that touched the core of humanity.

Perhaps that’s what we miss these days.

The late Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut told me once that he didn’t write for money, because there isn’t much money in writing for most people. He wrote, he said, “for the same reason you practice any art, because it feeds your soul.”

As I hear the calls come in from Indiana parents and music lovers, I learn there are a lot of hungry souls out there.

And, as I ponder why we Hoosiers don’t know more about our musical heritage and history, I realize that a mystery also can be a tragedy.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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