The sultry sounds of saxophone haunt Indianapolis like a ghost.
Trumpet and trombone echo in downtown neighborhoods where the best jazz musicians in the world once played. Deep rhythms of bass and drum reverberate in the memories of audience members who once grooved and tapped with the beat.
The city’s jazz heritage started on downtown’s Indiana Avenue and has mostly died out.
But the style’s simmering hot spot has found a new home.
For the past 20 years, the Jazz Kitchen has offered live jazz seven nights a week, serving as an incubator for local acts and touring musicians alike.
The venue has the power to draw national headliners such as Victor Wooten and Harry Connick Jr. Jazz legends such as J.J. Johnson and Wynton Marsalis have wailed in the venue’s intimate main room.
But just as exciting for owner David Allee has been watching the growth of jazz in central Indiana.
“We want you to hang out and have a good time, but we want you to get into the jazz at the same time,” Allee said. “There’s so many different styles under the jazz umbrella, I’d be hard pressed to find someone who just doesn’t like jazz. They just haven’t found one they like.”
On any night of the week, passers-by at the corner of 54th Street and College Avenue can hear the lilting sounds coming from the Jazz Kitchen.
It may be a seriously rocking jam session coming from the interior stage.
During the summer, it could be a stripped down version performed on the open-air patio. Late nights on weekends bring DJs and world music for dancing.
“We’ve found that if you give people a little bit of different kinds of music, they can find something that resonates,” Allee said.
The Jazz Kitchen was born in 1994, when Allee and a musician friend, Mike Slattery, opened the club. They had been classmates at Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis and played in the jazz band together.
Allee’s father, Steve, was pianist and a fixture in the Indianapolis jazz scene.
He and Slattery were driving through Broad Ripple one day when they noticed the vacant space at the corner of 54th and College. The site had been the home of The Place to Start, a noted jazz club in the ’70s and ’80s.
“Historically, this corner has been involved with jazz for the last 40 years,” Allee said. “There was a need for a jazz club and a lot of great jazz musicians in town. And we were passionate about that genre of music.”
Indianapolis’ jazz roots date back to the 1920s, when the city rivaled Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis as the hottest scenes in the country. Legends such as Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery and Sun Ra had their start in the smoky clubs on Indiana Avenue.
Although the widespread popularity of jazz died down in the 1960s, its passion still smolders. The Jazz Kitchen could pick up Indy’s legacy after all of these years.
For the past two decades, the club has brought in the biggest touring musicians in the country.
J.J. Johnson, the legendary trombonist, came back to Indianapolis soon after the club opened and played three nights at the Jazz Kitchen. The gig turned out to be one of the last before Johnson retired permanently.
“That was the first time we sold out for our three weekend concerts,” Allee said. “You can imagine in the early days how money was tight, and to sell out three shows, that really helped us pay some bills that weekend and stay alive.”
Harry Connick Jr. has played a few shows on its stage. Terence Blanchard, Jimmy Smith and David “Fathead” Newman all performed at the Jazz Kitchen.
“These people might not be household names to most people, but in the jazz world, they’re huge,” Allee said.
Ray Brown, regarded as one of jazz’s greatest bassists, played his last performance at the Jazz Kitchen before dying in 2002.
Shawn Goodman, who plays the jazz clarinet every month at the Jazz Kitchen, considered seeing that show a seminal moment for her.
“I still have that ticket. It was amazing,” she said.
Goodman started playing at the Jazz Kitchen when she was in college. The Greenwood resident, who teaches clarinet at Butler University, has performed on its stage more than 100 times.
Many of her students consider it a career milestone.
“It’s the kind of that place where all the young jazz musicians say, ‘I’ll know I’m really good when I get a gig at the Jazz Kitchen,’” she said.
Once they’re reached that milestone, they find that the club is ideal for jazz — intimate but airy, large enough to fit a good crowd but not too big where you can’t find a good seat.
“People who come there are jazz enthusiasts. It’s not like playing at a loud bar, where people are just looking to get drunk,” Goodman said. “People dress nice, they’re quiet when you’re playing. They’re sensitive to the music and want to hear what you’re playing.”
To celebrate its 20-year anniversary, the Jazz Kitchen has placed an emphasis on scheduling a wide array of special concerts.
Five-time Grammy winner Victor Wooten will be in town this weekend, with adventurous guitarist Larry Coryell and Louisiana staple Buckwheat Zydeco coming later in June.
The club will again be a partner with the Indy Jazz Fest to feature live performances all week long.
“You hit the 20-year mark in a segmented market of jazz and live music, we’re proud we could get this far,” Allee said. “What we’re looking at, we’re going to celebrate all year long and try to include as many of these big shows as we can.”