Jazz Fest concerts held at Walker Center
By Ron Wynn
Jazz Fest events latest example of Walker Center's versatility
By Ron Wynn
In an era when many Black neighborhoods face multiple challenges from unemployment, crime and hopelessness, community centers have never been more important.
They are a place that can provide opportunities for young and old to interact, enjoy cultural events, participate in inspirational activities, and stay informed about things happening both in their immediate area and throughout their cities and towns.
One of the most vibrant and important community centers in the Midwest is the Madame Walker Theatre Center, 617 Indiana Avenue, in Indianapolis. It's both a landmark entity and among the last of its kind. The lone remaining iconic structure on Indiana Avenue, the Center also is listed on the register of National Historic Landmarks.
This place has a glorious and noble history. It was formerly the headquarters and manufacturing plant of Madame CJ Walker Hair Care and Beauty Products, and it retains much of its original look and style via the classic architectural design.
The Center is a 501 c3 non-profit organization. It's major goal is preserving Madame CJ Walker's legacy through cultural education, promoting social justice, supporting entrepreneurship and empowering youth to become the next generation of business owners and civic leaders.
he center has also been the sight for many memorable events and concerts over its tenure, thanks to the Grand Casino Ballroom. There, both national names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Patti LaBelle, Michael Bolton, and Lena Horne, as well as local jazz greats like Gregg Bacon and Lonnie Lester have appeared.
It is also a living testament and memorial to Madame CJ Walker, a visionary thinker and businesswoman. Sarah Breedlove started in the hair care business as a commission agent selling products for another Black woman health care entrepreneur Annie Tumbo Malone back in 1904, just as the World's Fair began.
She learned the basics of the business from Malone, then later married newspaper advertising salesman Charles Joseph Walker. They made a powerhouse team, with Walker's husband offering advice on advertising and promotion, while she trained other Black women as sales people and what she called "beauty culturists."
As Madame CJ Walker, she started a mail order operation in 1906, with her daughter A'Lelia in charge of that end, while she and her husband expanded the business by traveling throughout the southern and eastern United States.
Walker moved from Denver to Pittsburgh in 1908, opening up Lelia College to further train "hair culturists." Then, she established her headquarters in Indianapolis in 1910, eventually building a factory, hair salon and beauty school, then later adding a laboratory.
She also expanded the business globally to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama and Costa Rica. While subsequently becoming the nation's first Black woman millionaire, Walker also was very politically and socially active, and was one of the organizers of the Silent Protest Parade in 1917. This was a public demonstration of more than 8,000 Blacks on the East Coast to protest a riot that killed 39 innocent Black citizens.
Before she died in 1919, Madame CJ Walker pledged $5,000 to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund. Her will directed 2/3 of her estate's future net profits to charity, and another $100,000 to various orphanages, institutions and individuals.
The Walker Center's many cultural and social activities continue in her family's tradition of community involvement and philanthropic support according to the center's current visual arts curator Devon Ginn.
"It's very important that we maintain our history and keep the legacy of Madame Walker going," Ginn said last week. "We've got to be an innovative force in the community. It's important that we be a place where a lot of vibrant activities and events are constantly happening. We're in a time and an area where it is essential to our survival and to continuing our mission."
"Unfortunately, there are people out there who don't know our history and aren't aware of what's been going on here for a long, long time. So we are continuing to take our message out to the community, and getting people to come here and see the many things that we are doing."
The latest thing happening at the Walker Center are the Signature Series concerts, a big part of the ongoing Jazz Fest celebration. Multiple Grammy winning gospel/jazz vocalists Take 6 opened the series last week, and were followed on September 15 by another acclaimed performer, the superb diva and also a multiple Grammy winner Dianne Reeves. The versatile guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Butler will be appearing at the Walker Center September 18th.
But those only reflect part of the Center's musical events. "Our Jazz on the Avenue is one of our oldest programs, " Ginn added. "It's on the last Friday of every month, and we get some of the city's best jazz musicians playing right here. It's also among our most popular events. Indianapolis has an impressive jazz tradition, and we're happy to be part of maintaining it." Tickets to the series are $10.
Fans can also purchase a soul-food dinner prepared by Percy Grant for an additional $10. The Center is also participating in Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations during September. This month's Jazz ON the Avenue guest is Grupo Bimbe. "They are an exciting band that mixes salsa, merengue, and many other styles into a sound that's also rooted in jazz."
There's also their youth empowerment program, Kamp Kuumba. It's held three times each year, in the fall, spring and summer, and it's a chance for young people to receive training in several areas. These include dance, vocal, theater, music and visual arts classes, as well as mentoring and guidance.
The sessions are two weeks each in the fall and spring, eight weeks in the summer, and it is open to young people across the board, with a sliding scale aimed to encourage participation from children whose families' incomes usually preclude participation in arts classes.
Plus the Center has a series of awards designed to recognize and honor those dedicated to community uplift and empowerment. These "Spirit Awards" include the Madame CJ Walker Center Heritage, Young Entrepreneur, Excellence in Corporate Citizenship, and Legacy honors.
The Center was also voted Indianapolis' Best Theatre by WRTV in 2010. But as Ginn says, the Center's work is never finished, and they're anxiously looking to the future.
"When you're in this neighborhood, you can't stand still," he concludes. "We're always looking to expand, do more things, keep the Center's name out there in the minds of the public. That's our mission, to keep pushing for empowerment and opportunity."