All That Jazz
The Jazz Kitchen Closes In on 25 Years of Smooth Sounds & Exceptional Dining
Photographer: Michael Thierwechter
Back in 1993, David Allee was running a bike shop at 52nd Street and College Avenue and noticed a vacant building nearby that had served as a music venue off and on since the 1970s.
A long-time trumpet player and jazz fan whose father Steve plays jazz and big band piano professionally, Allee felt strongly at the time that Indy’s jazz scene could use a shot in the arm. He decided to purchase the building with his friend and business partner Mike Slattery with the goal of offering the city a much-needed venue for local and national jazz talent.
“I was an avid listener and really wanted to keep jazz alive around here,” Allee says. “My dad used to play locally at Crazy Al’s and The Place to Start in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I remembered helping bands set up as a kid. I thought going into the business side of music would be a way for me to help further the genre here.”
Allee opened the Jazz Kitchen’s doors on April 1, 1994, and after hosting primarily local acts for a while he was able to book trombonist and Indianapolis native J.J. Johnson for three days of sold-out shows. Allee says the booking has helped to elevate the Kitchen’s stature as a bona fide jazz club to this very day.
“He was one of the names that was probably the most pivotal as far as putting us on the map, and that gave us confidence early on that we could last,” says Allee, who grew up in the Meridian-Kessler area of Indy and attended Broad Ripple High School. “He was a contemporary of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and was kind of their equivalent on the trombone. Having him gave us legs as a venue.”
Several years later the Jazz Kitchen was able to bring in Harry Connick Jr., and the club has since hosted a slew of national and worldwide performers including Victor Wooten, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Gary Burton and Maynard Ferguson (the latter happens to be one of Allee’s trumpet heroes).
Nowadays, any given night of the week might bring something new to the table for Jazz Kitchen attendees. Mondays are typically reserved for jazz jam sessions, Tuesdays feature big band and swing acts, and Wednesdays might bring anything from soul to jazz to funk outfits.
“Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays can be a lot of different things – we’ll mix it up with national and local acts,” Allee says. “Thursdays are our Latin dance party, which we’ve been doing for 24 years and has worked out well.”
Much like its musical offerings, the club’s food menu and catering services offer plenty of variety, combining traditional American fare with elements of Spanish, Cajun and Creole. Allee says his cuisine is an outgrowth of early missteps as an owner.
“We started with a small menu that we later figured out wasn’t sustainable financially,” he recalls. “We needed more of a dinner thing, and it was part of the learning curve early on. People tend to separate music and food and think that a place’s strength is one or the other, and we still have to contend with that but I think we’ve made it known that the dining here is exceptional.”
Allee is also director of the Indy Jazz Fest, which serves as the annual flagship event for the non-profit Indianapolis Jazz Foundation and runs from September 13 through 22 this year. The foundation was formed to promote jazz throughout the city through education and performance.
What keeps the Jazz Kitchen unique in Allee’s estimation is the venue’s ongoing combination of local and national acts, representing multiple genres.
“Many jazz clubs have locals only or nationals only and to have a blend helps us I think,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have such a good local scene here, and I feel proud to be part of helping it grow.”
The Jazz Kitchen is located at 5377 North College Avenue. Call 317-253-4900 for additional info, and visit thejazzkitchen.com for a live music schedule, food menu and more.
For details on this year’s Indy Jazz Fest, visit indyjazzfest.net.