Back in my infancy as a jazzbo—before I acquired the esoteric knowledge that allows me to look down my nose at people who consider Miles Davis to be anything more than the fifth-best trumpeter ever to play with Charlie Parker—I took a college course in jazz with William Thomas McKinley, a composer and pianist who straddles the worlds of avant-garde classical music and jazz.
McKinley recalled his scuffling days for us one afternoon, saying if we found his music inaccessible (it is), it was in part the product of his years playing “Back Home Again in Indiana” over and over and over again in a Hoosier State pizza parlor.
I’d never heard the song before, but McKinley banged out a few bars that afternoon in an auditorium at the University of Chicago with a knowing look that suggested prolonged exposure to its melody would drive any man mad. The students laughed.
This was the early seventies, when the palette for jazz composition had been reduced to two colors; black and grey. The only emotions McKinley—and many others in those angry years—considered legitimate subjects for musical expression were violence and introspection. “Indiana” (the words “Back Home Again in” are usually added, but are not part of the formal title), with its lilting melody and sentimental images of a moonlit farm, didn’t fit the bill.
In order to reach the point where “Indiana” was considered square, one had to whittle away a good deal of jazz history, however. Written by Ballard MacDonald and James F. Hanley, the song was first recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917, and formed part (along with “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”) of one of the earliest jazz records to achieve widespread popularity. Louis Armstrong, a man without whom twentieth century jazz as we know it wouldn’t exist, opened his every performance with the song for many years.
The durability of “Indiana” as a vehicle for improvisation, despite its detractors, is due to two features; its chord structure is basic but varied, and its melody has a long line. A musician who is feeling confined by simpler compositions can thus stretch out and walk around in the tune, like getting out of a car after a long night’s drive.
To prove the point that “Indiana” is, at bottom, a thing of much hipness, one has only to look at its progeny. Three of the coolest cats jazz has ever produced have written contrafacts of the song—that is, new compositions that use “Indiana”’s harmonic structure. If you’ve never heard trumpeter Fats Navarro’s “Ice Freezes Red” or pianist Lennie Tristano’s “Ju-Ju,” it is still likely that you have heard “Donna Lee” by Miles Davis, a bebop standard.
The undertow of cool that flows beneath the surface of “Indiana” is, of course, the lesser-known current of the two; at a shallower level you will find the song played with warmth in commercials, as the theme song for TV newscasts, and at public occasions the length and breadth of the state; Jim Nabors sings it at the Indianapolis 500, for God’s sake.
But no matter; if you want the ultimate “Indiana” experience, track down the 1945 Town Hall concert in which the song is played not by a big band, but by just two musicians, tenor saxophonist Don Byas and bassist Slam Stewart. Byas would decamp for Europe the next year, a great loss to American music; Stewart was the inventor of a technique in which he bowed and hummed simultaneously. Together they created one of the hottest jazz recordings ever made, so important to the history of the genre it is included in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. (It is also available on The Commodore Story, but unfortunately not as a single selection on iTunes.) Gone is the bombast of the marching band; the music is stripped to its essentials, and refinished to a high gloss.
As I sat listening to it one night I thought back to the class in which an avant-garde composer had derided the song. Jazz had lost its way in those years, and had forgotten you can make a thing of beauty out of a thing as humble as a Tin Pan Alley song.
Originally published in Punchnel’s.