11 Memorable Moments from Art & Soul

Since 1996, Art & Soul has kicked off Black History Month in Indianapolis and helped expand the city’s awareness and appreciation of African American art and music. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Aletra and Virtue Hampton, the energetic matriarchs of Indianapolis jazz, performed at the Indianapolis Artsgarden more than 30 times, including multiple Art & Soul appearances. The Hampton Sisters duo played crowd-pleasing renditions of “God Bless America” and “What a Wonderful World” to preserve the legacy of the Hampton family band that moved from Ohio to Indianapolis in 1938. Bass player Virtue died in January 2007 at age 84, and vocalist-pianist Aletra died in November 2007 at age 92. Their brother, trombone star Slide Hampton, is a two-time Grammy Award winner.

In 2019, classical pianist Joshua Thompson devoted his Art & Soul showcase to underperformed masterworks by composers of African descent. After researching the careers of William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds and others for his multimedia show “Village Voices: Notes from the Griot,” Thompson performed their compositions at the Artsgarden.

Versatile singer Brenda Williams could stake claim to the title “Ms. Art & Soul,” thanks to event performances stretching from the 1990s to the 2021 online edition. Known for attracting crowds at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, Williams has warmed up audiences for headliners ranging from the Beach Boys to Ray Charles.

The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra made its memorable Art & Soul debut in 2006. Founded by the late Betty Perry in 1995 as an arts and mentorship program for string musicians ages 5 to 18, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra returned to the Artsgarden in 2009, 2011 and 2018. Current MYO director Krystle Ford, who was a member of the orchestra as an adolescent, showcased her violin talents as part of Art & Soul in 2019.

This 2021 online edition of Art & Soul featured a connection to “American Idol.” Indianapolis native Marrialle Sellars, a Top 30 “American Idol” competitor in 2014, made her Art & Soul debut seven years after a successful audition for “Idol” panelists Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. Then a 17-year-old Lawrence Central High School student, Sellars sang Bruno Mars’ hit “Grenade” on the televised talent search.

Art & Soul has a long tradition of celebrating the role of the West African storyteller, or griot. Khabir Shareef, who died in 2019, made many Artsgarden appearances with his Griot Drum Ensemble. A Freetown Village cast member in the 1980s, Shareef studied griot customs when visiting Senegal and Gambia in 1999.

When “Honoring the Right to Vote” was selected as the 2020 theme for Art & Soul performances, spoken-word artist Manon Voice made a point to highlight and uplift voices of Black women who worked in the suffrage movement. Voice wrote tributes to Harriet Tubman, NAACP co-founders Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, 19th-century poet Frances Harper and Mississippi civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. A record-breaking 159 million ballots were cast in the 2020 presidential election.

Art & Soul selected Lobyn Hamilton as the event’s featured visual artist in 2011, an early career showcase for the Franklin Central High School alum known for creating collages out of shattered vinyl records and repurposed album covers. Malcolm X, Jean-Michael Basquiat and James Brown are three examples of cultural icons depicted in Hamilton’s work. In recent years, his creations have been displayed in the homes of high-profile collectors and on the set of Fox TV series “Empire.”

In 2006, Art & Soul provided new exposure to underground R&B sensation James Bell. Nearly 40 years earlier, Bell recorded the dance song “The Funky 16 Corners” as vocalist for the Indianapolis-based Highlighters. The regional hit, written by Bell during his lunch break at the local Ford Motor Co. factory, gained wide acclaim when a Los Angeles record label reissued the song in 2001.

A new generation of Indianapolis jazz took center stage at the 1998 edition of Art & Soul. Trumpet player Pharez Whitted, son of bass player Virtue Hampton of the Hampton Sisters and nephew of Grammy Award-winning trombone player Slide Hampton, performed with his quintet at the Artsgarden. Whitted, a member of the Shortridge High School Hall of Fame, presently serves as jazz director for the Chicago Youth Symphony.

In 2004, author Mari Evans helped Art & Soul pay tribute to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Because Evans was an acclaimed leading voice of the movement, along with fellow poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni, it would have been difficult to find anyone more qualified for the job. Known for her 1970 poetry collection “I Am a Black Woman” and for editing “Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation,” Evans lived in Indianapolis from 1947 until her death in 2017. A mural depicting Evans can be seen on the side of the Davlan building at 448 Massachusetts Ave.

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