I have been spending some time recently with an excellent new book, What the Eye Hears — A History of Tap Dancing. Written by New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert, the book — recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in Nonfiction — is an informative, entertaining history of tap dancing, and a reminder of its central role in American popular culture. A particularly interesting part of its history is its relation to jazz music, especially in the vaudeville circuit and in the nightclubs of the early twentieth century.
Regarding this, Seibert wrote in an email to me: “Jazz and tap dancing grew up together. Both came, in W.C. Handy’s words, ‘down the same drain’ of minstrelsy, and origin stories for ragtime include the syncopated stepping of ‘buck-dancing blacks.’ When jazz was developing in the twenties — when Louis Armstrong played with the Fletcher Henderson band in New York or with Earl Hines in Chicago — tap dancers were on the bill, contributing to rhythmic innovation. Through the thirties and forties, when the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and everyone else toured, they always toured with tap dancers, who played jazz with their feet.”
Seibert and his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, have extended Jerry Jazz Musician the privilege of publishing the following excerpt from What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, in which Seibert recounts a time when the connection between jazz and tap began to grow strained — through no fault of the great hoofer Baby Laurence, who adapted tap to bebop.
Edwin Denby caught it in 1942, at a “coffee concert” at the Museum of Modern Art: “a man who did a tap dance as purely acoustic as a drum solo.” It was interesting, Denby noted, how the man “ignored the ‘elegant’ style in shoulders and hips, sacrificing this Broadway convention to the sound he made.” The man was called Baby, and he wasn’t accustomed to giving concerts at museums. But the sound he made was modern art, modern jazz.
Born in Baltimore in 1921, Laurence Donald Jackson was on the road with Don Redman’s band by age eleven, as a singer. His parents died soon after, in a fire, and instead of living with an aunt, he ran away to New York. Dickie Wells, who had parlayed his membership in the early class act Wells, Mordecai, and Taylor into ownership of a Harlem nightclub, unofficially adopted the young singer and gave him his stage name, Baby Laurence. The kid sang with the Four Buds, who joined with the Three Gobs to become the Six Merry Scotchmen or the Harlem Highlanders, an act that wore kilts to voice Jimmie Lunceford arrangements in six- part harmony. At the same time, Laurence was hanging out at the Hoofers’ Club, learning to dance. Robinson and Bubbles weren’t much help, but Eddie Rector was, along with young guys such as Raymond Winfield and Honi Coles, and an otherwise unknown member of the Three Playboys named Harold Mablin. When Laurence executed a step diff erently from how Mablin had demonstrated it, Mablin would get mad. All Laurence could say was, “I just don’t feel it that way.” At the Hoofers’ Club, that was all he had to say.
One reason Laurence felt steps differently was that he was listening to different music. In the mid- thirties, he sang at the Onyx Club on Fifty- second Street, where Art Tatum made his New York debut. Tatum was the piano player other piano players called God. His technique was orchestral, bewilderingly rapid and dexterous at the service of a bewilderingly quick and inventive mind and ear. His music ran in cascades and cataracts, in and out of tempo, in flights and adventures of harmony and time. When Laurence heard Tatum play, he felt the urge to move his feet in emulation of Tatum’s fingers. A boy could dream. Around 1940, with the assistance of Leonard Reed, Laurence put together a solo tap act, and soon he was slotted into touring revues with the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Basie band had the most solid and swinging rhythm section in jazz, support so trustworthy it inspired bold departures. The band’s drummer, Jo Jones, was a selfless accompanist, gently assenting and escorting. At one time a tap dancer himself on the carnival circuit, he understood what a tap dancer needed, how to stay out of a hoofer’s way and “catch” him with complementary fills and cymbal crashes. (Decades later, he would release a pedagogical album with sample rhythms by Bill Robinson, Eddie Rector, Pete Nugent — and Baby Laurence.) In the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the band had an example of rule- changing rhythmic originality, an improviser who floated across bar lines on phrases that rose and fell like a breeze and teased the beat with dancing accents. During the same years, the Ellington band, less accommodating to a dancer but inspiring nevertheless, was at one of its greatest peaks. And for a few numbers per set, it was backing up Baby Laurence.
Already known as “the show folks’ dancer,” the hoofer who most impressed other professionals, Laurence began listening to a saxophonist his own age, one who had also been listening to Tatum and Young but who, in his mind’s ear, had heard further developments. Several aspects of the playing of Charlie Parker were novel, but perhaps the most fundamental revisions — certainly the most important for Laurence — were rhythmic. Parker’s asymmetrical phrases stopped and started unexpectedly, even as they maintained logic and balance. The accents inside the phrases were themselves irregular, struck on and off and in between the beats in unpredictable and subtle patterns. Whether playing ballads low or at a furious clip, Parker subdivided the beat very finely. Laurence could hear all of that, and it thrilled him. And so, like countless other awestruck musicians, the tap dancer memorized Parker’s solos and tried to play them on his own instrument. The effort required him to break his steps into fragments or run them together. It required him, to a great extent, to forgo steps altogether, in favor of notes.
“I called him Bravery,” recalled Chuck Green, “because he feared no sounds.” Even John Bubbles had to admit that Laurence was the toughest hoofer he had ever faced. To Cholly Atkins, an expert dancer slightly older than Laurence, Laurence’s new style was familiar and yet not: “When you watched him you could see in his combinations the basic techniques that everybody else came up with, but there was a way it was put together that made the difference.” Musicians said similar things about Parker. By 1944, Laurence was performing with Parker informally, showing up with his tap shoes in a trumpet case. By 1945, he was on the bill for Parker’s gig at the Three Deuces on Fifty-second Street, sharing a stage the size of a pool table with the other musicians and a drum kit. Miles Davis, who was then starting out as Parker’s trumpet player, remembered Laurence trading fours and eights, like any other member of the band. In his autobiography, Davis — a great artist and talent spotter — honored Laurence with his highest term of praise, calling him “a motherfucker . . . the greatest tap dancer that I have ever seen, or heard, because his tap dancing sounded just like jazz drumming.” Dexter Gordon, who was playing saxophone with Parker and Laurence at the Spotlite in 1947, recalled that Laurence “was the show but he was really part of the band . . . just like a drummer.”
To sound just like a drummer didn’t mean quite what it used to. In the music that was coming to be known, onomatopoetically, as bebop, the drummer’s role shifted from that of a timekeeper who soloed infrequently to a more up-front participant in the musical conversation. Where the bass drum had once broadcast a steady pulse, now the ride cymbal offered a lighter, more flexible beat, a shimmer. The drummer became freer to contribute polyrhythms and textural subtleties, and the bass drum was made available for accents — kicks in the band’s ass to which musicians gave the war time label “dropping bombs.” Tap dancers and jazz drummers had always been kin, and the back-and-forth between them continued, along with the sibling rivalry. (According to Buster Brown, “musicians with the big bands didn’t like us dancers, because we could get the girls.”) Max Roach, one of the pioneer bebop drummers, remembered playing with Laurence, call-and-response-style, each imitating and learning from the other. Laurence, in turn, remembered playing with Roach and speculated that it might have been from drummers that he learned the most.
For older tap dancers, however, the new drum style could seem like crowding, a usurping of the dancer’s rhythmic role. In 1944, Pete Nugent, the Sepia Fred Astaire, was hired to dance with Billy Eckstine’s orchestra, a band that included bebop’s central innovators, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the up-and-coming drummer Art Blakey. One of Nugent’s numbers was a pretty soft shoe arranged for delicate clarinets and chiming piano; into the middle of this garden party Blakey dropped his bombs. Whether that was an act of bored rebellion or a misplaced attempt to help, for a dancer expecting to be “caught,” it was unsettling to be blitzed. “This guy had absolutely no respect for dancers,” Cholly Atkins recalled of Blakey. After Eckstine told the young drummer to ease off or the dancers might quit, Blakey responded, “We don’t need them.”
Blakey was right. Over the next forty-five years, his thunder would goad and catapult the astonishing list of major musicians who came through his Jazz Messengers band. Tap dancers were the ones who needed to adjust. And it wasn’t only Laurence’s generation who could. In Jivin’ in Bebop, a black variety film from 1946, Ralph Brown dances with Gillespie’s orchestra, and though Brown learned his trade at the Hoofers’ Club in the early thirties, he handles the bebop song “Ornithology” with aplomb. In lieu of taking on the song’s rhythms, he rides over them, unspooling almost an unbroken string of swung eighth notes interlaced with stomped accents, his own little bombs. Periodically, he inserts some Bill Robinson patterns, but in general, discrete steps have been relinquished in favor of continuous chatter. Tap dancers didn’t have to deal with the closely spaced hurdles of bebop harmonic changes, and the rhythmic challenges should have been up their alley. (The right hand of the bop pianist Bud Powell produced, to my ear, some of the era’s greatest tapping.) It shouldn’t have been so hard for them to adapt.
But it wasn’t just aging hoofers who were thrown off . In 1945, Gillespie took his newly constituted band on a tour of the South. The Nicholas Brothers, then at the crest of their Hollywood fame, were the headliners of the stage show that preceded a public dance. Harold and Fayard, as band member Max Roach recalled, did “what they were known for doing,” and Southern audiences, white and black, adored them. Audiences loved the heavyset hoofers Patterson and Jackson. They loved the shake dancer Lovey Lane. Gillespie’s music they found bewildering — too fast, too hard to follow. Instead of dancing, they stood around with blank faces. (Though, as the Lindy hoppers in Jivin’ in Bebop prove, the music was wonderfully danceable once the ear rehabituated.) During one show, someone yelled out, “Can’t you nigguhs play no blues?!”
In that disconnect was a sign of things to come: most broadly, the failure of bebop to attract a mass audience. Many older jazz critics attacked it as nonsense or heresy; the mainstream press treated it as a silly cult or a dangerous subversion. White rebels and militant blacks adopted it as an expression of nonconformity. Even for sympathetic whites, the demeanor of black bebop performers could be discomforting. Gillespie was an ironic clown, but the others — most influentially Parker and Miles Davis — rejected the traditional manner of the entertainer, attempting to cut loose from the embarrassments of minstrelsy and the subservient associations of playing for Massa. Into their public performances they brought some of the insular attitude of jam sessions, of musicians playing for other musicians — as if to say, Listen if you like, we’re not putting on a show. They insisted that they were artists, not entertainers, and the distinction mattered to them even more than it did to Paul Draper.
For young musicians, the embodiment of the old, compromised manner was Louis Armstrong. For young tap dancers, their Uncle Tom was Bill Robinson. And for them, rejecting the role of entertainer was even more complicated. What the eye sees is the tawdry American convention; what the ear hears is the priceless African heritage. “Jazz tap,” Baby Laurence decreed, was percussive, “mostly from the waist down and the emphasis on sound.” He resented the influence of Hollywood and the promoters who urged him to smile and use his hands; being conscious of poise, he opined, inevitably took away from what a dancer said with his feet. Sound was pure, and the visual aspects of tap were tainted. They should be sacrificed.
Perhaps Laurence wouldn’t have been displeased, then, that there are no films extant of him in his prime. In photos from that era, he’s handsome, dark-skinned, and dapper, armed with a ladykiller grin. Unless one of the television appearances he made in the late forties surfaces, the earliest documentation of his art will remain the album he recorded in 1959 and 1960. Even at that late date, the concept was unprecedented: an album with the tap dancer as the lead instrument. Laurence does not sing. He astonishes. The first thing that strikes the ear is extraordinary speed, the sheer number of distinct taps. But this isn’t Ann Miller rattling away for a world record. The sound is fine-grained, molded, more like the work of fingers than of feet. Thumping bass notes anchor it to a deep bottom. As with Charlie Parker, what’s most remarkable isn’t the rapidity but the imagination persistently meeting impossible demands of tempo. The album is an exhibition of range. Laurence does a sand dance, a military number, a “modern” version of a Bill Robinson stair routine, using the hollow boom to drop bombs on himself. He does an unaccompanied “conglomeration of rhythms” he calls “Concerto in Taps.” That’s a tour de force, but the other numbers aren’t routines plus backup; they’re conversations among musicians, and the rhythmic ideas are developed with such sly wit, such pedal prestidigitation, that you don’t miss the visual element. You can imagine it in the sound, which is recorded so that the ear- tickling scrapes and scuffs are distinctly audible, as is Laurence’s path from microphone to microphone. You can also look at the photographs on the album cover: Laurence at his most eye-catchingly dynamic, corkscrewed in a turn, even airborne in a balletic leap. His art wasn’t exclusively aural.
Such efforts of imagination are less required for Laurence’s foremost rival, Teddy Hale. Hollywood didn’t find Hale, but television did — Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle, who introduced the hoofer as his discovery on his variety program in 1949. Into Teddy Hale’s three minutes of national fame, which turned out to be his testament to posterity, the twentysomething appears to squeeze everything he knows. There’s not a hint of strain. After about thirty seconds, the band cuts out. Hale unwinds skeins of variegated taps as his legs trace figure eights; he makes a gift of really wrapped three-a-break steps; he tosses off a crunchy, astonishing self-lassoing tap turn; and he does a bit seated in a chair, his arms folded cheekily across his chest — all in a minute and a half. His rhythms are lucid, unostentatiously swinging. When not loosely swaying, his arms counterbalance the tight crossing of his legs or their abrupt splaying, lightly complementing the footwork, as if hands and feet were connected by a slack string. The coordination of sound and motion is superb. When the band overpowers his taps, he pulls out a fortissimo assortment of swivels, slides, ice-skater spins, and flips into jive splits. His near-constant smile is neither servile nor cocky. Hale’s gifts are obvious, and he takes plea sure in sharing them.
Born to a Cleveland chorus girl, Theodore Hailey followed her onstage as soon as he could walk. Before long, he was sidekick to the popular white clarinetist and nutty bandleader Ted Lewis; when Lewis sang “Me and My Shadow,” the shadow was little Teddy, in synch with the star, his miniature top hat raised high. By age ten, he was a nightclub single in New York, singing, telling jokes, and shaking his head in impressions of Jimmy Durante. He worked at the Apollo and the downtown Connie’s Inn and Cotton Club, hounded by the watchdogs of child labor. He once told a reporter he had three ages: a low one for the railroad, a high one for the Children’s Society, and a real one he didn’t remember. After Hale had outgrown such troubles, on the other side of the Second World War, fellow hoofers noticed a change in his dancing. (The Chicago hoofer Leon Collins later claimed he had been teaching Hale while they were both in prison.) Pete Nugent caught Hale at the Paramount, doing the seated bit and the flash assortment finale, and was Flabbergasted – by the bravura but also by the “transitional steps that only another dancer could appreciate.” Nugent dragged his colleague Derby Wilson to see the next show. Wilson’s response: “Sweet Jesus.”
Stories gathered about Hale like those about Bubbles — tales of no two performances being the same, reports of Hale tapping for an hour and not repeating a step. Old-guard theatrical reviewers provided some corroboration with their complaint “on too long.” The black press had already, back in 1935, mentioned Hale as a contender to fill Bill Robinson’s shoes; now the suggestion was serious, imminent. Among tap dancers, Hale’s high reputation derived from his off stage battles with Baby Laurence, repeatedly fought to a draw. “They was music themselves,” recalled Chuck Green. “When they finished, you could hardly hear your ears.” In an art based in improvisation, it’s a statistical probability that much of the best music was never recorded, and awareness of all that missing music lies behind the obsessive collection of bootleg recordings. Tap might have been thought of the same way, but if anyone cared enough to tape Baby Laurence challenging Teddy Hale, those recordings are lost or hidden. Other recordings of Hale do exist: audio from a few TV broadcasts, collected by jazz enthusiasts interested in the band. One is with Charlie Parker; Hale is barely audible. Others, from The Eddie Condon Floor Show, are more distinct, though the visual footage of Hale and Laurence challenge-dancing on that program appears to be irretrievable.
You can find recordings of some of the jam sessions inside Minton’s Playhouse, the small Harlem club that would be eulogized as a laboratory of bebop experimentation. But there aren’t recordings of the duels that took place outside Minton’s, on the sidewalk. These, Miles Davis recalls in his autobiography, were often between Baby Laurence and a hoofer called Groundhog, two musicians who were battling not just for preeminence. “Baby and Groundhog were junkies,” reports Davis, who was a junkie himself at the time, “and so they used to dance a lot in front of Minton’s for their drugs, because the dealers liked to watch them. They gave them shit for free if they got down.”
This was the other way that musicians emulated Charlie Parker — some convinced, despite Parker’s denials, that the heroin he injected was the source of his inspiration. Young tap dancers were part of the same crowd, and many of them picked up the same habits. They jigged for new masters now, the dealers. (Baby Laurence later boasted that it was he who had introduced Parker to heroin in the first place.) Laurence and Hale spent the fifties in and out of jail, convicted of drug possession or of stealing more than steps. The trumpeter Chet Baker, a fellow addict and convict, remembered coming upon Laurence in 1959, tap-dancing up the walls of a prison yard. Whenever the dancers were out of the pen, they headlined at the Apollo and sundry nightclubs. Hale made it to London, where he was again arrested for possession, and to France, from where he was deported on similar charges. Leslie Uggams, a child performer back then, remembers once watching Hale’s act from the wings as she stood next to the cops who were waiting to bust him. Hale tapped down the stage stairs, up the auditorium aisle, and out into a taxi. “That was the last we saw of Teddy.”
In 1955, Hale was on the bill at the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated casino in Las Vegas, a black-and-tan on the dark side of town where all the city’s entertainers gravitated after hours. During the run, he was arrested as a suspect in the death of the sharp-witted saxophonist Wardell Gray, whose corpse had been found in the desert with a broken neck. While strapped to a lie detector, Hale said that the thirty-four year-old Gray had overdosed while he and Hale were shooting up heroin, and that Hale, panicking, dumped the body. No autopsy was ever performed, and that lapse, combined with the setting of a mob- run, racially segregated town, fertilized several noirish theories. The tap dancer was sentenced to ninety days for illegally moving a corpse. That same year, Charlie Parker died, at age thirty-four, so weakened by years of drug and alcohol abuse that a doctor who examined the body estimated the age of the deceased to be fifty. Two years later in Harlem, Hale, just released from another prison term on another narcotics possession charge, was shot in the leg by a stray policeman’s bullet. No chief of police visited him in the hospital, and the $2.5 million lawsuit he filed against the city, claiming career-ending paralysis in his right foot, seems to have gone nowhere. Only a few months passed before he was arrested again. In May 1959, he died of a brain hemorrhage, likely drug-related. He was just shy of thirty-three.
“If you weren’t in the ‘in’ crowd,” wrote Miles Davis, “you didn’t know nothing about the dancing in front of Minton’s. Those tap dancers used to talk about Fred Astaire and all of them other white dancers like they were nothing, and they weren’t nothing compared to how these guys could dance. But they were black and couldn’t ever hope to get no break dancing for real money and fame.” Being black certainly had much to do with it, though not everything. (Davis’s next sentence begins: “By this time I was getting really famous.”) Once during the fifties, when Baby Laurence was released from jail, Jack Schiffman, who had taken over as manager of the Apollo from his father, offered the ex-con a job. According to Schiffman, Laurence’s dancing was better than ever, but halfway through the engagement, he disappeared. Months later, Laurence returned and Schiffman hired him again; again, Laurence failed to last a week. This sequence repeated a half-dozen times before Schiffman gave up.
As for Groundhog, Pete Nugent called him “a short, dumpy guy with no style who couldn’t sell but could really dance.” Leonard Reed told me that Groundhog was “the best street dancer” he had ever seen, but “put him on stage and he died. No personality.” Even to Laurence, Groundhog was a wonderful drummer who knew all the flash steps but who was also “short and slovenly and unreliable.” His given name was probably Clarence Taylor, though in one interview he gave while drunk he said (perhaps in jest) it was Earl Basie, and that he hated the name Groundhog, which derived from his stature and persisted because of his hygiene. He was born in Birmingham to the TOBA comedian Showboy Holland and a chorus girl, taken on the road by the Whitman Sisters when he was five, and kept on as Pops’s partner for eight years. Alice Whitman remembered him as “a boy who was always disappearing.” Then came sporadic appearances in the Midwest and touring in Europe. Many dancers would report on his fearsomeness in cutting contests — some on the sidewalk at five in the morning, after the nightclubs had closed. Max Roach claimed to have learned a lot from Groundhog, and Miles Davis rated him as a motherfucker. But a dancer’s dancer, particularly a homely one with a drug habit, was not a likely candidate for big money and fame.
Another factor is suggested by Davis’s anecdote. The dancers are battling outside Minton’s, during the daytime. Laurence performed inside Minton’s at least once, but in general, the small combos and tiny clubs in which bebop musicians found their niche weren’t very hospitable to tap. Jazz was becoming a listening music: not something you danced to, not a show you watched. One cause was a federal entertainment tax instituted as a war time revenue-producing measure in 1944. Starting at 30 percent and reduced under protest to 20, the tax applied to floor shows and public dancing, but not to instrumental music. In order to avoid the tax, thousands of nightclubs — and these were the days when there were thousands of nightclubs — either eliminated floor shows and dancing or closed up entirely. Larger clubs survived by raising prices, but the strongest effects were felt after the war, when the economy contracted and the tax was not repealed. Then it combined with other trends — the exodus to the suburbs, the rise of television — that sharply reduced nightclub attendance. As musicians and stagehands unionized, the cost of putting on shows ballooned, eventually causing most of even the larger clubs to close. Subject to the same forces, the presentation theaters also began to drop their stage programs. There were fewer and fewer places for a tap dancer to dance.
Book excerpt from What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, by Brian Seibert
Published with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Part One of “The Jazz Hoofer,” a documentary on the life of Baby Laurence
Teddy Hale dances on the Texaco Theater, 1949 (with an introduction by Milton Berle)