A great drummer dances sitting down. A great tap-dancer drums standing up.
The connection between big bands and tap dancers is one that has resurfaced the decades of the twentieth century. As jazz music has commanded a broader and broader audience, jazz lovers have discovered again one of the most sophisticated representations of jazz music by dancers, rhythm tap, created by African American tap innovators of the twentieth century. King Rastus Brown's flatfooted hoofing preceded the legendary Bill Robinson's "up on the toes" approach. Eddie Rector added elegance and body motion, and John Bubble's crowning achievement - dropping the heels - added extraordinary rhythmical complexity. Baby Lawrence, tap dancer extraordinaire, explained that "tap dancing is very much like jazz music. The dancer improvises his own solo and expresses himself." Rhythm tappers are jazz percussionists who have value improvisation and self-expression. Musicians tell stories with their instruments and rhythm tappers tell stories with their feet. Rhytm tap's close relationship to jazz music is evident in the large number of top caliber jazz drummers who could tap: Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich, Jo Jones, Big Sid Catlett, Eddie Locke, and Cozy Cole, who once had a dance act along with tapper Derby Wilson.
At the start of their careers, the drummers Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Art Blakey were greatly influenced by rhythm tappers. Roach accompanied Groundhog and Baby Laurence and learned steps from them. He recalled performing with Laurence: "We usually did our acts as an encore. I would play brushes on a snare and he would just dance and we'd exchange things, call and response. I would imitate him and then I would play time over it." According to Philly Joe Jones, "the drummer who has ben a dancer can play better that someone who has never danced. See, the drummer catches the dancer, especially when a dancer's doing wings. And the cymbals move at the same time to catch the dancer."
In the thirties and forties, rhythm tap's greatest exponents functioned in closely knit circles that included singers, comedians, jazz musicians, and chorus line dancers. The various types of performers shared rehearsal and performance spaces, jam sessions, and living quarters; they attended sports events and parties; they belonged to the same fraternal clubs. Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's co-composer, was the last official president of the Copasetics, a club organized by tap dancers but with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton among its membership. In nightclubs and on street corners tap dancers participated in jam session - exchanging ideas, inspiring one another, and battling for a place in the rhythm tappers' hierarchy of artistic excellence. No jam sessions were as exciting as those held at the legendary Hoofer's Club, where the reigning tap kings of the early thirties included Raymond Winfield, Honi Coles, Harold Mablin, and Roland Holder. In 1932, when Baby Laurence went to New York as a singer with the Don Redman Band, he headed straight to the Hoofer's Club: "Don discouraged my dancing, but when we hit town my first stop was the Hoofer's Club, it was the biggest thrill of my life!" The cardinal RULE there was "Thou Shalt No Copy Another's Steps - Exactly." Those foolish enough to break that rule in public had to suffer the consequences.
Jazz musicians and rhythm tap dancers were obviously in pursuit of identical artistic goals. Their partnership in the thirties and forties mirrored much more than a convenient musical package. Their mutual admiration grew out of a special kinship based on similar aesthetic points of view and what Albert Murray calls a shared "idiomatic orientation".
(materials by Jacqui Malone "Steppin' on the Blues")