Tempo Tantrums

Alan Dawson, Boston's legend of the skins. Promo photo provided by A.D.

Alan Dawson, Boston’s legend of the skins.
Promo photo provided by A.D.

Alan Dawson, one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, took a sip from his ritual post-gig cognac, put his arm around me, and said, “Son, why do have to call that tune so fast every time?” Back in 1990, I had worked up the nerve to engage Dawson—Boston’s first call drummer for 4 decades, founder of jazz drum methodology at Berklee College of Music, a player whose musical collaborators comprise a who’s who of modern jazz—for my first jazz club shows. A moderate, sweet, nurturing character in all things except his monstrous swing, Alan had jumped at the chance to play some tap shows. After circling the phone for an hour like a guy trying to get his first date, sweating, I finally called him: “Tap dance? I love tap dance!” Later I would find out that he and tap great Jimmy Slyde grew up together, knew each other from very early on, remembered each other ‘dancing in the all-white suit’ and ‘drumming on the blinds of the windows at school.’

The tune was Monk’s ‘Well, You Needn’t,’ and Alan had watched and listened to me suffer through a horrible rendition. In those early days, if it was bad, I never gave up; so, thinking back to an endless dance at a tempo I could not cut with the greatest drummer in the world listening—well, we all have moments we would like to re-do. In addition to his impeccable technique and feel, Alan was a teacher of great reputation and gentleness, and that moment at the bar at Ryles typified his teaching style. I learned how to set a good tempo for the tune, and the importance of the right tempo for each and every tune, and later took private lessons in the mecca for drummers, his basement studio in Lexington.

I would bring a small floor, and set it up next to his drum set and vibraphone. We played tunes together, standards and then blues in 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, and 7/4—he played drums and lots of vibes, and I danced–and he would record the lessons. Then we would stop, play the tapes back, and listen. With the simple ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy,’ he taught me how to sing a melody over standard jazz form in my head, while improvising.

When I would get lost in the midst of those tricky time signatures and stop dancing, Alan would encourage me to continue. He said I wasn’t as lost as I felt, and if I kept going, things might turn out all right. What seemed in my mind to be epic horrors of rhythmic idiocy turned out to occupy no more than a few seconds of recorded time. That lesson—just keep going–continues to yield results in tricky tunes and rough life moments.

Occasionally our improvisations would get wild, increasingly complex to the point where it was hard to know who was leading, who was following, where the form was, where the ‘1’ was, hard to know anything at all. I will never forget him playing the tape, rewinding a specific section—playing, rewinding, listening repeatedly–until finally he announced: ‘You threw me.’ The humility of that moment, a jazz legend obsessed with time and practice and perfecting an imperfectable art, looking at a young, rotund, tap dancing freak, and acknowledging fallibility: that was quite a lesson.

True humility takes a lifetime to learn, and repeated practice. Two summers ago in Jeannie Hill’s Wisconsin backyard, gathered for her wonderful, annual, Point Tap Fest, I mocked my colleague Lynn Schwab openly and harshly about an app that she was flaunting, that could slow music down to any tempo without changing the piece. I offered up a Tea Party-style rejection of all things pitch-control, finishing off with a tirade that could have come out of the mouth of the late, brilliant, angry old-time dancer Jimmy ‘Sir Slyde’ Mitchell: IF THE PEOPLE CAN’T DANCE TO THE TEMPO OF THE MUSIC, DON’T LET THEM DANCE TO THE MUSIC. It was not the only regrettable phrase of the evening.

That app, the stupid but memorably named Amazing Slow Downer is one of the greatest things a teacher of dance or music can have as a teaching tool, and once I recovered from my ignorance and attitude I discovered just how right Schwab had been. Only partly in jest, I also trace my next year of personal travails—as marriage and work began to crumble before my very eyes, I took to calling it ‘The Amazing Come-Downer Tour’–to that night in Jeannie’s back yard, my big, uncensored mouth, and the need to regain a little humility.

Working on Buster Brown’s dance Laura for the performance at Point Tap, Jeannie and I got in a fight about the tempo—a tempo tantrum?– and later she explained the original tempo had been decidedly UP. Jeannie was part of the original Manhattan Tap cast of the piece–commissioned as part of a suite by Heather Cornell for her Manhattan Tap. For the original cast, it was the up-tempo closer of a medley: they were a small group of sensational dancers, in on the process of creating the piece, and the dance must have really cooked.

For me it explained why the dance has been locked in too fast, and also brings up an obvious concept that bears repeating: tempos change, and original tempos of songs and dances may provide helpful, even historical, information, but no tempo should ever be decided for all eternity. A few years ago, after a gig, the fireball drummer Eddie Ornowski—who was great friends with Buster and also his golf buddy– and I got to talking, and when the subject of Laura came up, we were like the two old guys in the Muppet Show, complaining about the young people.  The out-of-control tempo that dancers worldwide have established for Laura ensures that the beauty of the dance may never be seen again. To the people out there speeding through Laura like it’s an Olympic sprint, I say: slow down!

My own tempos have, amazingly, slowed down. As I began to perform Cappella Josh, I discovered that the original tempo was not as groovy as a slightly slower tempo; the dance had more breath, and the improvisation more oomph, with some dynamic tension attached to not going ‘off to the races.’ With the Amazing Slow Downer, I found that both my 2011 Limbo Jazz—great ‘cocktail’ jazz from Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins—and 2012 Tenderly—thank goodness for ‘Tap Music for Tap Dancers’ from David Leonhardt—were much better dances at 90 percent of tempo. I can’t even do the steps of Limbo Jazz at the original tempo anymore, because I don’t like how it sounds or feels. My first good dance, to Brubeck’s ‘Three To Get Ready,’ suffers at original tempo. Who knew that 90 percent would be the new 100?

(By the way, is there anything more hilarious than a roomful of Germans—stereotypically, like the Swiss, people obsessed by time, punctuality, and precision—aware that the dance teacher is making 1, 2, and 3 percent changes in tempos for dancing, calling out, “What is it now?” At some point on my recent tour we were stuck on 82% for a certain tune–it was the perfect tempo, thank you Lynn Schwab—and it was delicious to shout zweiundachtzig prozent over the rumbling taps and thumping music.)

In the old movies, it looks like buck and wing tempo could be defined as ‘as fast as humanly possible.’ Certainly if you watch the end of the Miller Brothers and Lois, up on the balance beam, that is one daunting time-challenge. But learning for three years from Joe ‘Buck and Wing’ Stirling–who had a 10-year vaudeville career performing buck and wing and soft shoe–the biggest thing I came to appreciate, and the hardest thing for my ego-driven 22 year-old self to realize, was that he was trying to get me to find the slowest possible tempo to be able to carry off the wings. After three years of ‘lift, ease, release,’ and listening to him pat out quarter-notes on tunes like Song of India, I began to get control over the wings. Not just ‘jump and flail,’ but being able to deliver the material artistically and physically at appropriate tempos.

‘Goldilocks’ theory can be applied to every dance, and every tune: not too slow, not too fast, just right. Last week I was rehearsing with 20-year partner Paul Arslanian, before a show at Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, working through the standard three-chorus tribute to Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson that ‘Honi’ Coles put together. It’s not a dance I perform very much, but it’s hard to deliver tap history thoroughly without it. As we proceed, it occurs to me that 30 years ago, Paul was probably performing the same piece with Honi, so flapping sideways, I begin the conversation: ‘Did you ever perform this with Honi?’ And the grizzled reply from the piano bench: ‘Yeah, but it was a lot faster!’

Paul and I, with my friend Rose, ended the week in Middletown, CT for a show at Wesley Elementary School. The gym filled with kindergarten through fifth graders who were so enthusiastic at concert’s end that we got the first encore request that the teachers could recall. There we were, with principal Tom at the microphone, giving us a friendly, pleading look, unprepared for an encore. The three of us walk back out, and I tell the kids: ‘We’re going to do the Shim Sham Shimmy, but you have to clap on the 2 and the 4 for us.’

Those kids clapped in time like the most soulful swinging metronome ever put on the planet, and we did our four steps wearing—don’t listen, children—enormous shit-eating grins. Even Paul, among his many attributes also a famous time-curmudgeon, had to give it up: those kids were GROOVY. Sometimes the time is just right…


  1. Josh, this is so timely! I was at Hopkinton High School last night for a talent show (a granddaughter was singing and playing guitar with a friend) and a boy came out wearing tap shoes. He asked the audience to clap in a rhythm he set and proceeded to improvise. He obviously loves to tap, but needs 1) heavier shoes and 2) to pay much more attention to time. He would gesture to us to stop, do double time with lots of wings, etc., but out of rhythm, timing, etc. While I admired his attempts it drove me mad. He really needs you, Josh! Love your blog, which I discovered recently. Keep it up! Carole Shander

    • thanks, Carole! some teens do grow up from the trick-only vocabulary, and keep developing into great dancers. that’s the good news. the bad news: so many dancers, so little time! love to you and family…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s