I am waiting for a discrete moment to say a quick hello to my dear friend—and tap legend–James ‘Buster’ Brown, at his tap jam at NYC’s Swing 46, when he runs across the dance floor and jumps on me. I hadn’t seen Buster in quite a while, and the pure spontaneous joy of hugs, tears, and laughter from an 80-plus year old sitting on my lap is an image I will carry to my grave. OK, so in later years he began to call me ‘Jeff’, but no matter: he was as loving a spirit as I have ever encountered in the world, and his genuine love for anyone in tap shoes–regardless of ability—was a signature of those weekly tap jams.
A rare and very intelligent panel discussion among the faculty at last summer’s Tap on Barcelona festival revived my interest in tap jams. A question was asked about how to build community, and the discussion led to the brilliant Guillem Alonso talking at length about his two decades of putting tap on the map in his hometown, with the tap jam as the focal point. Gathering place, networking, performance opportunity, visibility: for Guillem and the other dancers on the panel there was no doubt, the tap jams had been the spiritual center of the incredible rise of tap in Catalunya.
At last Sunday’s 8th birthday edition of the London Tap Jam, the evening was marked by joy, generosity, playfulness, and the sense that a community was growing up together. Like those jams at Swing 46, there were serious professionals, first-time improvisors, high-achieving amateurs, incredibly skilled teenagers learning the ins and outs of dancing to jazz standards, technical killers of the new generation, a random dancer from the Czech Republic who had heard about the jams and happened to be in town, lots of tight blue jeans and curly hairstyles to go along with the searching and exploring of the dancers. There are dancers who have tasted the quick celebrity of British television, dancers who have just finished runs in musicals, dancers who are going into major touring tap shows, and let’s not forget the ukulele moment!
The spirit reflects the founding trio’s mission of inclusiveness a la Buster Brown: my friend the long-time devotee and tireless organizer Dan Sheridan, super-talented and quick witted Junior Laniyan, and new friend (currently mending a broken ankle) Melody Lander from the beginning wanted to create a space where anyone could dance, everyone was welcome, and tap dance improvisation could flourish. My, oh my, how they have succeeded!
Upstairs at the prestigious jazz club Ronnie Scotts, on the fourth Sunday of every month (except December) the trio sets up the room: they drag heavy bags from a rooftop shed, pull out the pieces, and assemble a stage. They spread blankets on the floor, set out cushions for the devotees who gather down front to most powerfully experience the blazing feet; they hang a banner above the bar, shove down some slices of pizza, open their box office, and let the public in. After the jam they even do some roof repairs on the leaking shed—not the kind of ‘shedding’ that a dancer dreams about.
I have never met a musician quite like bandleader Michéle Drees, a wonderful dreamer (thank you, autocorrect: I did write ‘drummer‘) who believes that for tap dance to succeed it is the musicians who must lead the way. Her Jazz Tap Project, with four dancers and four musicians, aims at getting tap dance to the premier jazz festivals of Europe. I have met musicians who loved tap dance, who were brilliant at making tap dance sound and feel as close to perfection as possible, who tolerated tap dance, who hated tap dance but liked the employment; I have worked for years with the finest jazz musicians from all over the world and met so many variations on the theme but never encountered a musical soul as deeply committed to bringing tap dance wherever she goes.
Especially as some of the younger dancers at the jam were not exactly sure where they were in the song forms, or how many bars had been exchanged with a musician, and there were some terribly ill-timed re-entries into choruses, or melodies: none of that mattered to Michéle or her gifted pianist and bassist. Oh, London bridges did occasionally fall down, but the trio provided nothing but outstanding support and guidance for the dancers, all night long.
Back in 1988 when I was half the faculty at the prestigious Leon Collins Dance Studio (helping rebuild the spirit of the place after his passing) I began tap jams that quickly became a focal point for the New England tap community. A hundred or so people would crowd the basement studio for the jams, which were divided into three parts: a beginner circle, a showcase for choreography, and an advanced jam. Those early xeroxed flyers looked like something produced by the criminally insane: copies of the front of Stearns’ Jazz Dance, or The Baby Laurence Album, cut and pasted onto a piece of white paper with the handwritten jam dates and times; dutifully copied and folded into triplicate, closed by a circular sticker, addresses handwritten and stamps actually licked one at a time, and mailed via U.S. Post.
Then it seemed to me, and to many, in the tap revival, that improvisation was the only ‘real’ form of tap dance. We chucked Fred Astaire and everybody else who ever did the same step twice into the trash, and set about creating a tap dance of pure (narcissistic) self-expression. We taught and learned pieces of choreography, sure, but there was a sense that to really tap dance was to improvise. Now I am not so sure: improvisation is necessary, absolutely, but is it better than choreography? Does one need to be more valued than the other? Can either form actually exist without the other?
I had been broken in at the 1987 Colorado Tap Festival in an improv circle that included Fred Strickler, Barbara Duffy, Margaret Morrison, probably Leela Petronio, and the late, great, drunk tap legend Eddie Brown playing the tap dancer’s riff over and over on the piano, and slowing down more and more with each 8 bars. The only moment I really remember is my debut, sliding into the circle and landing flat on my back—a moment of shameful HORROR amplified by the contorted face of current Dance Magazine Award winner Tony Waag staring down pitifully at the heap of Josh lying on the green tiles. (Thank god Tony doesn’t remember. Give him another award for that.)
By 2001 and the first Tap City Festival, my obsession with all things improvisation was fading, and on the opening night tap jam attended by Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, and luminaries of the New York and International tap scene, I found myself heading for the exits as the jam began. On the way out I met a pianist I knew, heading in to play for the jam. He asked me where on earth I was going, and I said: “If there were 85 piano players in there, where would YOU be going?” And we laughed, and so began my decade of fleeing any and every setting involving the words ‘tap’ and ‘jam’ in relation.
So middle age has its benefits, and as I head toward 50 everything gets less extreme. The Barcelona jam in July was really too sweet to be hateful, and this ongoing London Tap Jam confirms the great value and importance in community building via tap dance improvisation with live music. Nobody needs to choose between ‘this’ or ‘that’: we can have it all.
My cousin Jeremy lives in London with his companion Julija, and they came out for the jam, and enjoyed their first experience of live tap dance. My great friend and tap guru Dean Diggins happened to be visiting from the US on his annual London theatre junket, and he totally enjoyed the energy of the event as well. I met Dean at his hotel the next morning before heading back through the ‘chunnel’ to Belgium, and when he was not downstairs I asked the front desk to call the room of Mr. Diggins.
“Sorry, Mr. Dickens?” asked the woman at the front desk: it is London, after all.