Tag Archives: tap-dance

“THEY ADVISE BUCK-AND-WINGIN'”: FAYARD, HAROLD, and BOBBY MAKE MUSIC at DECCA (1937)

There’s something weirdly irresistible about jazz records with tap-dance passages, especially in this multi-media age when we expect to see as well as hear.  The tradition goes back to Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, and forward to Jack Ackerman and Baby Laurence, among others.

A charming example of the phenomenon is the two sides the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold) recorded for American Decca, with a small, well-disciplined yet hot band — Decca studio players (who were also recording with Dick Robertson, the Andrews Sisters, Frank Froeba, and Teddy Grace) including Bobby Hackett, cornet; Ralph Muzzillo, trumpet; Al Philburn, trombone; Sid Stoneburn, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Haig Stephens, string bass; Stan King, drums.

I single out Bobby because he has a pearly eight-bar bridge on the first side, and to me, eight bars of Hackett is like a previously unknown Yeats fragment.  On the second side, Philburn and Stoneburn take the solos.  But listen closely to the underrated but distinctive Stan King throughout.  I don’t think the sides sold very well, because Decca did not repeat the experiment.

and the flip side:

Perfectly charming.

May your happiness increase!

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AS CINEMA, IT HAS ITS LIMITS: AS A TIME MACHINE, IT’S FLAWLESS: “HARLEM IS HEAVEN” (1932)

The great connoisseur of popular culture, especially women singers, Alan Eichler, just shared with us his VHS copy of the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN.  It’s a great gift, as it may be the first “all-colored” feature sound film, with starring roles for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Putney Dandridge, James Baskett, and with incidental music provided by Eubie Blake and his Orchestra, also with an appearance by Noble Sissle.

HARLEM HEAVEN poster

Now, I have reservations about the film itself.  Henri Wessell as “Chummy” and Anise Boyer as “Jean” are both beautiful young people, although their naturalistic acting is, to my taste, none too subtle.  And the plot (the film was written and directed by Irwin R. Franklyn) is thin to the point of transparency.

But what other film shows us so much of Bill Robinson as an actor, singer, and dancer — the stair dance sequence has been shown often but without credit, but the rest was new to me.  The dancers are presented to us as the world-famous Cotton Club entertainters, which is a look behind the scenes that we would otherwise not have had.

And this is serious business: is there any other film in the history of cinema that has Putney Dandridge as a deadly moral avenger who is never arrested or tried? I rest my case.

Even though I could not view the whole film in one sitting, I was captivated from the start by the little touches of 1932 Harlem reality: the marquee reading MILLS BROS. and the glimpse of the exterior of Connie’s Inn. Then, later on, there is a whole history of early-Thirties theatre and music and dance.  For fans of pre-Code splendor, “Jean” takes off her dress, revealing beautiful silk lingerie, while “Chummy” looks elsewhere, and later on there is a brief catfight between “Jean” and “Greta Rae.”  Worth viewing?  That’s up to you.

Here’s the film.

On its own terms, it is indeed Heavenly.  Thank you, Alan.  And here — reaching back even more — is Bill, in Technicolor (!) in the 1930 DIXIANA:

May your happiness increase.

THE BOY’S GAWKY AND ECCENTRIC, BUT LOVE WORKS ITS MAGIC: HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

The Beloved — whom I celebrate today and all the other days and nights — told me about Hal Le Roy.  He was another gap in my swing education, but this could be remedied by multiple viewings of this Vitaphone short film, HIGH SCHOOL HOOFER.

Once seen, Le Roy is completely unforgettable, an electifying dancer.  His style is so eccentric, so vigorous yet graceful, that I find myself thinking, “How did he do that? — and that? — and that?”  Everything is in blissful motion — his long legs, his pompadour, that goofy grin.  He was 18.  Le Roy is the visual equivalent of a previously unheard Bix solo, or the 1932 Bennie Moten band in an outchorus: life-changing.  (Ron Hutchinson, the great Vitaphone scholar, tells me that Le Roy made other shorts before becoming “Harold Teen” in a film series beginning in 1934.  Unfortunately, Hal didn’t seem to be one of those “ingenues” who made an easy transition to adulthood on screen; he retired from films when he was 37 and spent the rest of his life in musical productions in dinner theatres.)

And although the acting in this film is unsubtle and the comedy is heavy-handed, I also delight in the details: the suits that the upper classmen wear, Le Roy’s business with some piece of uneaten food; the lively dance music that plays throughout.

I confess I have a crush on Eleanor(e) King, who was 27 in this “high school” film.  She isn’t a great actress at the start, as a foil to “Bill,” given that wooden comeback about “sunburn” by the script, but she  grows as the film goes on: her toughlove “Honey,” just before she urges a stuttering, uncoordinated Le Roy to go out there and wow ’em — two years before FORTY-SECOND STREET — is very convincing.  The script also makes her an effective early life coach: turn CAN’T into CAN, and separate your ego from yourself.  She has something there, and any life coach who could enable Le Roy to so utterly shed his terrors and be himself is a wow.

Watch this!

The film fulfills all our fantasies: the poor freshman who is doing menial chores in the cafeteria is nervous, obsequious, has a stammer.  But he can dazzle the crowd and win the heart of the girl who has a real loving interest in him.  Music hath charms!  Fidelity triumphs; swing is in the air.

Haughty Bill disappears, as does the ominous fellow who threatens Hal with exile (ostracism, high school style) if he fails.  It all ends with a broad joke: offstage, dizzied by love, Hal is a terrible dancer.  But his enraptured girl, Georgia May Tate, doesn’t mind at all.

My high school experiences were far less glorious, so I cherish this film as a what-might-have-been-in-another-life experience.  My more recent experiences in ballroom dancing have been, shall we say, confined, another reason HIGH SCHOOL HOOFER is a delightful dream.

And its point is clear: the love our Beloveds offer gives us the power to fly — in public — rather than confining ourselves, timid and insecure, amidst the dirty dishes.

May your Valentine’s Day — and all the others — find you triumphant, loved, and loving.  Love can make us light on our feet, not only on February 14.

May your happiness increase.

SYNCOPATE YOUR CARES AWAY

Thanks to Steven Ramm for pointing this out!  From aaron1912 of YouTube, courtesy of British Pathe news footage, here’s a collection of wonderful tap dancers from the Thirties.

These great mobile artists are new to me (although perhaps not to dance historians in the audience): their names are Pauline Ward; Ted Andrews (Julie’s stepfather!) playing for an unknown dancer; Charles Parker; Jose and Heather Anderson; Jean Rema.

If you can watch this video without a momentary powerful pang — a wish to get up from the computer and execute these steps — see your neurologist.  I don’t expect that people can do these magnificent moves, but that most of us want to.

May your happiness increase.

MILSON SAIDL DANCES . . .

All I know about what you are going to see is that this young man, Milson Saidl, is an extraordinary tap dancer — someone who moves in real life the way we dream of doing.  Lynn Redmile, the fine still photographer, took this video of Milson dancing — a kind of silent tap dancing, because he had removed his tap shoes to protect the beautiful wood floor at Frim Fram.

Milson is not only a dancer but a dance teacher and a choreographer; he lives in Prague.  And here’s his Facebook page.

But first, watch him dance!

If that isn’t a wondrous Forties film routine translated into this century . . . thanks to Milson and Lynn.  They’ve got rhythm!

Now, I need to know (and I am sure you do, too) what this young man is doing in New York City — aside from amazing the people around him.  Can anyone explain?*

And I would again direct you to Lynn Redmile’s lovely photographs here.  Lynn specializes in the Beautiful and in the apparently ordinary which reveals its Beautiful selves.

*I got a brief explanation from the source himself — Milson wrote, “I studied the International Student Visa Program at Steps on Broadway for 10 months last year.  I love tap dancing and dancing in general and that is one the reasons why I have come back to New York again. There are amazing teachers, classes, tap jams in New York.  I wish I could spend more time here.”

So do we, Milson!  I hope that his appearances will be posted on the “NYC Swing Dancers” page on Facebook . . . he is someone to watch, nurture, and admire!

IN THE NEXT LIFE . . .

I don’t know enough about reincarnation to speak with even the semblance of authority: but I’ve heard that in the lives after this one can work through spiritual stages to arrive at higher levels of enlightenment. 

Were I to be reincarnated, I think I’d want to come back as one of the dancers — whose names we don’t know — in this 1931 or 1932 film clip.  Style embodied: a casual grace.  And the fact that they are not slickly perfect in their routines is entirely charming — making them real rather than ideal.  Watch their we-two-are-one dance to MANDY.

Or if being reincarnated as a dancer would be too much of a leap for me, maybe I could come back as the unidentified drummer?  Or even the cameraman. 

This clip was posted on YouTube by “lindyhoppers,” a man of great taste and humanity — an Italian pal I’ve never met in person.  And, by the way, the band is playing WHISTLE AND BLOW YOUR BLUES AWAY (always a solid piece of advice) and MANDY (MAKE UP YOUR MIND):

First I’d need tap shoes . . . .

JUST PERFECT, THANK YOU

As a long-time jazz listener, I find myself mentally editing and revising many recordings (silently, without moving my lips).  “Tempo’s too fast for that song, “”That side would have been even better if the tempo had stayed steady,” or “Why couldn’t he have taken just one more chorus?”  Since the musicians can’t hear my silent amending and since the recordings remain their essential character, I think I am permitted this fussy but harmless pastime.  Fruitless, of course, but amusing exercises in alternate-universe construction that serious readers of fiction know well: every close reader is by definition an unpaid and unheard editor.  

But there are some jazz recordings no one could improve on.  Here are two flawless sides.     

This music was issued on a non-commercial V-Disc (“V” stands for Victory) recorded during the Second World War especially for the men and women in the armed forces.  The musicians gave their services for free; the sessions were supervised by (among others) George T. Simon; the discs were 12″ rather than the usual 10″, allowing for blessedly longer performances.  And many sessions took place after midnight, when the musicians had finished their gigs, lending them a certain looseness; as well, the recording companies gave up their usual restrictions, so that musicians under contract to one label were free to cross over from the land of, say, Victor, into Decca. 

This October 1943 session was led by Teddy Wilson (itself a near-guarantee of success); it is a quartet taken from his working sextet, which would have also included Benny Morton (trombone) and Johnny Williams or Al Hall (bass).  Perhaps those men were tired after a night’s work; perhaps they didn’t want to record without getting paid.  But as much as I revere Morton and Williams or Hall, the men who remained made irreplaceable music. 

What follows is a series of impressionistic notes on the music: keen listeners will hear much more as they immerse themselves in the music, as I’ve been doing for thirty-five years. 

The four voices are powerful ones — Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, and Joe Thomas — but this quartet is not a display of clashing ego.  Of the four, Thomas is least known, but his work here is deeply moving. 

After the little end-of-tune flourish that brings on Wilson’s (scripted) introduction, his harmonically-deep, crystalline lines and embellishments float over Sidney’s steady brush tread (forceful but not loud.  I think of the padding of a large animal in slippers).  Wilson’s second chorus is pushed forward by a Catlett accent early on; the two men dance above and around the chords and rhythm. 

In the third chorus, Hall joins them: as much as I admire the Goodman Trio, how unfortunate that this group never was asked to record — Hall’s tonal variations are beyond notating, in their own world. 

Thomas’s entry, clipped but mobile, provokes Catlett into tap-dance figures.  No one’s ever matched Joe’s tone, velvet with strength beneath it, the slight quavers and variations making it a human voice.  The annunciatory figure midway through his chorus is a trademark, those repeated notes looking backwards to 1927 Louis and forward to a yet-unrecorded Ruby Braff.  (Thomas was Frank Newton’s favorite trumpet player, a fact I can’t over-emphasize.)  He seems to stay close to the melody, but the little slurs and hesitations, the dancing emphases of particular notes are masterful, the result of a lifetime spent quietly embellishing the written music, making it entirely personal. 

And then Sidney comes on.  The sound of his brushwork is slightly muffled and muddied by the 78 surface, but his figures are joyous, especially his double-timing, the closing cymbal splashes.  Try to listen to his solo and remain absolutely still: hard, if not impossible! 

Then the ensemble plays (with everyone facing in the same direction, not breathing hard) a variation on the melody — something taken for granted well before the official birth of bop — with a jammed bridge in the middle.  Notice how Catlett and Wilson ornament and encourage the line that the two horns share.  And the side concludes with a little jam session finish (Sidney urging everyone on) with Thomas recalling the “Shoot the likker to me, John boy,” that was already a familiar convention perhaps eight years before. 

Incidentally, the swing players had discovered HOW HIGH THE MOON as early as 1940: Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, guest stars on a Fred Rich Vocalion session in that year, improvise on it.

As delightful as I find HOW HIGH THE MOON, the masterpiece –subtler, sorrowing — is RUSSIAN LULLABY.  Berlin’s melody was already familiar, and I wonder what thoughts of the Russian Front might have been going through the heads of these four players, what political or global subtext. 

Often LULLABY is taken briskly, but this version is true to its title.  After Wilson’s introduction, Joe essays the melody: if he had recorded nothing else than this statement, I’d hail his unique trumpet voice: his tone, his vibrato, his use of space, his pacing.  Hall sings quietly behind him — but that soaring, melancholy bridge is a creation that is both of the trumpet and transcending it.  I hear the passion of an aria in those eight bars, with little self-dramatization.   

Wilson, following him, is serious, his lines restating and reshaping.  (Some listeners find Wilson’s arpeggios and runs so distracting that they miss out on his melodic invention: he was a superb composer-at-the-keyboard, and his solo lines, transcribed for a horn, would seem even more stunning.  Not accidentally, he learned a great deal about melodic embellishment and solo construction from his stint in Louis Armstrong’s 1933 band.) 

Keeping Wilson’s mood, Catlett plays very quietly, although you know he’s there.  Hall’s approach is more forceful and Catlett follows suit. 

Then . . . a drum solo?  At this tempo?  Most drummers would have found it hard to be as relaxed, as restrained.  He quietly paddles along in between the horns’ staccato reduction of the melody, making it clear that he is a serious servant of the rhythm, the time, devoted to the sound of the band — until he moves to double-time figures and two cymbal accents.  Music like this is deceptively simple: a casual listener might think it is easy to play in this manner, but how wrong that mild condescension would be!  Wilson and Catlett join forces for a momentary interlude before the horns return — Joe, sorrowing deep inside himself, Hall soaring. 

How marvelous that we have these two sides! 

Thanks to vdiscdaddy for posting them on YouTube; his channel is full of music worth hearing that has been hidden from us.  Thanks of a larger sort to Wilson, Thomas, Hall, and Catlett — brilliant creators who knew how to bring their individual selves together to create something brilliant, immortal.  And I don’t use the word “immortal” casually.

P.S.  I first heard these sides thanks to the late Ed Beach, and then savored them on an Italian bootleg lp on the Ariston label, THE V-DISC.  In 1990, they came out on CD — with an incomplete alternate take of RUSSIAN LULLABY — on the Vintage Jazz Classics label (TEDDY WILSON: CENTRAL AVENUE BLUES, VJC 1013-2), a production that brought together, although not face to face, John Fell, Doug Pomeroy, and Lloyd Rauch.  I don’t think a copy of that CD would be easy to find today, though.