Tag Archives: tap dancing

ET TU, TRU?

capezio-tapster

In the August 28, 1984 obituary for Truman Capote, who died at 59 [born September 30, 1924], New York Times staff writer Albin Krebs noted this:

Most summers the boy returned to New Orleans for a month or so, and accompanied his father on trips up and down the Mississippi aboard the riverboat on which Mr. Persons worked as a purser. Truman learned to tap dance, he said, and was proud of the fact that he once danced for the passengers accompanied by Louis Armstrong, whose band was playing on the steamboat.

The source of this anecdote is an excerpt Capote included in his 1973 anthology of his own prose, THE DOGS BARK.  (The rest of the quotation is, “and the caravan moves on.”  Make of that what you will.)

the-dogs-bark

Thanks to Professor Barbara Bengels of Hofstra University, who has observed my obsession with Louis for decades, I can now offer you the Truman Meets Louis story.  It appears in an anthology for freshman college students, and the headnote reads, in part, “. . . Capote uses a unique blend of sensual and realistic description to convey to us his fondness for one of jazz’s all time greats”:

Surely the Satch has forgotten, still, he was one of this writer’s first friends.  I met him when I was four, that would be around 1928, and he, a hard-plump and belligerently happy brown Buddha, was playing aboard a pleasure steamer that paddled between New Orleans and St. Louis.  Never mind why, but I had occasion to take this trip very often, and for me the sweet anger of Armstrong’s trumpet, the froggy exuberance of his come-to-me-baby mouthings, are a piece of Proust’s madeleine cake: they make Mississippi moons rise again, summon the muddy lights of river towns, the sound, like an alligator’s yawn, of river horns–I hear the rush of the mulatto river pushing by, hear, always, stomp! stomp! the beat of the grinning Buddha’s foot as he shouts his way into “Sunny Side of the Street” and the honeymooning dancers, dazed with bootleg brew and sweating through their talcum, bunny-hug around the ship’s saloony ballroom. The Satch, he was good to me, he gave me a bamboo cane and a straw boater with a peppermint headband; and every night from the stand announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, now we’re going to present you one of America’s nice kids, he’s going to do a little tap dance.”  Afterward I passed along the passengers, collecting in my hat nickels and dimes.  This went on all summer, I grew rich and vain; but in October the river roughened, the moon whitened, the customers ended, the boatrides ended, and with them my career.  Six years later, while living at a boarding school from which I wanted to run away, I wrote my former, now famous, benefactor, and said if I came to New York couldn’t he get me a job at the Cotton Club or somewhere?  There was no reply, maybe he never got the letter, it doesn’t matter, I still loved him, still do. 

I can add only a few perhaps pedantic asides to this narrative of love scorned, the tale of how the Big Star forgot the Nice Kid.  Louis’ time on Mississippi riverboats began in 1918 but certainly was over long before 1928, with long runs at Chicago nightclubs his main occupation.  ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET was not yet written in 1928; Louis might not have received Capote’s letter in 1934 because he was in Paris.

If you were to ask me why Capote would invent such a tale, I could only say that he built his later reputation on such inventions, and was praised for being “careless with the truth.”

Although the editor of the freshman anthology sees “fondness” here, I see a pulling-down of the beloved icon, for Louis was dead and could not rebut a word. Did the child Capote ask Louis for a spot in the show and get turned down?  I cannot say why, but the tone of the piece says as much as the events: the “belligerent” happiness displayed by “the Satch,” “the brown Buddha,” seems to irk the adult Capote as an adult for reasons I cannot discern. Here, to me, is a resentful variety of tap-dancing.

Two postscripts:

One.  In Jay Preston Allen’s “TRU,” a 1989 Broadway play depicting the aging Capote, Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote, the star, Robert Morse (then famous for his role in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS) turned this myth into a musical number:

And when, late in Act II, Tru takes to tapping and strutting to a Louis Armstrong recording of ”The Sunny Side of the Street,” Mr. Morse kicks a loose-limbed leg as high and friskily as he did when joining Bob Fosse’s hoedown for the ”Brotherhood of Man” finale in ”How to Succeed.”

Two.  Larger than malicious “recollection,” here is beauty:

May your happiness increase!

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LIFE-ENHANCING: “DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON” (September 10, 2016)

No, not Hemingway’s DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON in its most literal sense. Lively hedonism, with no animals harmed.

PULLING FOR HIM

I’d not heard of Ward 8 Events before, but their video, cleverly mixing Fleischer-surrealism, hot dance, food and drink in nicely measured portions, convinced me that my life had been arid and bland before this discovery.

They create “multi-disciplinary events unified around a single theme” — but that description isn’t enough.  “What they do” is artistic without being pretentious, well-researched without being staid, and it includes things we love: fine food and drink, tap-dancing, hot jazz, and more. 

This event is on Saturday, September 10, from 2-6 PM, and here is their description.

“Entitled ‘Death in the Afternoon’ and inspired by the Prohibition Era, the event will take place in a secret backroom of the acclaimed restaurant Raoul’s in Soho, and will include a collection of restaged bootlegger portraits by New York-based photographer David White, performances by The Grand St. Stompers plus a tap dancer from the Downtown Dance Factory, and a special menu of craft cocktails and passed food from Raoul’s chef David Honeysett.”

Raoul’s is a highly-rated French restaurant in Soho, at 180 Prince Street, New York City.

If you’ve never heard or heard of Gordon Au or of his Grand Street Stompers, please click here.  (Talk about “life-enhancing”!)

I’d asked the organizer, Fay Leshner, two idle questions to satisfy my curiosities, and her answers are so pointed and witty that I reprint them here:

With “passed food,” we mean “passed” in the sense of distributed by someone else, not in the sense of kidney stones…that said, these are more than your standard cucumber-slice-on-a-saltine – we’ll be offering appetizers and other selections from Raoul’s acclaimed chef, and while it won’t be a sit-down meal I can promise that it will nevertheless stand on its own merits.

As for “Death in the Afternoon” – while we aren’t fans of bullfighting, we are deep admirers of Hemingway’s tireless commitment to the lost art of daydrinking, and we feel that this event will evoke that freewheeling daytime appreciation of the creative spirit (and creatively-mixed spirits) that Ernest and his contemporaries so poetically portrayed in both their art and their lives.

For me, the high point of this event will be another opportunity to hear Gordon Au’s superb band, the Grand Street Stompers, a group I’ve chronicled on JAZZ LIVES since its inception . . . everything else will be gloriously atmospheric additions.

For more information, visit here.  To purchase tickers, direct your nicely manicured fingers here.

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.

RHYTHM, RHYTHM: ANDREW J. NEMR

I had never heard about Andrew J. Nemr before February 2010.  This unassumingly dressed young man was part of the audience at a Cangelosi Cards concert at the Shambhala Meditation Center — and someone invited him to come forward and join the band.  He had no instrument but put a wooden board, painted flat black, on the floor . . . and proceeded to dazzle us:

Here’s Andrew in duet with Gordon Au in 2011:

Andrew and friends — make that Friends — will be presenting three concerts on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, September 20, 21, and 22, at Aaron Davis Hall (the City College of New York).  The concerts begin at 7 PM; the doors open at 6:30.  Admission is $15 per person; students with ID get in for $10.  You may purchase tickets here.   And here’s  the event’s Facebook page.

One of the highlights of the concert programs will be Andrew’s recreation of Bill Robinson’s famous Stair Dance — but there will be marvels and feats of dance that no one has yet imagined.

May your happiness increase.

HEAVENLY! (THE CARDS AND ANDREW NEMR, Feb. 27, 2010)

Here are four more performances from the Cangelosi Cards’ Feb. 27, 2010 evening at the Shambhala Meditation Center in New York.

Everyone knows or should know by now who the Cards are, but if you’ve come late to this particular version of swing enlightenment, they are Tamar Korn, vocals; Jake Sanders, banjo; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet and electric mandolin; Marcus Milius, harmonica; Gordon Au, trumpet; Debbie Kennedy, string bass.  Thanks to Paul Wegener for booking the Cards at Shambhala for what I hope is a long series of memorable evenings.

I first saw the Cards perform amidst dancers, who reflected the music in their ecstatic, sometimes homegrown spins and dips.  At the Shambhala, however, they turned the stage over to Andrew Nemr — someone I hadn’t known — a divinely inspired tap dancer who brought his own tiny wooden stage.  Here’s Andrew working out on a Charles Mingus blues, MY JELLY ROLL SOUL:

And what could be more traditional than the Cards jamming on I GOT RHYTHM around Andrew:

Then, Tamar resumed her place onstage to sing YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, complete with two sets of lyrics to the verse.  There’s a subtext here: Tamar said, with a hint of wicked glee in her eye, that Jake always gets a little worried when she calls this song, wondering if Tamar means him in particular.  Watch Tamar’s face when she gets to the title of the song: if that isn’t great comic acting, I don’t know:

Finally, a wistful but swinging reading of Walter Donaldson’s paean to domestic bliss and home ownership — MY BLUE HEAVEN.  I know this was one of the songs the Cards performed when I first saw them, and I delight in their reading, including the verse: 

Heavenly!