Tap dancer Jumaane Taylor, 34, made his professional debut in 2001 with the company M.A.D.D. Rhythms, where he now serves on the board of directors. He teaches at the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, and Roosevelt University. He debuted the John Coltrane interpretation Supreme Love in 2015, and as a 2017 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist he assembled the Jazz Hoofing Quartet. His current work in progress, Ugly Flavors, uses the music of Ornette Coleman and Igor Stravinsky.
As told to Philip Montoro
Before my mom had kids, she’d already decided that her children were gonna be going to dance school. A six-year-old hearing “tap dancing,” what is tap dancing? I had no knowledge of what that is. You’d say, “No, I don’t wanna do tap dance. I wanna go outside,” or “I wanna roller skate.” But my sister joined this school and took ballet, and when I saw the show and actually saw the tap dancing, I was immediately hooked—just could not look away from what I was witnessing. And my mom signed me up. I have not stopped since.
Where I come from, the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre, they’ve been around for 80-plus years—the directors and the founders have a legacy in show business. Walking into the building that they first had when I was seven years old, there was a huge door-size poster of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and he’s the reason we have National Tap Dance Day. Then when you walked into the lobby area, you’d see a picture of the Nicholas Brothers—but still not as big as Bill Robinson! The creators of the form were just plastered all over the building.
At that time there was Bril Barrett teaching at the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre, who was the founder of M.A.D.D. Rhythms. And one of his teachers was Ted Levy—and Ted Levy was one of the guys who helped Savion Glover choreograph Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk that was on Broadway. Folks were just handing down information, whoever wanted it the most, or whoever needed it or seemed like they were hungry for it. At the beginning, we were looking at Stormy Weather, with Bill Robinson and Lena Horne, and the Nicholas Brothers, of course, with—some people call it one of the best dance clips of all time, when they’re doing the splits down the large stairs. That’s what we were watching at seven!
Every now and then, Savion Glover, when he would come in for a show, he would come to the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre and teach a workshop, and have whoever was in his cast also come teach—so Dianne Walker, Jimmy Slyde. A lot of great, masterful dancers were able to come through that school.
It feels comfortable saying tap dancing was birthed in America, with the birth of jazz music. With the African way versus the Irish way or the two coming together, it’s really tricky because sometimes it feels like folks just want their credit. “I’m part this, and I want my credit here.” All we have are these folktales, or a couple of books here and there, or the conversations we’ve had with some of the men and women who were actually there, before they transitioned. Some of the dancers just really want what’s good for the dance, period. If the Irish is gonna get some, cool, as long as we get to dance and we respect the tap dancers. The Africans get some, cool, as long as we get to tap dance. But dang, we can’t even get respect within the jazz community. And that’s where I feel we really start off.
When we think about tap dancing now, as far as tap dancers, I think they all relate more to its evolution period in America, with the birth of bebop. My statuses on most of my social media handles are “What I do comes from the bebop era,” and that’s just a quote from my favorite tap dancer, Baby Laurence.
Ugly Flavors: A work-in-progress presentation from Jumaane Taylor
Sat 11/7, 7 PM, livestream hosted by the Dance Center of Columbia College at dance.colum.edu, $20, all-ages
The Chicago Dancemakers Forum awarded me a grant for $15,000, and I used that to investigate improvisation with musicians. I put together a band—I called it the Jazz Hoofing Quartet. It was Makaya McCraven on drums, Justin Dillard on keys, and Marlene Rosenberg on bass. I loved it! It was heaven, because Makaya was so hot at the time, and anything he played was just on. And then Justin—I had known Justin since the Fred Anderson days at the Velvet Lounge, just years of jam sessions. And then Marlene, she has a history of playing with tap dancers—she knew and had met a lot of the masters that I would be mentioning in the post-talk, after we would play. I would show footage of Jimmy Slyde, and she would listen and be like, “Oh, that must be Jimmy Slyde!” Just by listening! It was this magical group.
We did some things at a couple of Rebuild spaces, and we were able to record at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I was making an argument about tap dance and jazz music, and those two cultures being able to create and invite each other regularly.
The tap-dancing guy engineered this through Rebuild Foundation—not, like, the AACM. I wish I could be down with them. I’m the black sheep, brother. Even Ernest Dawkins, he’s all up in that organization—before I did Supreme Love, I was in a trio band with that guy. It would be myself, Ernest, and a vibe player. We would be playing sets! Before I had the quartet with the guys and Marlene, before I did any shows, I was literally with these guys. Corey Wilkes—I was in a band with Corey Wilkes!
It’s no drama, no beef. If I see anybody from the Jazz Institute, from back in the day, it’s so much love, it’s so much happiness. But there’s no work! Unless I have another musician leading the project. When I first did Supreme Love, a great saxophonist, Rajiv Halim, he was leading the musicians. We were getting different gigs through the Jazz Institute, through the Hyde Park Jazz Fest.
When I’m by myself somewhere, doing some solo performing, it’s all about improvisation—that free form of expression with the tap. That’s really why I wanted to put something together like the Jazz Hoofing Quartet, to always have a way to explore that improvisational aspect—outside of doing class after class after class of choreography or what’s necessary for the musical-theater students or for the seven-year-olds.
Bebop is always at a fast tempo. Usually I feel like musicians hear the rhythm of the tap to up-tempo songs. I was talking to another tap dancer about this, one of my teachers almost, coming up in Chicago—Jay Fagan, who has a school in the west burbs. He was asking me if I ever heard of the tap dancers being responsible for the bebop sound. They used to say that the tap dancers started bebop, because the drummers weren’t hitting certain rhythms that the tap dancers were.
When I really listen to tap dancers dance improvisationally, with or without music, versus when I’m listening to jazz drummers play improvisation, sometimes the jazz drummers are playing things—even during the Charlie Parker era—that I’m still working on, let alone have ever heard any tap dancers playing. So within my study, I feel like the musicians may have started that bebop thing!
In the 30s the tap dancers just had their routine. “We’re gonna go out here, do the show, do these steps, we’re gonna do a flip, split, maybe sing a song—boom-bam, keep it moving. Another show!” But Baby Laurence really talked about the influence of Charlie Parker. He is the only tap dancer to my knowledge who has a record tap dancing with musicians. I think the album is called Dancemaster. It’s on CD, on vinyl—tap dancers these days, because that’s the only one, they just frame that vinyl and have it as an art piece.
There’s a famous piece that Duke Ellington did with a tap dancer, Bunny Briggs—it’s called “David Danced Before the Lord.” There’s very few archival videos of these tap dancers dancing with musicians, even Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers. A lot of tap dancers throughout time just adapted this way of dancing with musicians—”All right, we’re gonna do a song with the musicians, it’s gonna be ‘Take the A Train.’ Gimme some stop time so I can tap, and then I’m gonna be outta there in two or three minutes.”
I wanna be into playing sets with these musicians—45 minutes, and then another 45 minutes. That just means more exploring. The stuff that I’m trying to get into, the improvisational stuff, is really studying the music on my own, studying the John Coltrane albums, the Miles Davis albums, the Charles Mingus albums, even going back to the way Ella Fitzgerald would scat.
I’ve been on this back-and-forth with trying to represent tap within the jazz scene, and get people to just hear the natural sound of the metal on the wood. When I connect with musicians, it’s still a learning thing going on. In the past, I would mess with two different types of wood—maybe the first wood would rise a little bit, so I’d have a little bit more air underneath, and maybe the second floor would be straight flat on the surface. And then I would maybe change shoes, just because some of the shoes built these days, you can add another sole which would make it a little louder or a little deeper.
I’m very careful, man—I don’t wanna be too loud, I don’t want to overpower any musician. I just want to be right with them.
I’ve been on this journey to be able to present within the jazz community, to be able to play at the Jazz Showcase. There’s always been this little thing where folks may say, if you have another type of attraction there, the tap dancer could take the focus away from the music. I don’t want to take any focus away! I want to be playing with you all. To be a union of creative beauty.
Thinking about Fred Anderson, and even thinking about Von Freeman—they used to have the sessions at the Apartment Lounge. Von Freeman would yell out “Baby Laurence!” Yell out names of the masters. Yell at certain young musicians if they were playing too loud over the tap. I feel like if the Fred Andersons and the Von Freemans were here, it would be more extensive than me just trying it out here and there when I can.
Now I’m in this studio at the Dance Center at Columbia, figuring out this next new show that I’m working on, with Ornette Coleman‘s music and Igor Stravinsky’s compositions. I’m calling it Ugly Flavors.
I’ve been listening to the music heavy, and the history behind The Rite of Spring just puts me in the mind of “ugly flavors,” with the riots and all that. And Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come is what I’m trying to choreograph to. I just don’t know how the jazz community might have received The Shape of Jazz to Come, with him even using that word “jazz.” Calling my group the Jazz Hoofing Quartet, I don’t think the jazz community received that well.
I’m just excited to do something that has no musicians but deals with some of the most legendary music that I could find. The Shape of Jazz to Come, I want that as the first half of the show, just because I know the ballet lovers are gonna be amped, and I don’t want them to leave after The Rite of Spring if that was the first half. I know they’re gonna be ready to criticize, ready to ridicule—I don’t even know, but I’m ready for it all.
Hearing about that premiere happening in Paris, and how the people received it—sometimes I feel that’s how the jazz community receives me! Just cussing out the performers in the middle of a ballet. I feel like, under their breath, the jazz directors are cussing me out: “What is this! This isn’t jazz music! And he’s calling himself the Jazz Hoofing Quartet?”
Chicago Dancemakers Forum are allowing me to do a streamed work in progress November 7, at the Dance Center at Columbia. They’re allowing me to just have a theater to work with, and they’ve got some mikes set up and some different floor options so we can get the proper sound. I’m using that to invite certain presenters, invite certain institutions—and maybe the Dance Center will want me to premiere the full work later next year. v