This is part of a chapter from my book, Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond:
I was still unhappy with my piano playing. I’d had a few gigs off and on since I had quit the Top of the Hub, but I felt there was something wrong with my sense of time. It wasn’t swinging the way I wanted it to. Charlie Banacos had showed me some methods to get my lines to sound more swinging, but I felt it wasn’t just my hands and arms that were the problem (and I’m sure he knew that, too)—it was my whole body and the way I felt about it. I’d never been particularly graceful, not good at sports, and not much of a dancer, either. One night Mad, Hil and I were watching TV and the Nicholas Brothers were on.
“Look at the way they move,” I said. “If that isn’t jazz in motion I don’t know what is.” The girls were fascinated, too, especially with the way they tapped up and down the stairs. I’d seen lots of tap dancers on TV, of course, like Shirley Temple and Gene Kelly, but there was something different about the way these guys danced. I wanted to find out what it was that gave them that fluid, relaxed, hip way of moving, so I decided to find myself a tap dance teacher. I really thought it might help me with my piano playing.
I knew I didn’t want one of those Broadway types that flailed their arms around and made big dramatic sweeps across the floor, so I asked around and someone mentioned Leon Collins. They said he was one of the old-time “hoofers” like Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers and the Copasetics, so if I wanted to learn the real deal, I should look him up. It turned out that Leon was giving tap lessons in a studio not far from the Monitor newsroom, and his classes were all jammed, mostly with white women. I signed up, and got Mad and Hil into classes, too. Now we were the tap family.
Leon was skinny as a toothpick and loose as a mop, with a big, toothy smile, and he loved his “girls”—many of whom were well past middle age. He also played the guitar and sang a little, and was a walking jazz machine. There was always a tune running around in his head, accompanied by some new tap step he could fit with it.
Before long, Leon and I were having long conversations about music, and I’d stay after class to show him something on the piano or watch him work out an improvised line on the guitar. I turned him on to some tunes he’d never danced to, like Randy Weston’s jazz waltz “Little Niles” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” both which became part of his regular show repertoire. Leon was wide open to new ideas, and even made up some tap routines to a couple of classical pieces.
I enjoyed the tap classes and they really did help me with my rhythm, both on the piano and in general. But the best thing that came out of my association with Leon was that he asked me to be his musical director. This is how I came to be involved with many, many tap dancers over the years and be known as the “tap dancers’ piano player.” I got to know Chuck Green of Chuck and Chuckles, James “Buster” Brown, Leslie “Bubba” Gains and Charles “Cookie” Cook of the Copasetics, Bunny Briggs (who had danced with Duke Ellington), Jimmy Slyde, Sandman Simms, and then later on Greg Hines and Savion Glover.
The older tappers were all Leon’s contemporaries and colleagues, and I even got to play with some of them, because of Leon. Once he took me to a jazz club in Harlem and Chuck Green was there. I sat in to play for him, and he danced in his socks! Everyone kept shushing me so they could “hear” his steps…shh, shh, softer, softer!
To buy the book: http://goo.gl/OfdMd7