Thursday, May 25, 2017

National Tap Dance Day

Today is National Tap Dance Day and has been so since 1989 when President George Bush signed the legislation to make it law, Public Law No: 101-143. For those few of you who do not know why this date was chosen, it is the birthday of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, born in 1878. When I try to remember my first awareness of tap dance as a child, I get a vague memory of Fred Astaire, The Step Brothers, Peg Leg Bates, The Nicholas Brothers, various tap acts and Bill Robinson, all meshed together in my mind. As I got older and studied tap for a while during my adolescence, Bill Robinson always seemed to be THE name in tap, the top in the field. I don't know why I felt that, but even as an adult, before I got back into tap, I always felt "Bojangles" was the iconic great tap dancer. But I did love a bunch of other tappers, too. When I got back into wanting to do tap in my late 20s, one of the things I did was videotape off of TV (I had a reel to reel 1/2 inch videotape machine back in the 1970s BEFORE vcrs!) any instance of footage of Bill Robinson that aired and then would play it back to study. I'd stand next to the tv screen and try to copy what I saw him doing, which was my way of starting to study the art form again before finding a live "in person" teacher. Now, there are at least two pieces of music that, in my experience, often get linked to Bill Robinson and tap. One is "Mr. Bojangles", a nice tune but in content has nothing to do with Bill Robinson, however used to great effect by Sammy Davis, Jr and Harold Cromer, just to name two people who did it. The other is, "The New Low Down" a tune Robinson recorded and some of us dance to, doing what we call, "The Bill Robinson Routine". But it wasn't until earlier this month that I realized I had completely forgotten another piece of music associated with him.

Every year, Jazz at Lincoln Center runs something called, Essentially Ellington, which is a competition for high school jazz bands from around the country and even Cuba. It goes on for three days culminating in a final concert where the top band and winners in other categories are announced.  I watched a lot of it on Livestream and was knocked out at how good these young people were. I mean they were good and swingin'! I was enjoying myself immensely, finding it hard to turn it off. At one point a band was introduced, the Tucson Jazz Institute, and the band director said they were going to play Duke Ellington's "Bojangles" and, like being stuck by a bolt of lightning, I remembered,
"That's right, Duke wrote a tune to salute Bill Robinson!" I had even suddenly remember I had a recording of it somewhere, which I later looked for and couldn't find. The fact is Duke wrote a number of pieces that he called "Portraits of...." to celebrate certain artists, which included; Bert Williams, Louis Armstrong, Welman Braud (a bassist who played in his band), Mahalia Jackson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Mills and Sidney Bechet. I even remember the great performer Charles "Cookie" Cook talking to me about these works, and particularly mentioning to me Duke's "Portrait of Bert Williams" because he knew I was into mime at the time.

Well, the Tucson Jazz Institute played the tune and they also had a tap dancer! What was great is the fact the dancer was incorporated into the piece to be part of the ensemble, we ARE musicians you know, and he laid it down! It was a moment for me to love tap, love youth and love the genius of Ellington. So, do yourself a favor and check out the clip below of the TJI, lead by Doug Tidaback, doing "Bojangles: A Portrait of Bill Robinson" (the full title), with tap dancer Brendan Kellam doing his thing, as the rest of the band is doing their thing. Oh, by the way....they won first place in the competition.

Happy National Tap Dance Day!


  1. Loved reading this, Hank! Barrie

  2. 1968 WBAI (Radio Unnameable) version with David Bromberg's famous guitar backup at this link, plus his funny "Bull Frog Blues" (funnier in person) and other 1968 overnight music:

    Then David Bromberg made his own version of "Mr. Bojangles":


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