Masters of Maryland Tap
Three dazzling Baltimore tap dancers finally get their due
Published: March 7, 2012
Masters of Maryland Tap
March 10 at 7:30 P.M. at the James Weldon Johnson Auditorium, Coppin State University, 2500 W. North Ave.
For more information, visit creativealliance.org.
Baltimore is justly proud of its music heritage. Eubie Blake, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and numerous other ragtime and jazz greats once called Baltimore home. But, in quieter fashion, the city once incubated another, related sort of artist: the tap dancer. Baltimore is the birthplace of at least three acknowledged masters of the form—“Baby Laurence” Jackson, Louis “Hawk” Hawkins, and James “Buster” Brown. On March 10, these tappers, all deceased, will finally be recognized in their hometown.
Masters of Maryland Tap, a showcase in their honor, will be held at Coppin State University. Co-sponsored by the Creative Alliance at the Patterson—with the support of the Maryland State Arts Council’s Maryland Traditions Program—the event will feature archival footage of the three dancers and live tap performances accompanied by the Frank Owens Trio and Michael Raitzyk on guitar. Actress Maria Broom (The Wire) will host, and Emmy Award-winning tapper Jason Samuels Smith (of Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk fame) will perform, as will Michael “Toes” Tiranoff and Tiranoff’s wife and fellow tap dancer Megan Haungs. DC Tap Festival founder Maud Arnold, Coppin tap teacher Quynn Johnson, and child tap prodigy Luke Spring (who recently performed on The Ellen Degeneres Show) will also appear.
The event is, in part, meant to highlight Coppin’s new dance major, which began accepting students last fall. The program will include a tap track. “I’ve been trying so desperately to get those kind of urban, grassroots courses onto the campus,” says Vanessa Coles, director of the dance program. “When students come into our program, they can do more traditional performance—mainstream ballet and modern—but we also want to give them the option to go into a more culture-centered area of study.” Coles says that Coppin State is only the second historically black university in the country to offer a dance major. (Howard University is the other.)
But for many involved in the show, the tribute is a personal one. In the early 1980s, long before founding the Creative Alliance, CA Program Director Megan Hamilton co-founded the Chesapeake Vaudeville Revue; the group included a lady sword swallower with a snake and two tap dancers, Hawk Hawkins and co-founder Toes Tiranoff. “Hawk was absolutely amazing,” Hamilton says. “He could capture any audience in any circumstance. I learned an awful lot about showmanship and what makes a really good charismatic performer from him. So when he died, I knew that I kind of owed him a tribute.” (Hamilton says the Creative Alliance has recently dedicated itself to doing some shows off-site as a form of outreach; the tap showcase is its first major project in this vein.)
Tiranoff met Hawkins in 1978, and the two tappers ended up performing together off and on for some 15 years, some of those years in the revue. “Hawk just took me under his wing,” Tiranoff says. “My whole world was opened up when I met him.”
One emphasis of the show—which will include signature steps, routines, and songs of the three greats, as well as a good deal of improvisation—is the relationship between music and tap dance. “One thing that I want to emphasize is that all these dancers were incredible musicians,” Megan Haungs says. “Music and dance are so intertwined in tap dance. We really look at them together as a package.”
Tap’s musical roots are perhaps especially apparent in the career of Baby Laurence Jackson, one of the first tappers to adapt to the complex rhythms of bebop jazz. Jackson was heavily influenced by musicians such as Charlie Parker, and would imitate the rhythms of jazz pianists such as Art Tatum using his feet. He was known for improvising solos and trading fours with jazz musicians, a percussionist on the hoof. In 1959, he recorded an album of jazz standards, titled Dancemaster.
Jackson was born in Baltimore in 1921, and grew up tapping for money at the Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue and the Gayety Theatre on Baltimore Street. His early hoofing led him to an illustrious career; he performed with Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and many more. “People talk about Baby Laurence as arguably the greatest tap dancer in the history of the medium,” Hamilton says. (For a clip of Jackson dancing in Baltimore in 1972, visit tinyurl.com/babylaurence.)
Haungs saw Jackson perform in 1973 at the New York Jazz Museum. The experience was so powerful it launched her tap dance career. “I saw Baby Laurence just that one time, and that was the year before he passed away,” she says, “but I just remember something about the vitality and the imagination and a musicality that inspired me so much that I knew that somehow I would find out more.”
Haungs went on to study with numerous tappers, including, it turned out, Buster Brown. Brown was born in 1913 in South Baltimore and learned to dance by exchanging steps with other kids. By high school, he and several friends were putting on public performances. They also made the rounds of local nightclubs, dancing for tips. Like Jackson, Brown went on to perform with numerous jazz greats, going on tour to South America with the Cab Calloway Orchestra and serving as a featured dancer with Duke Ellington’s famous “Sacred Concerts” of the 1960s. Brown was the only tap dancer who was a member of both the famous rival tap groups in New York City, the Hoofers and the Copasetics. (While he was with the Hoofers, he toured Africa and gave a command performance for Emperor Haile Selassie.)
Brown liked to insert jokes—especially a recurring riff on a mental patient who thinks he’s a light bulb—and patter into his performances, and much of the archival footage of his routines is truly funny. (For a sample, see tinyurl.com/88q8lxr, Brown’s famous impression of New York pedestrians.) For the showcase, a Washington, D.C.-based troupe called Capitol Tap will perform one of Brown’s signature routines, to the tune of the 1944 David Raksin standard “Laura,” and, as is the case with the other two dancers, a five-minute montage of archival footage will be shown.
But Brown, who died in 2002, is as often remembered for his generosity as for his twinkling toes. In the late 1990s, Brown organized a weekly tap jam in New York City that became legendary. Young beginners came to tap, but so did those who were internationally recognized. “I think the reason it was such an incredible jam is that Buster always saw the greatest potential in everybody,” Haungs says.
Brown’s only surviving sibling, 96-year-old Ruth Jackson, will be attending the Masters of Maryland Tap show (as, it is hoped, will several members of Hawkins’ family). “This is not the first [tribute] they’ve had for him,” Jackson says, “but it’s the first one they’ve had in Baltimore, and I’m so glad because some of the people in Baltimore didn’t know some of the things he did. . . . I just want to say that he was just a sweetheart and he loved everybody and everybody loved him.”
Of the three Baltimore tap dancers being honored, Hawk Hawkins was probably the least famous. “He’s the one that sort of stayed close to Baltimore, so he’s not as well known,” Tiranoff says. “But he’s still incredibly talented.” Born in 1916, Hawkins began tap dancing for coins on Howard Street as a youth. He went on to share bills with the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald but is best remembered in Baltimore. He performed at the jazz clubs along Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1930s and ’40s, and worked the Fells Point bar scene, “passing the hat” from the 1970s through the ’90s. (He reportedly had the city bus schedule memorized, and would time his appearances accordingly.)
Hawkins was known for his comedic style. His signature routine involved a chair. “He was just amazing at that,” Tiranoff says. “He’d tap on top of the chair, sit down and tap in it, almost like he was driving a car or something. It was a whole buildup. He would put the chair down, lie down on his back, and tap on the chair, all without ever missing a beat.” (Tiranoff and Haungs plan to incorporate the chair dance into one of their showcase numbers as an homage to Hawkins. A brief clip of Hawkins doing the chair dance can be seen around the 40-second mark here: tinyurl.com/hawkhawkins.)
Even as tap dance waned in the twilight of the vaudeville years, Hawkins kept on dancing and teaching aspiring tappers. “Tap had really been forgotten,” Hamilton says. “There wasn’t any tap on Broadway. There wasn’t Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk [which helped revive tap dancing in the mid-1990s]. And in Baltimore, Hawk really kept it alive.”
Hawkins died in 1994, but the dance he loved is alive and well, partly because master tappers like him passed down their knowledge. Haungs remembers fondly the jam sessions that Buster Brown once held in New York City. “Dancers knew it was a place to go where they would have an opportunity to dance,” she says. “And if they fell flat on their face, it was still fun.” In that spirit, dancers of all ages and levels are invited to bring their tap shoes and take the stage for the final jam of Masters of Maryland Tap.
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