Is jazz dance able?
Is jazz dance able? That might be a question on the minds of those who may just have gotten into the music. The short answer is yes. There is a common narrative that once jazz ceased to be a popular music in the early 1940’s, that the music ceased to be dance able, but jazz has always remained so, if not perhaps in the mainstream public. Jazz in the 1920’s prior to the bebop revolution of the 1940’s was America’s popular music, and had been at the center of a significant cultural movement, the Jazz Age in the 1920’s. The Jazz Age found America riding high following World War I, and the politics of the era lean towards conservatism. The music was prized for it’s syncopation and freedom and was the backbone of rebellious attitudes, prohibition was the norm, where people would imbibe their favorite elixirs. Velvet voiced poets like Langston Hughes aimed their prose to match the rhythms and inflections of the music, women exercised their rights, and challenged societal norms of gender roles. New dances were created, the Charleston and the Lindy Hop and others were based on African ritual origins. Dancing to jazz did not stop past the heyday of the swing era.
In a 1992 interview for Jazz at Lincoln Center the great pianist Barry Harris was interviewed by the late drummer Billy Higgins. In that interview, both men had stated that when they first encountered Charlie Parker, it was not in concert hall settings but dances. They remarked how casual listeners tuned in to the intricacies of bop were able to match their steps to the various tempos, and nuances. At one point during the interview, Higgins mused about a gentleman on roller skates who was able to tap dance perfectly to “Now’s The Time”, adding further credence to the sophistication of the dancers. The 1947 film Jivin In Bebop depicts dancers impressively romping to match the gale force intensity of the large group swinging with the ferocity of a small band. Though Jivin In Bebop received lukewarm reviews from critics such as writer Phil Hall who called the dancing “dull and frequently silly”, the film is nonetheless an important document in showing jazz being danced to beyond the swing era and backs up some of the observations made in the interview with Harris and Higgins.
Dancing to jazz continued into 80’s when jazz music started to be played on the club scene in Japan and the UK, some of the moves as seen in the 1947 film would pop up, used by a whole new generation. The fashion of bebop dance took it’s cue from the clothing styles exhibited by Parker, Gillespie, Monk and others, and aptly named in tribute to the genre. Brothers In Jazz was also a prominent group in this movement, and in the Chick Corea Elektric Band video for the track Elektric City, a quartet of dancers is seen performing to the music A Youtube vide linked below shows young Japanese dancing to tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s tune “Minor Chant” as recorded by organist Dr. Lonnie Smith on Finger Lickin’ Good (Columbia, 1967). A recent article from the Smithsonian discusses the fascinating processes by which some dancers use their entire being to find the beat. Further, the implications of jazz and connection to dance can be found in Elvin Jones’ floating ride cymbal beat or that of Roy Haynes, which sounds completely like a tap dancer, with the sudden flurries of snare and bass drum comping. Haynes tapped danced so the parallels are apparent when critically listening. Jack DeJohnette also was a tap dancer, and rhythmically the way he plays when swinging conjures not just dancers but also the movement of boxers likeSugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali.
The New York Jazz Workshop offers courses like From Bebop To Hard Bop taught by Mark Sherman which can illuminate in more detail the rich connections in jazz history and teach the students the language they will need to be fluent in these idioms.