Nowhere was the emergence of jazz more explosive than in turn-of-the-century Paris. While resistance to black dancers and musicians was still public policy in the United States, performing stages in the French capital were wide open. Parisian audiences flocked to movie theaters, cabarets, and music halls to experience the intoxicating vigor of black music and dance.
Coincident with the infusion of black performing talent from the United States, an elitist cultural crisis was occurring in Europe. The conventions of nineteenth-century Romanticism in pictorial representation and musical expression could not make meaningful cultural commentary on the twentieth century's new-paced technology.
Painters and sculptors saw on the dance floor and theater stages bodily configurations that spoke to their quest for contemporary models designed for the new society. Painters Picasso, Picabia, Leger, and Severini; sculptors Brancusi, Lipchitz, and Archipenko, as well as the photographer Man Ray, made imaginative interpolations of them into their art.
Jody Blake's Le Tumulte Noir: Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris 1900-1930 tells the story of those years in France with a clear, detailed, and sympathetic presentation. European modernist composers Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Sir William Turner Walton, and Maurice Ravel, to name a few among many, and contemporary American composers George Antheil, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin embraced jazz rhythms and phrasing as eagerly as had the visual artists. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1999; $65.00. ISBN: 0-271-01753-B).
Despite their wide influence, jazz musicians in the United States were to be found in small, segregated clubs excluded from the larger performing stages and marginalized in films. Paul Whiteman's "symphonic" jazz band played in the classical shrine of Carnegie Hall during the 1920s, but it was not until seven decades later that the incorporation of Jazz at Lincoln Center recognized the permanent place of jazz as a cultural component along with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Opera. Jump For Joy: Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates "The Ellington Centennial" 1899-1999 is an elegy to Duke Ellington and is Jazz at Lincoln Center's first published book (New York: Jazz at Lincoln Center Inc., 1999, $24.95 paper. ISBN: 0967037700).
The Nicholas Brothers--two impeccably turned-out young men with legs widespread in midair--leap from a lofty perch and land in a split several feet below, then rise to their feet as smoothly as a closing pair of scissors, a feat that they performed throughout their careers on stage and, later, on screen. Their long professional life stretched from dancing in segregated black circuit theaters, to segregated movies, and finally integrated movies and on national television. Their story is recited in Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers by Constance Valis Hill, with foreword by Gregory Hines. (Oxford, England and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. $22.50. ISBN: 0-19-513166-5).
Born early in the twentieth century to musical parents (Viola, piano; Ulysses, drums), performing was a part of the brothers' family life. They took regular "lessons" watching acts in the theaters their parents played in. There was never any question that they would turn professional when opportunity arose, and they debuted in 1930 in Philadelphia on an amateur radio show, dancing unseen to an audience who heard the rhythm of their taps.
Their first film appearance was in Pie, Pie Blackbird the following year, dancing to Eubie Blake's orchestra. A stint at New York's Cotton Club added tuxedo polish to their partnership. It was a heady time for an 18- and an 11-year-old. Brought to Hollywood by MGM, they appeared in four movies in three years before returning to the Cotton Club, with a foray to London for Blackbirds of 1936.
They appeared in an additional seven movies during their next Hollywood stay and made the transition to television. Harold had an impish wit and Fayard wove garlands of emotive gesture with his eloquent hands. The story of their rise to popularity as jazz music evolved from ragtime to bebop is firmly traced in Brotherhood in Rhythm.
Savion: My Life in Tap is an as-told-to story (Savion Glover to Bruce Weber, with a foreword by the ubiquitous Gregory Hines) of the most talented of the new breed of tap dancers who embrace street attitudes in their art. It is designed for young readers; sophistication was then, funk is now! The difference in time is that performing opportunities now exist inside theaters and not outside on the sidewalks where tap was previously forced to develop.
An early teacher called Glover "The Sponge" because he could faithfully replicate the diverse styles of all the performers he studied. An acknowledged child prodigy, he was well known by age 12, and a Broadway star before his twenty-first birthday. His desire is to take tap to the next level, and to do that he has gone back to the hard-tapping basics of previous generations of stomp-heavy dancing. But he performs it with the finesse of a knowledgeable inheritor of the tradition. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 2000. $19.95. ISBN: 0-688-15629-0).
Jazz and jazz dancing continues to grow and develop, and now it's in the American mainstream for all to see.
Don McDonagh is a contributing editor of Dance Magazine.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2000|
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