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Who's Jazzy Now?

THERE IS ONE art form and one art discipline in both of which the United States reigns supreme--the form is dance, and the discipline is jazz music.

And our supremacy in dance is largely through one of its own disciplines, modern dance. Not surprisingly, modern dance and jazz find a special cultural communality in being indigenous to this nation--they are our special cultural gifts to the world. So why don't our taste for jazz and our taste for dance get together more often? And--slightly different question--what is this thing called jazz dance?

We all know what dance itself is--we would hardly be reading this magazine if we didn't--so let's first try to define jazz. The Random House Dictionary seems pretty sound, if a bit stuffy, on the subject, suggesting that after originating in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century it developed "through various increasingly complex styles, generally marked by intricate, melodic freedom, and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromaticism to, in recent developments, atonality."

Well, that's thorough enough, and the good old Random House even gives us a hint about jazz dance, calling it "dancing to such music, as with violent bodily motions and gestures." Here it has gotten perhaps a little simplistic, yet it's amusing to recall that when the Original Dixieland Jass [sic] Band arrived at Reisenweber's in New York in 1917, posters had to be displayed explaining that the music was intended for dancing. So perhaps the dictionary is right--jazz dance is dancing to jazz.

Yet entering the third millennium, with jazz music as such being with us for a cool century, it is now evident that the very term "jazz dance" covers a multitude of virtues and quite a few sins. Part of it is show-biz dancing--hoofer-gypsy stuff. But even this varies enormously from Busby Berkeley to Hermes Pan, from Jerome Robbins to Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, from Susan Stroman to Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Susan Marshall.

Take dancers for guidelines--was Fred Astaire a jazz dancer? Was Gene Kelly? Tap dancing and the Nicholas Brothers? Is there a relationship between jazz dance and tap? Think, musically, of the relationship between swing and bebop. But there is what you might call modern dance jazz dance--from Katherine Dunham to Donald McKayle, from, again, Robbins (think N. Y. Export, Opus Jazz) to Alvin Ailey. Art changes as it develops, sometimes morphing into shapes almost unrecognizable from its origins. Let us go back again to basics.

Why did jazz start in New Orleans around the turn of the last century? It was probably the French connection. In Louisiana, the French settlers imported slaves chiefly from West Africa, and being far less concerned with religious conversion than settlers in the Protestant zones, they were more or less tolerant of certain religious cults--hence the vaudun, or voodoo, of Louisiana and Haiti, a strange mix of cultures, religions and ritual observances. With this came African music, and until the middle of the 1880s voodoo drum dances (started at the beginning of the century) were permitted in New Orleans's Congo Square, presumably as a kind of safety valve for the oppressed black population. This was the black soil from which New Orleans jazz started. And here also was the ethnic dance element.

It was this ethnicity that brought a special quality to the anthropologist/dancer Katherine Dunham who offered an individual window on voodoo, jazz and jazz dance, and became the toast of Europe, as well as the United States. I remember her remarkable show Caribbean Rhapsody in London in 1948, a knockout dance revue with a knockout dance company (even including the young Eartha Kitt), opening with such items as the balleticized Choros, nominally from Brazil, and the ritual Shango with the fantastic Tommy Gomez; then in the second act, Dunham's most ambitious ballet, L'Ag'ya, where Dunham herself was a kind of Caribbean Giselle, and Lenwood Morris simmered as the Zombie King.

But it was in the third part, called Nostalgia, where Dunham explored the territory of jazz dance, with foxtrots and turkey trots, the blues and the Charleston and everything in between. It was show-biz, of course, but show-biz refracted through an anthropologist's prism. Dunham was a strange artist, but there was nothing quite like this compendium of jazz dance until in 1989 flamboyant Argentineans Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli staged their Black and Blue in Pads and New York. Which, with its Broadway stars, brings us back to tap-dancing and jazz, and to the likes of Honi Coles, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

Remember that all jazz dance is essentially social dance set to jazz or jazz-influenced music, and that tap dance is a crucial part of the jazz dance scene, although it would not normally be taught by a jazz dance teacher. But tap dance, as we know it, results from a remarkable early nineteenth-century fusion of the European jig (principally Irish step dancing and Lancashire clog dancing) and the African American form originally called juba, and typified by the man called Master Juba (William Henry Lane, often credited as being the inventor of tap-dancing).

Where do we stand, then, with jazz dance in the year 2000? The influence of jazz dance, like the influence of jazz itself, is so widespread that it is sometimes impossible to detect, let alone pin down. Quite simply it is part of American theatrical dance, cropping up everywhere. But certain classic and modern dance choreographers have revealed a special affinity for the jazz spirit. Alley, partly through his close identification with Duke Ellington, remains the prime example, perhaps, but others are as unexpected as Murray Louis with his work with Dave Brubeck.

Yet recall the original dictionary definition of jazz, which involved improvisation--for this so far is where jazz and dance part company. Some experiments have been made--notably, in my view, by David Parsons--but the improvisational skills of dancers are generally no match for jazz musicians, for whom the gentle art of ornamentation is almost first nature rather than second. But it would certainly be fascinating if this last but perilous barrier between jazz and dance could be surmounted.

Senior editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Title Annotation:jazz dance
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Previous Article:Hail TO THE Duke.
Next Article:Agnes and Martha and Ron.

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