GRAHAM-JACKSON: Baby at Birdland.1 The Sand.1 Mall March.1 HERMAN-PIERCE: Buck Dance.1 JACKSON: Concerto in Taps.1 Baby’s Walking Blues.2 SCHOENBERGER-COBURN-ROSE: Whispering.2 YOUNG: Delila’s Theme.2 PARKER: Moose the Mooche.2 Ornithology.2 YOUNG-PERKINS: Lullaby of the Leaves 2 / 1Paul Quinichette, t-sax; Nat Pierce, pno; Skeeter Best, gtr; Al Hall, bs; Osie Johnson, dm. 2Bobby Jasper, fl/t-sax; Roland Hanna, pno; Arvell Shaw, bs; Gerard “Dave” Pochonet, dm / Classic Jazz CDBY 5637215125 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking individual tracks above
I was 25 years old in 1976 and had known jazz critic and historian Ralph Berton for about five years when he pulled out the LP listed above and proudly showed it to me.
“Who’s Baby Laurence?” I asked, naively.
“Who’s Baby Laurence? Are you jivin’ me?!?”
“No. I’ve never heard of him.”
“He was the greatest jazz tap dancer in the world!”
But I still hadn’t heard of him. I knew of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, John Bubbles, The Nicholas Brothers (who didn’t know about the Nicholas Brothers?), Bunny Briggs, Sammy Davis Jr. and Hines, Hines and Dad, the latter a famous tap dancing act of the time who had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show several times. Gregory, one of the junior Hineses, went on to become one of the most famous tap dancers of his day.
“Well, except for Bunny Briggs, none of them are jazz tap dancers,” Ralph said. Then he explained the difference to me: most tap dancers just danced in rhythm to the music they heard, but Laurence, and Briggs, actually created new, more complex rhythms when they danced. They were jazz percussionists, not just dancing for flash.
As it turned out, there was a reason why I’d never heard of Baby Laurence. Like most tap dancers—including the phenomenal Nicholas Brothers—his career went into a tailspin during the 1950s and ‘60s when tap suddenly became passé. In addition, he only appeared on American TV twice, once on a Hollywood Palace show hosted by Sammy Davis Jr, who idolized him, in 1967, and once on the Mike Douglas Show the following year, and I missed both of those shows.
But listening to that record, which you can do by clicking on the titles above (it was reissued on CD by Classic Jazz in 2008 and thankfully uploaded on YouTube), you can hear what I heard—and be blown away by it. Laurence creates such complex cross-rhythms with his feet that your mind spins just trying to keep up with him. Several years later, after I had moved from New Jersey to Ohio, I played the record for a friend of mine who professed to liking tap dancers but who wasn’t a jazz fan in the least. His judgment was that Bay Laurence just danced “a standard military tap.” I almost broke the LP over his head, I was so angry!
But thankfully, you don’t have to just rely on aural evidence to recognize how great he was. One intrepid soul has been kind enough to upload Laurence’s complete Hollywood Palace appearance HERE and, better yet, someone else uploaded an even better (and longer) display of his awesome talents in a half-hour 1981 British TV documentary on the legendary dancer HERE. The latter includes an astonishing amount of real jazz tap footage shot, apparently by an amateur cameraman (once in a while Laurence’s feet disappear from the screen, but thankfully not too often), during a live outdoor performance in Baltimore, Maryland in 1972, two years before he died. The documentary also includes some footage shot in a Harlem dance studio. At one point, going back and forth between Baltimore and Harlem, Laurence gives us the complete history of tap dancing and how it evolved, naming all the important innovators of the art. He also explains how he came to be a dancer and specifically a jazz dancer.
Laurence Donald Jackson was born in Baltimore in February 1921 but wasn’t originally a dancer. He was a boy soprano at the age of 12 and that year sang with the McKinney’s Cotton Pickers’ band in that city. When famed bandleader Don Redman came to town he heard him, was impressed, and asked his mother if Laurence could tour with him. His mother gave her consent (“She almost had to,” Laurence once said; “I was so hyperactive she couldn’t keep me in school anyway!”) provided that Redman would promise to get him a tutor to complete his education, which the bandleader did.
But Jackson didn’t stay with Redman very long. Touring with Redman on the Loewe’s circuit, when they hit New York he visited the Hoofers’ Club in Harlem where he saw and met dancers Honi Coles, Raymond Winfield, Ronald Holder and Harold Mablin. The latter took the 13-year-old under his wing and taught him how to tap dance, but as Laurence put it, “He gave me the devil because I turned all his steps around, and pretty soon he just gave me ideas and I went on from there.” When he eventually returned to Baltimore with Redman he learned that both his parents had died in a fire, which unsettled him emotionally. He later told jazz critic Marshall Stearns that he never “got used to the idea” that both his parents were dead because “they always took such good care of me.”
At this point, Laurence and his three brothers formed a vocal group called The Four Buds and tried to make it in New York, but the quartet broke up when Laurence was offered a job as featured tap dancer in a club owned by another former dancer, Dickie Wells (not to be confused with Count Basie’s star trombonist of the same name), who nicknamed him “Baby” and encouraged his dancing. Baby got turned on to jazz when he worked at the Onyx Club with the newest jazz piano sensation in New York, Art Tatum. Fascinated by what Tatum was doing with fracturing rhythm on the keyboard, Laurence picked up on it and began developing into a jazz dancer. In addition to working in clubs in Cincinnati, Washington, D.C. and of course New York, where he eventually played at the Apollo Theatre, Laurence danced a lot in after-hours sessions with famous jazz musicians, Tatum included. His second jazz “epiphany” came when he heard Charlie Parker for the first time, and from that point on he was determined to stay with creating intricate rhythmic patterns like a jazz drummer. “In a 16-bar solo,” he often said, “I could create at least 32 different rhythms. Sometimes I’d create up to three different rhythms in one bar.”
When the tap dancing decline hit, many famous dancers who had been around for years, including the Nicholas Brothers, decided to call it quits, but somehow Laurence and Bunny Briggs survived because of their high reputation with jazz musicians. Nonetheless, due to financial woes as well as alcohol and drug abuse, Laurence stopped dancing for a few years, eventually returning to the limelight shortly after he recorded his one LP. He was featured in a dance number with Honi Coles, Pete Nugent and Briggs at the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival, but it wasn’t until Hines, Hines and Dad re-established tap again in the late 1960s that Laurence re-emerged from the shadows and became something of a star once again. In 1973 he established his own dance studio in New York, appeared at the Palace Theater with Josephine Baker, and also taught tap at the Jazz Museum. He seemed set to become a star once again, giving another triumphant performance at the New York Newport Jazz Festival.
But sadly, it didn’t last. He contracted lung cancer and died at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital on August 5, 1974. He was only 53. His funeral at the Emmanuel Church in New York was highly unusual, much more of a celebration than a eulogy. Nearly every surviving tap dancer in or around the city showed up to reminisce about how much they admired Laurence, and then tap-dance their hearts out. It ended up being more like a party than a funeral!
Somehow, I think that Baby Laurence would have wanted it that way. He didn’t just love what he did, for him it was the only life he was even halfway comfortable in, and it meant all the world to him that at least part of his audience “got” what he was doing artistically and didn’t think it was just a show-off act. And now, thanks to this recording and these film clips, you can see and hear how great he was, too.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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