You might expect a drummer to take a leery view of tap dancers. After all, tap dancers create their own crisp rhythms from floor and shoe leather — sort of infringing on a percussionist’s turf.
But Sherrie Maricle exudes laid-back elation when she talks about her working relationship with Maurice Hines, whose chatty dance-bolstered concert show, “Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life,” runs at Arena Stage through Dec. 29. “We feel music the same way,” Maricle says of Hines, who has been her frequent collaborator for more than 20 years.
Sitting for a pre-performance interview in an Arena conference room, shortly before going onstage to check and adjust the tension on her drumheads (her regular pre-show ritual), Maricle — looking casual in jeans and a gray sweater, with tousled hair — elaborated on the musical sensibility she shares with Hines. Both, she says, have “the same affinity for the classic American songbook standards,” for music that’s “very straight-ahead, swinging, great melodies, with interesting arrangements — stuff that just makes the audience want to tap their foot.”
In the case of “Tappin’,” that means big-band-style versions of classics such as “Come Fly With Me” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” sung by Hines and accompanied by nine members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, the acclaimed New York-based all-female ensemble. Maricle is the leader of DIVA, which was founded in 1992, and she serves as both music director and drummer for “Tappin’ ” (which is co-produced by Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and the Cleveland Play House). At each performance, she sits at her drum set, toward the front of the onstage band, issuing subtle directive cues: a gesture with a drumstick here, a drumroll lead-in there, maybe a sotto voce count as a wave of applause crests in the Kreeger Theater.
Her nightly drumming-conducting turn represents just one aspect of her contribution to “Tappin’,” which draws on a roster of songs that she and Hines have performed over the years: She also penned the overture, and she wrote and arranged additional snippets of music that the director, Jeff Calhoun, felt were necessary to give the show better form and flow.
Maricle recalls, for instance, that during the rehearsal process, Calhoun requested some added instrumental bars for a scene in the show that features two sets of local tap-dancing brothers: John and Leo Manzari, and Max and Sam Heimowitz. Right then and there, “I sat at my snare drum with a piece of paper and sketched this [sequence] out,” Maricle says.
“The nature of jazz music is improvisatory anyway, so when someone asks for something, of course it’s in my nature, and in the nature of my band, to be able to do that spontaneously,” she says. Plus, that kind of a challenge is “really fun.”
Maricle started gravitating toward jazz as a child growing up in Endicott, N.Y. In fourth grade, she wanted to learn the trumpet. “My music teacher told me that women did not play the trumpet, and I was forced to play a metal clarinet, which I hated,” she remembers.
Fortunately, two years later, the school’s band director needed someone to play the bass drum: Maricle volunteered. Then, when she was 11, a teacher took her to a concert featuring jazz drummer Buddy Rich. It was a transformative moment: After the show, “I ran home and I told my mother I was going to be a jazz drummer,” she says.
After graduating from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1985, Maricle moved to New York City, where she enrolled in graduate studies at New York University. She hadn’t intended to pursue an advanced degree, but the program allowed her to focus all her attention on learning about and playing jazz. “It was like being in heaven,” she says. She eventually earned a PhD in jazz performance/composition from the school, writing a dissertation that covered the history of percussion concertos. (In the “Tappin’ ” playbill, she is listed as “Dr. Sherrie Maricle.”)
While playing a gig in 1990, Maricle met Stanley Kay, a former backup drummer and manager for Buddy Rich’s band who had gone on to become Hines’s manager. Impressed by Maricle’s talent, Kay began calling on her when Hines needed a percussionist.
Kay also came up with the concept for DIVA. Maricle, now 50, says that before Kay proposed the idea, she had “shied away from all-women projects,” worried that such undertakings would emphasize sex appeal, or gimmicky novelty, “versus genuine musical passion and talent.” Kay’s reputation dispelled such worries, however, so Maricle signed on to DIVA. Over the years, the group has performed at distinguished venues at home and abroad — Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center; festivals in Austria, Germany and Colombia; and more — and has issued multiple recordings.
What is more, Maricle says proudly, the group has “done a lot to transform stereotypes” about jazz being predominantly male terrain. (Maricle also leads the quintet FIVE PLAY and The DIVA Jazz Trio, two sister groups to the 15-member DIVA. )
Maricle, who shares her life with her partner and cats, resides in the Delaware Water Gap region of Pennsylvania when her skills are not needed in the Big Apple. (She is also the drummer for the New York Pops.) During the run of “Tappin’,” she has been commuting back weekly to New York to continue the musical outreach work she does with pediatric cancer patients and their families through Ronald McDonald House New York.
“She is not only a great musician but a great person,” Hines said in a pre-show interview in his dressing room. He particularly appreciates Maricle’s flexibility and can-do attitude: The overture she wrote is “really fabulous,” he says, but if by any chance he hadn’t liked it, he knows she would have cheerfully discarded that draft and tried a new approach. “She doesn’t have any kind of attitude. She’s a true team player,” he says.
And Maricle’s musicianship and high standards help keep the “Tappin’ ” band members operating at peak performance, Hines says. “They make me want to sing!”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Through Dec. 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.