A NEW ORLEANS-style jazz band (The Legends of Jazz) and four classic, Harlem tap dancers (the Original Hoofers) together in a review? The combination is a happy one, as proven by the show, "1,000 Years of Jazz," which opens tomorrow night at Ford's Theatre.
"Jazz" has toured 19 countries in Europe and South America in the past year, is scheduled to go to Japan later this year and comes here fresh from New York's Lincoln Center. Its title, incidentally, derives from the alleged total of the 11 participants' ages. Never mind the shortfall of about three centuries, it's their combined experience that counts.
Ralph Brown, of the Hoofers, recalls, "I got the dancing fever when I was about 12 and, oh, my goodness, I started dancing professionally in 1931. I came from Indianapolis to New York and studied at the original Hoofers Club. After that I had the pleasure of joining the Mills Brothers and traveling with their show -- chorus girls, comedians and other dancers and Don Redman and his band played coast to coast. I went into the Cotton Club with Cab Calloway and Lena Horne in 1934 and after that I joined Jimmie Lunceford's band and then Count Basie and Billie Holiday."
Of his own stylistic approach Brown says, "I specialize in the combined soft-shoe and tap and I have a few steps I claim to be the originator of -- for instance, I call it 'heelology' when I cross the stage on my heels clicking my toes." Brown also commented on the styles of the other tappers in "Jazz": Lon Chaney, leader of the Hoofers, is called "the king of the paddle and roll -- he's tops in that," and George Hillman is "about the oldest active soft-shoe dancer." As for Jimmy Slyde, his trademark is "eccentric tap dancing with slides -- he's the sliding king." Expanding upon the definition of an eccentric tapper (an established term in show dancing), Brown explained it as one who "does slash dancing, lots of movement, like he rolls over like a windmill, doesn't stand up like the average dancer, dances flat-footed -- he's slipping and sliding all over the stage."
Drummer Barry Martyn, leader and founder of the Legends, commented on the unique quality of "Jazz," the production he has been with since its inception in 1979. "It's not what you call a slick, Broadway kind of presentation. It's just some of the greatest living New Orleans jazz musicians and Harlem tap dancers still doing their thing."
Martyn has an unlikely history for a New Orleans-style jazz drummer: He grew up in London and moved to this country only a decade ago. Peer pressure led him into a "gramophone shop" at the age of 12 in the early '50s, and he ended up with a 78 rpm of Louis Armstrong, the only record the store had left that day. "It wasn't very popular with the kids on the block," he remarks. In the first of many visits, he went to New Orleans in 1959 to interview surviving older musicians (his biography of the late Barney Bigard will be published soon) and to play with them. "I wanted to learn to play that music," he confesses, "and act like those guys, talk like 'em, eat like 'em, drink like 'em, everything."
The collective histories of the individual performers cover a lot of jazz territory. The four dancers' careers reach back into the '20s and '30s, as do [the band members'] (except for leader Martyn). Trombonist Clyde Bernhardt was with King Oliver in the '30s and with Fats Waller in the '40s. Alton Purnell played piano in the group that accompanied legendary trumpeter Bunk Johnson. Similarly, reed player Floyd Turnham toured with Les Hite and Duke Ellington, trumpeter Herbert Permillion has played with brass bands in his native New Orleans and bassist Adolphus Morris has been a member of several New Orleans-style bands on the West Coast. The youngest member of the troop is vocalist Deborah Woodson.
For details on tickets and showtimes, including Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees, call 347-4833. The show runs through Oct. 10.