Ghosts of Tappers Past

Squeezed against the wall of a basement dance studio just off Wilshire Boulevard, I watched a run-through of Steve Zee’s All in Good Time, his new one-man show, which just had a short sellout run this past weekend at Cal State Long Beach. Zee is always worth watching for his tap-dancing skills, but this show also paid homage to the legendary tappers he’s worked with. I especially wanted to hear about Eddie Brown, to see how it looked when Zee danced like Brown and compare Zee’s rendition to my own memories of Eddie, who spent his latter years in Los Angeles.

Of course, Zee had a take on Gregory Hines, who died last August at 57, near the height of his fame, just months after an exhilarating one-man song-and-dance tour that was fully intended to defy death. Because Hines knew he was dying of cancer even though few others did.

Zee demonstrated how Hines could hold an audience rapt by improvising something out of nothing — like incorporating invented tap steps into an imagined jaunt to a coffeehouse. Okay, Zee isn’t Hines. But you got a feel for the Hines magic as Zee pounded out rhythms reminiscent of Hines’ cheerfully magnetic style.

For the late Harold Nicholas, the younger of the famed Nicholas brothers, Zee recalled the time when an elderly Harold, too frail to dance, had to be carried from dressing room to stage — a painful contrast to the younger Harold, who could sing, dance, act, and also turn a flip, land in a split and pop back up in a second.

As Zee told it, the aged Harold retained to the end his sense of how something ought to be done. When he sang “’S Wonderful,” for instance, Nicholas remained in complete command, even directing the process by pointing at the musicians who were to solo at any given instant. (Older brother Fayard Nicholas, by the way, still lives in the Los Angeles area.)

Zee’s own greatest mentor was Stan Kahn, a Bay Area tap master. As a teenager, Zee stepped over drunks in a urine-scented alley off Market Street, before reaching the mecca inside, the Embassy Theater studio run by Kahn’s wife, Pat Mason. Kahn was so meticulous that he developed a famous shorthand notation for writing down steps. In one segment of the performance, Zee illustrated how the shorthand works.

What a contrast with Eddie Brown. As if Brown ever wrote down a step . . .

He’d invent combinations on the spot, and often forget them just as quickly. Yet he’d know instantly if you did something wrong, even when he couldn’t remember exactly what the correct step had been.

Brown didn’t show for Zee’s first lesson in the mid-1980s. When Zee reached Brown by phone, Eddie said he’d be there in an hour. He didn’t say anything about arriving sober. Zee followed Brown, who ‰ “bobbed and weaved” down the hall into a hellhole Hollywood Boulevard studio lit with bare light bulbs. The floor was composed of chipped, uneven parquet slabs.

“He puts on his shoes and I’m wondering how he’s going to dance,” Zee recalled in his monologue. “But when he starts to go, he is the Eddie Brown I saw onstage the week before. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never heard anything like it. It was not tap dancing. This guy was playing melodies with his feet.” Zee found that in a lesson with Brown, “There was very little teaching and very little conversation. I learned how to learn by watching and listening.” Then, Zee performed Eddie’s trademark BS chorus.

There’s more that Zee might have said about Brown, of course. About how Eddie lived in a thimble-size but painstakingly neat apartment and never paid more than five dollars for shoes on Hollywood Boulevard. About how he hated when people would mistake him for Sammy Davis. About how suave he looked in his blue polyester shirt with the white polka dots. About how his idea of restaurant heaven was Norms, though I once foolishly insisted on taking him to a sushi bar. About how an ordinary lady named Virginia Conti would collect the fee for Eddie’s lessons, because Eddie didn’t like asking for money himself.

Eddie Brown died in 1992. But some of Brown’s students, including me, still gather every Saturday to re-create his routines and devise new ones as well.

In his performance, Zee remarked that, in a strange way, it’s not young people who represent the future, but old people. There’s something to that, I suppose, as long as someone’s paying attention to the elders. At his best, Zee depicts how pain, loss and poverty are partly the soul of art — and of tap as well as its cousin jazz. And yet tap also is undeniably and indivisibly the sound of rhythmic joy and percussive laughter. For the moment, with Zee in that basement studio, it was enough for me to be transported fleetingly to the past.


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