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Brown, James “Buster”(1913–2002) - Dancer, choreographer, Moves from the Autumn Follies to Duke Ellington, Sees Bright Lights in Europe

tap called city film

According to his website, when asked by an interviewer to define “funky,” tap dancer, teacher, and choreographer James “Buster” Brown would reply, “Funky? That’s when you look like it smells bad.” He would wrinkle his nose and do a funny dance, bringing laughter to anyone who was in the room. What the interviewer was likely getting at was that it was Brown himself who defined funky and not in the off-putting and smelly sense of the word. One of the most prominent figures in the world of tap dance, Brown is cited as an inventor of the art form, and certainly an influence on later entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines. Brown’s career spanned more than seven decades, from vaudeville to Broadway to an appearance in the Hollywood film Cotton Club . Brown made his name touring internationally as a soloist with Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and his own groups, the Hoofers and the Copacetics. Brown died in his sleep on May 7, 2002.

Born James Richard Brown in Baltimore, Maryland on May 17, 1913, Brown was the son of William Brown and Marie Ella Otho-Brown. He learned tap on the streets. “The guys around my time, we all learned on the street … Never classes,” Brown told radio host Liane Hansen in a 1999 interview for National Public Radio. “We’d teach one another, ‘If you show me your step, I’ll show you this step.’” They danced, he added, to the sounds of bebop era in jazz.

Moves from the Autumn Follies to Duke Ellington

Brown began dancing for an audience at age sixteen with two friends at an annual high school show called the “Autumn Follies.” The three performers, who called themselves Three Aces, began touring the United States in the 1930s. His next act, the Speed Kings, also a trio, was known for its precision and rapid-fire tap dancing, acrobatics, and jive; it toured the United States and Canada for several years with the Brown Skin Models and the Rudy Vallee Show. Other acts Brown worked with included Beige & Brown and the Entertainers, sharing bills with Sarah Vaughan, among many others.

In 1989 Brown participated in a roundtable discussion with fellow African American entertainers for the PBS-TV show Frontline , in a segment called “Talented, Black and Blue.” The group discussed the racial climate between white stars and black acts in the early days of the stage. “We (blacks and whites) couldn’t be on stage together sometimes,” Brown recalled. “A lot of the times … when you were on stage you couldn’t touch.” The group acknowledged that the arrangement was just accepted, never brought to light, because performers feared losing the opportunity to be on the stage at all.

As a soloist, Brown traveled the world. He also appeared in the 1943 film musical Something to Shout About , starring Don Ameche.

Around 1949 tap went dormant. Brown suggested it happened about the time that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson died. “Dancers seem to have gone out the same time that Mr. Robinson died,” Brown told Hansen on NPR. “Everything about dancing went out.” Dance stayed “out” until the 1970s, and Brown had to find other means to support his family. Among his interim jobs he worked as a hotel clerk and as a janitor.

Sees Bright Lights in Europe

Though tap was out of the spotlight in the United States, Brown found audiences abroad were eager to watch him perform. He danced in jazz festivals in Berlin and other European cities in 1966 with a group called the Harlem Uptown All Star Dancers. The group, which included Jimmy Slyde, Chuck Green, and Baby Laurence, later became the legendary tap crew known as the Hoofers. The Harlem Uptown band included jazz icons Papa Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Illinois Jaquette, Milt Buckner, and Jimmy Woode. Brown then traveled to Africa, where he gave a command performance for Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Lion of Judea Coin.

The long hibernation caused many of Brown’s peers to walk away from the stage and follow other pursuits, but when tap came back into favor, Brown was ready to dance. He danced on Broadway in Bubbling Brown Sugar and Black and Blue . He appeared in the films Tap and The Cotton Club with Gregory Hines. His TV credits include the PBS specials Great Performances: Tap Dance in America, Gershwin Gala , and the Dick Cavett Show . He was featured in the tap documentaries Great Feats of Feet, Fancy Feet , and Tap Dancin’ .

Chronology

1913 Born in Baltimore, Maryland on May 17

1920 Starts performing in a trio called the Three Aces

1930 Begins touring the United States and Canada

1940 Tours as a soloist with Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington

1943 Appears in the film Something to Shout About

1966 Tours Europe with the Harlem Uptown All Star Dancers

1967 Travels to Africa to perform for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie

1976 Dances on Broadway in Bubbling Brown Sugar

1984 Appears in the film The Cotton Club

1989 Appears on Broadway in Black and Blue

1989 Appears in the film Tap

1997 Starts hosting weekly Tap Jam in New York City

2002 Receives honorary doctorate from the School of American Dance and Arts Management at Oklahoma City University

2002 Dies in New York City on May 7

During the 1990s, Brown toured as a guest with concert tap companies. The 1995 Broadway musical Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk honored his influence on modern tap dancers. In 1997, Brown started hosting a weekly Tap Jam in New York City. Every Sunday, tap dancers and fans would flock to Swing 46, a Manhattan   jazz club on West 46th Street. The event was marked by Brown’s genial hosting skills and enthusiastic support for anyone who wanted to “hit the boards.” Regulars to the club included a range from old friends from Brown’s vaudeville days to throngs of children breaking in their first pair of tap shoes. He hosted the weekly event until just before his death.

In 2002 Brown was among nine tap legends awarded honorary doctorates by the School of American Dance and Arts Management at Oklahoma City University. “As we looked at the world of tap, we realized that many of its creators were still alive, ignored by society, mostly because they were black,” John Bedford, the school’s dean, is quoted as saying in the San Antonio Express News online. “We decided to recognize those who created the art form, as well as the art form itself as a reflection of American culture.” The lively ceremony was filmed for a documentary called The Doctors of Dance .

Brown died in his sleep on May 7, 2002 at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, just ten days shy of his eighty-ninth birthday. In a memorial on Brown’s website, actor and tap dancer Gregory Hines is quoted as saying: “There are no mixed reviews when it comes to Dr. Buster Brown. He had no mean words to say about anyone. And no one had mean words to say about him. He was a role model.” The memorial’s author, Max Pollack, continued, “Not only did he amaze every single musician and dancer he ever worked with through his effortless artistry, he could also ‘outhang’ them all at the bar after the gig. Dr. Buster Brown was the quintessential Gentleman.”

Brown, Jim (1936–) [next] [back] Brown, James

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