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How Tap Dancers Can Improve Their Bebop Knowledge

What is bebop? How can you answer that question in an advanced tap class?

I had renewed interest after Jimmy Slyde's death when talking with musician and caretaker for Slyde, Roger Reed. Ardie Bryant's discussion of bebop during classes in New York for Tradition In Tap provided additional food for thought.

Three of the leading bebop musicians emerging from the swing era were Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.

Ardie Bryant had the opportunity to dance with Charlie Parker's group in San Francisco. He explained that there is a difference in tap dancers who dance to bebop music and a real bebop tap dance percussionist.

"I was introduced to bebop music in 1945 when I was 16," Bryant recalled. "I came home from school one day and heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker on the radio. I had been dancing to swing music all my life, which is of course a 4/4 beat. When I heard the complicated rhythms of the bebop musicians, especially the drummer, I said, ‘I want a piece of that!' It took me two years of dancing to the recordings to learn how to get in and out of the flow of the musicians. So much of what I was learning came from the drummers. A drummer can challenge a dancer and has the advantage of his instrument to overpower the dancer. A dancer needs to be able to gain the respect of a drummer. The rhythms are similar because, as I have said many times, I am not a tap dancer; I am a jazz tap percussionist. That's a dancer who improvises like a jazz musician and taps like a jazz drummer."

Ardie met Charlie Parker in San Francisco in 1947 at Jimbo's Bop City. "I was introduced to him by the owner outside the club. Charlie asked me what I did and I told him I was a bebop dancer. He did not know what I meant and asked me to demonstrate. So, I danced for him on the sidewalk in my street shoes. He smiled a big smile and said, ‘That's Salt Peanuts.' Then he invited me to dance with him and I had my first opportunity to interchange with the bebop musicians, live. What a debut! The drummer immediately challenged me and I quickly responded. We developed a mutual respect and the evening was a huge success, much to Charlie Parker's delight."

Roger Reed, a jazz guitarist and music teacher, and I had several discussions on the subject:

"We are conditioned to use music as background noise for our partying, dining, working, driving, running, reading, worshipping, doing homework and so on," said Reed. "Simply listening, paying full attention, giving unfamiliar music a second hearing, studying or caring about music are unintelligible concepts to most people...Yet, with an open mind, it's easy to do those things. And from that will come the love necessary to connect with any style of music. Without love, it's merely work, and it'll feel and look like work, and any joy will be smothered in effort." Reed is also an accomplished pianist. Check him out playing his composition dedicated to Jimmy Slyde, "Slydology" on YouTube.

So how do you learn to become a bebop dancer?

First, you have to know the standards. What in the world are standards? Standards are the beautiful songs that live generation after generation....the best of the best. If you go to, you will see a list of 1,000 rated in order. You can click on any of them and it goes to information about the song. You can even hear them sampled through Amazon from different artists. It is an interesting website. Most of the top 50 were written in the 20s, 30s and 40s. However, "Satin Doll" was in there and written in 1953. My favorite song is "Body and Soul," and I was proud to see it listed as number one. "Take the A Train" is number 23 and "Honeysuckle Rose" is number 15. Check out the first 50 and see how many you know.

You have to know the standards before you can understand any bebop versions. "It is a different way of navigating through the chords," says tapper Andrew Nemr. The bebop versions are called contrafacts.

From the Wikipedia dictionary:

"A contrafact is a new musical composition built out of an already existing one, most often a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure. As a compositional device, it was of particular importance in the 1930s/1940s development of bop, since it allowed jazz musicians to create new pieces for performance and recording on which they could immediately improvise, without having to seek permission or pay publisher fees for copyrighted materials (whole melodies can be copyrighted, the underlying harmonic structure cannot be). Contrafacts are not to be confused with musical quotations which comprise borrowing rhythms or melodic figures from an existing composition."

As Reed explained, "These are called 'quodlibets' (translation: what you please) and are regularly employed by many jazz players during solos."

In classical music, contrafacts are traceable back through many years. Reed explained, "The Latin roots of contrafact (contra=opposite; factum=compose) may be of interest and that the practice originally involved replacing secular texts with sacred ones."

Of course, you have to study and listen to the music.

Here is a partial list of standards followed by the bebop version title:

How High the Moon/Ornithology Cherokee/Koko Back Home in Indiana/Donna Lee Whispering/Groovin High Out of Nowhere/217 E. 32nd My Old Flame/A Ballad for Lennie Body and Soul/A Knight in a Village All the Things You Are/ Ablution What Is This Thing Called Love/Subconsciouslee What Is This Thing Called Love/ Hot House Honeysuckle Rose/Scrapple from the Apple Honeysuckle Rose/Out on a Limb Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise/Bup a Loup I Got Rhythm/Moose the Mooche I Got Rhythm/Anthropology I Got Rhythm/ Salt Peanuts I Got Rhythm/Shaw Nuff I Got Rhythm/Rhythm-a-Ning I Got Rhythm/Oleo

I hope the information will be valuable for those who need to explain or have an interest in exploring the wonderful world of jazz and bebop music!

If you know the standards, then you can hear them in the bebop version. You can't appreciate the bebop version and the artists' improvisations without knowing the original. It is fun and exciting, yet an intellectual musical challenge. All tap dancers should enter this exploration and enhance their music and tap education. It is an adventure that you will continue to enjoy. The knowledge of bebop will elevate you to a different plateau in dance.

* A little history…..

Special appreciation to my 100 –year-old mom who played both jazz and classical music on a large grand piano we always had in a crowded living room. She often played for my dance tuition and still plays occasionally. Music was always there. My late husband, Jim Huber, also played beautiful jazz piano. How fortunate I was to have always had music in my home. My interest in jazz and bebop in the 40s gave me the inspiration to improv when performing in the Austin area, where I went to college and had my first dance school. It connected me with the jazz musicians who played for my performances. Thanks to Roger Reed and Ardie Bryant for their knowledge and love of dance and music. Anne Bryant knows jazz too. I am sure that connected her with Ardie!


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