J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

George T. Nierenberg’s No Maps on My Taps & About Tap

Lionel Hampton was the perfect bandleader to play for a late 1970s summit meeting of three highly accomplished tap dancers, who were still hanging on and actively performing. After all, he was a showman above all, who happened to marry a dancer (his beloved Gladys). Their show wasn’t merely well received. It helped spark a renewed interest in tap, thanks to the wider audience it reached through George T. Nierenberg’s documentary. Freshly restored, Nierenberg’s hour-long No Maps on My Taps (trailer here) and his half-hour follow-up, About Tap open together this Friday for a special week-long run, right in time for Tap City: the New York City Tap Festival.

Chuck Green was the senior member of the No Maps trio and he would be the only dancer appearing in both films. As the dancing half of Chuck and Chuckles, he toured the world, but he was also a survivor, who returned to active performance after a long period of institutionalization. He didn’t just have the steps and the seniority—his colleagues clearly were inspired by his dignity and gravitas.

Probably, the unofficial spokesman for No Maps is Bunny Briggs. He would be the one enjoying a cold beer before their performance. He was a charismatic performer, who always seems to be having great fun on-stage, but he is literally moved to tears when family members recall how much his earnings as a child performer helped them make ends meet.

George “Sandman” Sims is the teacher—and apparently also a bit of a trash talker. In No Maps, we see him teaching his little boy in the park, whereas On Tap opens with Gregory Hines (then the tap sensation as a Tony nominee for Eubie!) discussing all the impromptu lessons he received from Sims as a young boy working at the Apollo Theater.

Green, the constant for both films, maybe even tops himself with the sly elegance of his performance in About Tap. Hampton’s band was either on tour or otherwise unavailable for the second film, but the music is still suitably swinging thanks to the ensemble led by Broadway veteran Danny Holgate, featuring Seldon Powell on tenor and Grady Tate on drums.  Rather ironically, Steve Condos is the only About Tap hoofer not shown performing with the band, which also includes bassist Arvell Shaw, a former sideman with Louis Armstrong, whom Condos credits as one of his pivotal artistic influences.

In About Tap, the focus is more on technique than biography, but viewers still get some tap history from Jimmy Slyde, who was by then already considered a living legend. Then in his late fifties, his energy and style were undiminished. Indeed, you could say none of the tap artists featured in Nierenberg’s films had yet to lose a step.

Both films are just a lot of swinging fun. It is easy to see how the national broadcast of No Maps, coupled with the hit Broadway run for Eubie! rekindled national interest in tap. Hampton’s efforts toward that end were also rewarded with an Emmy Award for best musical direction (from the considerably less searchable news & documentary branch). These are culturally significant films that every jazz and dance fan will be delighted to see pristinely restored, courtesy of Milestone Film. Enthusiastically recommended, No Maps on My Taps and About Tap open together this Friday (7/7) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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