Gregory Hines, 1946-2003

Gregory Hines, 1946-2003

by Jane Goldberg

copyright © 2003 Jane Goldberg

Originally published in Jazz Notes, the Journal of the Jazz Journalists Association

"I want to tap for the people, Jane. I want to bring tap dancing to the people." Gregory Hines said that to me often while walking down West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, where we lived across the street from each other during the 1980s.

Gregory was taking tap into the mainstream on Broadway with shows like "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Eubie," movies like "White Nights," "Cotton Club" and "TAP!" I and others who also caught the tap bug were taking it into downtown lofts, performance art spaces, the village vanguard, Jacob's Pillow and the American Dance Festival, where tap had been shuffled out of the public eye for years. We were part of the great tap revival of 1978, when tap was blossoming in all kinds of venues and Gregory Hines became the leader of the pack.

Gregory and I began talking tap backstage during his work in "Black Broadway." One night I was looking for John Bubbles, the "father of rhythm," who put tap dancing into the jazz bracket by syncopating the heels and instead, tripped over Gregory, stretching on the floor in second position. Bedroom eyes always catch each other, but we were tap dancers. I already knew from an interview I'd read in the Times that he wished he had someone to talk about the old mentors like Bunny Briggs and Honi Coles. I was a disciple of both those men, just 20 years later. It was the last scene of "Casablanca," the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Even in my last interview with him in July '03 (and what turned out to be his last interview with anyone), we talked about tap as if his cancer didn't exist. Neither of us knew how long he had, but he was one hopeful hoofer. He even showed me how he walked now compared to last year, saying that it was much worse last year.

We immediately began arguing about whether tap was a sensibility or "all in the feet." "I know it when I see it and when I hear it," he'd say. "The time is in the feet. It1s all there . I play drums and I play OK drums, but I drag the time when I play. There were times when I've been playing that I could feel myself dragging the time and I'm trying to get back. The bass player has got it and I'm dragging it. I just love watching a person who's got great feet and the time is impeccable. One of the great things that separates tap dancing from everything else is that you see the body move and you hear the body move. If I'm watching somebody and their movements have a beautiful grace to them, but their feet are not happening, I'm not saying that they're not good dancers. But it's feet that really impressed me the most."

Over the years we talked, and when the discussion turned to the future of tap, Hines would always talk about Savion Glover. He likened Glover to Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, who revolutionized the world of basketball with blockshots, by keeping the ball inside the court.

"Savion took tap dancing and he changed it changed how people saw it, changed how people wanted to learn it, learn how to do it; changed how people wanted to perform it and put it to the degree that if you want to see the progression, you have to see Savion last. You want to see "Riverdance," cool, you want to see "Lord of the Dance," you want to see "Tap Dogs," "Stomp"? See them first. Don't see "Bring on Da Noise/Bring on Da Funk" and then go to "Tap Dogs." You can't do that. You have to see "Tap Dogs," enjoy it for what it is: sound, hunky guys dancing in various forms of undress, dancing on water, then you go to "Noise/Funk" and see what tap dancing is, where it is, where Savion continues to take it."

I wish now I'd have been a "tapomane" watching him improvise every night on Broadway in "Sophisticated Ladies," that early '80s show, the way balletomanes avidly watch the growth of performers during the seasons of the New York City Ballet or the American Ballet Theater. No one really "followed" Gregory's dancing, except possibly his best friend, musical director, and drummer, Barry S aperstein, who had played with him ever since "Hines, Hines and Dad" worked the Catskills at the tail end of vaudeville. Gregory made a living for his family doing his nightclub act in concert, university, and Vegas settings when he wasn't doing movies, television and tap benefits. Always, tap benefits.

Just look at what he wrote the 21-year-old tapper/producer Jason Samuels-Smith in the late spring of 2003: "Jason, well, I'm looking forward to the Los Angeles Tap Festival, my brother, and I've got a real good feeling about how it's gonna be received by the city1s dancers and tap lovers . You know how I hate to bring up the money issue, but I've found over the years, it's very important to keep all cards on the table. So, please Jason, make sure my $5 fee is stated clearly in the contract. Don't make me have to hunt you down like a dog to get my money!!! You make me so proud my brother. Love, Greg Hines."

He had that kind of loving attitude, it seems, toward anyone with a pair of tap shoes.

C o m m e n t s

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