Tap Dancing & the Jazz Band

So, back to jazz; this technique of rhythms simultaneous rhythms, playing against each other, is, of course, not limited to the jazz break. It also happens within the smaller patterns of rhythm in "hot rhythm." The break is just a bigger block of syncopation. In "hot" improvisation the flow of the musical form is likely to be the same. Some extreme forms of hot jazz is in effect just along series of breaks. An example of this in a somewhat different form, that of dance, is tap dancing, (a sort of dancing you can see demonstrated brilliantly in the old black-and-white Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire forms, if ever watch that sort of thing when they come on TV. When I was younger, these old films are shown quite regularly on television, but I can't say I've seen any answer some years now which is a great pity.) Tap dancing is a great example because it is purely percussive, and therefore relatively simple. The tap dancer is typically accompanied with what is termed "stop time." The orchestra, or instruments, accompanying them play, quietly, the bare skeleton of a jazz tune. This skeletal outline consists of a series of short, clipped chords marking the main melodic features of the tune, which are normally coincident with the pulses of the fundamental rhythm. "Stop time" rarely involves a syncopation; only, in fact, when the syncopation is so characteristic a feature of the original melody that it can't be missed out. The tunes used to accompany tap dancing are usually slow ones that offer relatively few melodic complexities per phrase, and their "stop time" versions often contain an average of only one or two chords, or notes, per part.


The tap dancer embroiders a rhythmic improvisation on top of this framework. The chords of the "stop time" accompaniment provide points of reference for the dancing; in other words with a widely spaced series of pulses representing the fundamental rhythm. The tap dancer's improvisation interacts with this rhythm, filling up the intervals between the "stop time" chords with percussive patterns and poly rhythmic cycles that impose a different set of accidents from that given by the fundamental rhythm. (And in the case of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, there are two sets of rhythmic patterns, one from each dancer, which sometimes are in unison and sometimes move apart to generate complex rhythmic patterns. Brilliant stuff! You can get something similar to this effect with an Irish ceilidh band, where the bodhran player will interact with the musicians playing the bones producing similar rhythms to the tap dancers, and playing those against the rhythm of the musicians who are playing the basic tune. It's something that can make Irish ceilidh music so exciting.)


As in the case of the "break," the tap dancer's phrase represents a leap into rhythmically wild improvisation, followed by a relieving return to the normality of the fundamental rhythm. There is a juxtaposition of two conflicting rhythms . Each time interval between the chords of the "stop time" accompaniment is a small percussive "break." The listener's sense of rhythmic orientation is disturbed by the syncopation of the dancer's feet producing a sense of disquiet which is later resolved by the reintroduction of the fundamental pulse which appears just where his had continued in their mind. This device is used in Irish step dancing, which is a form of tap dancing. This kind of dancing is really done it ceilidhs, as it takes many years of practice to learn to do it, but sometimes it is a ceilidh when there are a lot of Irish present one will find there are a few people who are experts this kind of dancing. The Irish ceilidh band will then play for them to perform a demonstration dance. Typically the ceilidh band would play music that they also play the general grouped dancing, but when played for the tap dancers it reaches a completely new level of excitement, the rhythms that they are producing adding to the excitement, certainties and uncertainties of the rhythm interest the same way as the tap dancing described above. This is what has made groups like Riverdance so popular.


In hot jazz there is much more involved but the principle is the same in that there is a constant fight between the unexpected, restless, challenging rhythm of the hot melody and the regularity of the fundamental pulse that has come to be known as as "swing." The best examples of swing are in improvised jazz when even the musicians themselves are not quite sure what is going to happen next and the music takes on the aspect of a tussle in which individual players may actually try to mess each other up, as well as the audience. Remember some years ago when I was teaching violin from the Worcestershire and Herefordshire education authorities (I never got to work for Gloucestershire, which is a pity because I could have called myself the three choirs violin teacher) remember going to a workshop given by a jazz bass player. He was talking about improvisation in hot jazz, and the fact that sometimes you haven't a clue what's going to happen next or where it's going. He said his technique was simply to play what seemed to be appropriate and to fit, as soon as it stopped working to shut up for a moment then diving again. All sounds a bit like a barroom brawl when you're fighting, but suddenly might find yourself chucked out of the brawling group. The pub brawl enthusiast will sway around momentarily on the outskirts of the fighting mass, then roll up their sleeves and dive back in again to enjoy a good punch-up. One of my sons is in the Warwickshire police, so I hear plenty of stories about bar room brawls - I have an expert in the family!  Jazz is a more civilised version of this, though sometimes when it gets really exciting, perhaps it isn't any more civilised). When you get a situation where the musicians, dancers and audience are all desperately trying to hang on to their sense of rhythmic orientation on the one hand but are violently disturbing it (or listening to it being violently disturbed) on the other, the result is jazz in its purest and best form.



Of course, jazz isn't the only kind of music where this happens. For example, the Hindus have built an elaborate and subtle musical art, whose rhythms are infinitely more complex than any so far dreamed of in jazz. (I think I've mentioned before in my ramblings that I once played ceilidh fiddle music with an Indian tabla playing friend of mine, who regrettably doesn't live anywhere near where I play with my ceilidh band, and it was an amazing and eye-opening experience, with rhythms and tonality coming from that tiny drop that I just couldn't get my head round but had an immediate enlivening and enriching effect on the music.) It's well worth comparing jazz with Western music because of what it says about its origins, and some aspects of jazz have nothing at all to do with Western music.


In some ways jazz is one of those gifts that the great American nation has given to the rest of the world. It is rather similar to the Internet, which was originally developed as an American military system to allow continued communications in the case of a nuclear attack, with distributed systems meaning that communication would automatically be rerouted elsewhere if a part of the systems destroyed. America gave this to the world as a free gift, and although the rest of the world use it for peaceful purposes, America and other nations also use of military purposes. So out of that things have come good. And jazz music has similar explained later.

Another gift given by the Americans to the world is GPS satellite navigation, again developed for military purposes and then given freely to the world and now an everyday part of life with in car navigation, mobile phones and all sorts of things using GPS. Another example of good things coming out of bad.

So how does this relate to jazz? If it wasn't for slavery in the southern states of America, there wouldn't have been a high concentration of Africans with their traditional music living in a part of a country that interfaced with European immigrants. If it wasn't for this interface between Africans and Europeans, the music that came out of the African slaves folk music under been modified into jazz, with the availability of western European instruments, and the subsequent influencing of that original African folk music and religious music to develop the big bands of the 1940s. And having developed this, basically as a result of the slave trade, America has given it to the rest the world. Jazz is everywhere. So jazz and the jazz band can be considered American gifts in the same way as the Internet and GPS, products of American generosity (that was pre-Donald Trump of course!). I also guess that the British can take some credit for the development of jazz as they were major slave traders in the past.