A balance, a truth, a battle, an understanding: Jumaane Taylor’s “Ugly Flavors” in progress: a response by Adam Zanolini

In the fall of 2020, tap artist Jumaane Taylor had a production residency co-sponsored by the Chicago Dancemakers Forum and the Dance Center of Columbia College where he and his collaborators worked on a new piece, “Ugly Flavors.” In partnership with CDF and the Dance Center, PRJ helped pair musician, ethnomusicologist, and arts organizer, Adam Zanolini, with Jumaane Taylor as part of the Embedded Writers Program.

images by: Kristie Kahns

********************

I was given an assignment, like a reporter, to embed myself within a choreographer’s process as he brings to life a work of dance set to two truly revolutionary musical works: Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come, and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. If I hadn’t been familiar with Jumaane and his penchant for undertaking ambitious projects, I would have been skeptical. It’s very difficult to imagine someone tap-dancing to these two works. The first represents essentially the beginning of the jazz avant-garde, which by its definition disrupts the strict relationships between melody, form, rhythm, and harmony that I assumed to be key structural elements that tap dancing must rely upon. The other is a ballet – one so revolutionary it started a riot when it was first debuted, but a ballet nonetheless – and a piece that seemed just as full of irregularity and idiosyncrasy as Shape of Jazz to Come. When Jumaane told me the idea, I was delighted and intrigued, but I couldn’t imagine what he was planning.

I should say, although I was trained as an ethnomusicologist, my knowledge of dance is limited. I still have little vocabulary to analyze or describe dance and no experience writing about it.  As a scholar of jazz and other Black music, I consider my scant knowledge of tap dance to be representative of a markedly Eurocentric approach to music scholarship that separates music from dance, which I unthinkingly adopted through training in Eurocentric institutions, and which I have since failed to overturn. So this assignment was a welcome (overdue) challenge for me. Still, rather than an analytical approach, I decided to record more of a narration of my experience of Ugly Flavors, both as an encounter with this particular work and also as a remarkable entrée into tap dance more generally as a significant yet largely unexamined pillar in the history of jazz.

In order to complete my assignment, I attended two of Jumaane’s rehearsals and then viewed the performance when it was presented as a live-streamed video via Youtube.com.  Finally, I had an hour-long phone conversation with Jumaane about two weeks later, after I had recorded my raw impressions of the experience.

Before first encountering Jumaane in 2014, the only time I witnessed tap dance and jazz together was at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, maybe 2010 or so, not long before that place closed.  I remember thinking how truly remarkable that evening was because it was exceedingly rare to see tap dance at a jazz club. What I witnessed a decade ago was an actual battle on stage between two older dancers, whose moves were unbelievable for their age. It felt like a performance of history, a taste of the real Harlem of old that nobody knew was still there.  Speaking of his practice in general, Jumaane remarked that his work has partly to do with bringing tap dance back to the table, where it has been excluded from the jazz scene for decades.  And so part of the revelation of this experience, of this work, has been simply to ask the question What happened to tap dance in jazz?

Jumaane invited me to attend my very first tap dance rehearsal at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. It was a friday afternoon when I was welcomed into a downstairs rehearsal studio, where I settled into an out-of the way corner to observe. The experience was at first somewhat jarring. They were just returning from a lunch break, and each young dancer was practicing certain challenging steps, each to him/herself, independently: something like a band tuning up, warming up…except all as loud as possible. The result was an overwhelming barrage of aggressively rhythmic, thunderously percussive volleys I could feel through my chair.  About five minutes of rhythmic cataclysm rattled my liver and alerted me that although the music was familiar, this experience would be anything but.

Soon though, Jumaane got everyone focused again. He was an incredible teacher, charismatic and spirited, extremely focused but also relaxed. Watching him harness that energy and channel it into his vision was remarkable and seemed only possible because of the force of his passion for this work. He was working with two young men and a young woman. Jumaane would later describe them as students that had shown an uncommonly expansive interest in pushing their dancing forward. One of them had constantly probed into Jumaane’s process of practice and preparation. Another had been fascinated with old forms and films of the original performances of the music they were working with. The third had pushed him to make space to just dance freely and to connect with the natural forces that cause us all to need to create – the creator in each of us perhaps. And so these were the thirsty dancers that inspired him as much as he inspired them, and watching them all grow together in the rehearsal and throughout the realization of the piece would be as beautiful to witness as the realization of the work itself.

Once he’d gathered their attention, he began with a short departure from Ugly Flavors in order to explain to them something he’d learned from a previous piece he’d created, which focused on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. As they listened to “Countdown,” Jumaane was telling them that the key was to transcribe the drum solos and to construct steps from those rhythms.  This insight showed me that in very concrete ways, Ugly Flavors was a continuation of his previous work creating choreography to unexpected and seminal jazz albums. It was also an important preface to what I was about to witness in his approach to Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.”

They then resumed the real work for the day, working on Ugly Flavors from the beginning. The music began with a series of trumpet long-tones that was part of neither Shape of Jazz to Come nor Rite of Spring. These long-tones stirred particularly strong feelings and curiosity in me because the playing of long-tones was a key practice advocated by my teacher, trumpeter (historian, astronomer, herbalist, harpist, Frankiphonist…) Kelan Phil Cohran. When I later asked Jumaane about a connection with Bro. Phil, he told me that the long-tones had actually been sampled from a recording of Kanye West. And so that connection was only in my mind. Still, for me, that imagined connection elevated the entire project to a higher plane of spiritual purpose, which Jumaane described as his intention behind including that preface.

The beginning of the dance was structured as a series of unaccompanied solos danced during the silences between the long-tones.  It seemed as though each dancer in turn was dancing in a different meter – three, four, five, seven – although they were not accompanied by any music. I had never heard anyone tap dancing in 5/4 before!  His working in odd meters further reinforced my sense that he was not just creating some performative oddity here but that he was deliberately engaged with the musical explorations of the 1960s jazz universe that Coleman’s groundbreaking album represented. When I spoke with Jumaane on the phone later, he explained that these unaccompanied solo spotlights were opportunities for the younger dancers to stretch out – to be the most themselves before helping him to realize his vision. The creation of this piece wasn’t simply to realize his vision. It was a process of development not only for him, but for the other dancers as well, and it was important that they have space to express themselves.

When “Lonely Woman” began, I could finally see how Jumaane had choreographed tap dancing to this piece as well as the extent of the work they had already done through the morning. The dancers were in unison, adding a highly syncopated rhythmic focus to the music that took advantage of the drums’ steady beat despite the soloist’s departure into anguished lyricism.

Watching and hearing them tap dance to “Lonely Woman” truly changed the way I hear that very familiar song. Perhaps the most distinctive and revolutionary thing about the piece is the way Ornette allows the haunting melody to transcend the meter, almost floating above the constant pulse of the drums, cymbals, and bass. What was so groundbreaking about Ornette’s work was that he freed the melody from the rhythmic-harmonic cycles of chord changes that structured earlier forms of jazz.  While for most musicians they provided an almost endless field of possibility to create, Ornette showed how the changes can also be limiting. In many ways, it was the beginning of free jazz, which would become freer and freer over the next five decades. I’ve always been swept away by the deep, sorrowful pathos of the melody, by the passion of Ornette’s solo, and by how different the piece is from what had come before. However, the dance they made was locked into the meter. The intricacy of their syncopations emphasized the beat, which the charging cymbals insistently drive forward. With the beat foregrounded, I suddenly heard this piece in an entirely new way.  I exclaimed (in my notes), “Ornette’s solo is funky! I mean, that dude was funky as hell!” It was a revelation about this piece of music I’d been hearing and performing for more than a decade, brought on by this extremely unlikely choice to tap dance to “Lonely Woman.”

Maybe that’s why Jumaane has to do this.  It’s opening my eyes to an entire dimension in the music that’s been lost.  Jazz used to be dance music!  Some people might say, it’s supposed to be dance music. Along the way, it turned into music to sit and contemplate, silently, motionlessly.  Which is cool, but how much have we lost by this? 

So that’s where my mind has been throughout this experience – thinking about jazz and dance, what’s happened to divorce jazz and dance.  Can we engage new audiences by animating the music with dance, or by helping them to participate again through dance?  And what can we learn about the music by dancing to it – putting it into our bodies?  But then, on the other hand, I also wonder how this highly structured dance evolved from earlier forms of tap-dance that were more improvisational? What’s the relationship between composition and improvisation in tap dance, and does that relationship parallel that relationship in jazz. To what extent is that tension mirrored between the two expressive forms? And is there a similar lack of respect for improvisation in Eurocentric dance institutions to what I’ve found in Eurocentric music institutions. 

Back in the rehearsal studio, the dancers turned to the second Ornette song, “Eventually.” Here the format changed. The macro structure of this dance was a direct reflection of the overall structure of the music: Jumaane and one other dancer performed a choreographed section to go with the head, and then another dancer flew into an improvised section to go with the improvised saxophone solos. Similar to the instrumentation of the music, with the sax and trumpet in unison, the two dancers in unison reinforced the fact that it was composed; otherwise, its tempo, complexity, and syncopation might suggest an improvisation. I think this reinforcement was even more important for Jumaane’s choreography because with Ornette’s music, he could lean on the precedent set by Charlie Parker, whose complex compositions sound like they could be improvisations (and whose solos could be compositions).  That relationship between improvisation and composition – between extemporaneous creativity and planned coordination – seemed equally fertile ground for exploration and play in both music and dance.

In a great many ways, Jumaane is a jazz musician whose instrument is his feet, as well as a composer and bandleader as he teaches the steps and rhythms to the other dancers.  He is also a great technician on many levels. I was struck by the mechanics of this rehearsal. They had to blare the music on the lackluster speaker in the practice room, which strained passed its limits and distorted the sound, because they needed maximum volume in order to hear the music over the sound of their feet and never lose touch with the beat. Also, jumaane was constantly placing his phone on the ground in order to record the steps for later review. In addition to teaching them the steps and blocking, he was also thinking about lighting cues, how they would walk on and off stage, or simply direct the lighting to illuminate one dance at a time during the solos. Jumaane later told me that he teaches in the theater department at Roosevelt University, and in retrospect, I can see how that experience might have helped him think through all the aspects of this piece.

The second half of Ugly Flavors is set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. As the rehearsal turned to this piece, I watched the dancers start to learn entirely new elements of choreography, which was a fascinating process. During the introduction, which includes some of the work’s most familiar themes, the dance was much more gestural, and it left large amounts of space – moments when the dancers were still, or when they were simply moving to another part of the stage. There was almost no tapping. The dancers bowed in different directions, and each of them put an ear to the ground. During the discussion following the virtual presentation of the piece, Jumaane would reveal that these gestures had to do with acknowledging the earth, its natural forces, the wonders of spring itself. 

The “Augurs of Spring” section begins with an extremely strong meter that dominates the music expressed by a constant pulse in the string section, which then moves around to different sections of the orchestra. This is where the original ballet began, and where Jumaane’s tap dancing choreography began as well. I was surprised at how well tap dancing fit! It seemed most appropriate – not at all forced as I had expected – because of so much emphasis on the beats.  After the rehearsal, I would go back and watch the original ballet again, and I could see how Jumaane had drawn upon Nijinsky’s choreography, which began with a group of dancers hopping rhythmically to this pulse.  In my ultimate conversation with him after the performance, Jumaane told me how much easier it was for him to create this part of Ugly Flavors than the Ornette section, largely because Stravinsky’s beat was so clear and unperturbed.

While the first few seconds of the “Augurs of Spring” section were almost quoted from Nijinsky, Jumaane’s choreography quickly became more and more complex, more and more physically challenging. Jumaane was drawing from an extensive library of steps, concepts, and historical references in terms of styles and figures in dance that made me realize how much I don’t know.  I found myself jotting down fragments of his lexicon of nomenclature: old school “walk around” step, a “shave and a haircut,” into a “Brazil”. They were doing a standard wing, then a more difficult 5-count wing with flaps. I would later return home to research Jimmy Slide and Baby Laurence, get hip to Jason Samuels and the Syncopated Ladies. 

When they were nearly finished for the day, one of the dancers asked something I’d been wondering: whether Jumaane choreographed by improvising. He said no…that he had worked out all the steps to go with the movements in the music. Certain parts (like the shuffle at the beginning of the Rite of Spring) came from the original ballet.  I asked whether they were learning all this for the first time. It was hard to believe they were. I thought perhaps he had given them some notes or a recording beforehand, but no, they were just learning directly in real time as I watched. It was astonishing. Not to mention, these dancers had been at it for probably eight hours, and they were still going, asking to go over the entire Rite of Spring section again even as they stretched out their weary legs.  I implored them to take a break and drink some water! The physical exertion required to do these steps, let alone do them over and over until they could get them right, was really hard to believe.  Being able to memorize this extraordinarily long string of complex rhythms was beyond my comprehension. I thought, if I were seated comfortably making these rhythms on a drum I think I’d be struggling. I couldn’t imagine trying to express them by continually lifting my entire body off the floor. Perhaps they were trying to approximate the feeling of the sacrificial dance until death that is the climax of Rite of Spring.

While I was watching the rehearsal, I was struck by unexpected parallels between this project and hip hop. First of all, the music is used in a way its producers could scarcely have intended.  By 1959 when Shape of Jazz to Come was released, jazz had largely ceased to be thought of as music to dance to, and meanwhile tap dancing was in sharp decline.  It seems unlikely that Ornette Coleman would have imagined someone tap dancing to it. Rite of Spring was written specifically for a very different style of dance. Yet, these recordings are put to a new use, recycled in some ways like the records that were mined for the breakbeats used for early rap music. The music is the inspiration for the dance, but in many ways, the content of the musical recording is subordinated and overshadowed by the dance and new rhythms that are added on top and foregrounded as a radical new production. I also felt that the rhythms Jumaane used reminded me very much of the cadences I hear in rap.  When I asked him about this, he said that on the way to the studio to choreograph or rehearse, he listens to hip hop – KRS One or A Tribe Called Quest – and that’s the way he calibrates his internal metronome. My observation of this connection led to a discussion about the common African roots in all this music – that it all fits together because they’re all limbs of the same creative tree. They’re all forms of music and expression that are in deep conversation with each other, flowing into and out of each other. I often think about the ways that the divisions and disconnections between rap and jazz (blues, gospel, funk, R&B, soul…) were more a product of the largely white-controlled recording and entertainment industry than of the Black community they came from. Talking to Jumaane caused me to consider again how jazz and dance have been divorced in a way that rap music and breakdancing have become separated, although they had originally formed the core of hip hop culture along with graffiti art.  Jumaane explained how this project, Ugly Flavors, is part of a larger goal of bringing dance back to jazz, and also pushing the dance to expand along with the music so that the music and the dance can enrich each other and exist together as coequal aspects of collective creative production.

I returned two weeks later, which was the day before the live streamed performance.  Whereas the previous rehearsal had taken place in a practice studio, they were now in the theater along with a tech crew. The dancers had tightened up the piece considerably, and this was more like a dress rehearsal.  It still had rough patches here and there, but I could see how the work had solidified significantly.  The lighting had become a major component. It was now almost another performer along with the dancers, not only creating distinct moods on stage, but also demarcating the space.  This dress rehearsal was my most memorable experience of the piece.  I must admit that, while the virtual presentation the next day was the most polished and complete, the experience of being in the space with the dancers, feeling their impacts on the floor and the effect of the lighting, was incomparable. While the covid-19 pandemic made it necessary to present the work virtually, I sincerely hope that this work can be finished and then presented in person in its entirety sometime soon. 

When performed in its entirety, the piece begins with an introduction – a blessing and then a speech – which I later learned included words from Mos Def and Kanye West. The introductory words set the tone for the meaning of this performance. More than entertainment, it says something about freedom, about strength, about a spiritual rootedness, and about a drive to push beyond what’s safe and familiar. Ornette and Stravinsky were pioneers, facing serious opposition to their drastically new approaches. When he first came on the scene, people threatened to beat up Ornette and screamed for him to get off the stage. There was a riot when Rite of Spring premiered in Paris. Stravinsky is one of the first salvos of modernism in European art music, and The Shape of Jazz to Come represents the beginning of the jazz avant-garde. Jumaane would later explain that the title of this work of dance, Ugly Flavors, is the theme that brings them together. Anything new – truly, radically new – sounds ugly at first. In jazz, the moldy figs hated the beboppers. The beboppers hated the new thing. It was an ugly flavor. An unfamiliar taste is often unpalatable at first. Nobody is born liking spicy food; it’s the opposite of mothers’ milk: painful.  When you’re a kid, you like simple, bland, sweet flavors like vanilla ice cream.  But then you drive towards maturity, and you learn to appreciate spicy, smoky, and sour, eventually pungent, alcoholic, and even bitter flavors. The unfamiliar is always ugly at first.

I think it’s the same with the Europeans’ encounter with African bodies and cultures – unfamiliar at first, they were frightening, off-putting, even if they were endlessly fascinating to them. African cultural production, African ways of speech, dress, music, dance, were at first ugly to Europeans – first maligned as lower, then accepted as lower, then appreciated (even if they’re lower, you don’t mention it), then exploited, adopted, appropriated, and owned by Europeans and Euro-Americans. However, in the aftermath of Europeans’ brutality towards Africa, Our encounter with Ourselves as African beings who have been forced to internalize a European set of aesthetic criteria is revolutionized by embracing what they would find ugly. Do you want to find your true Blackself? One good move is find all those parts of yourself they think are ugly, and make them louder, make them stronger, put them at the center, shine light on them.  Do ONLY those ugly things for a while. Find the power in your growl, in your wail, in your stomp, in the kinky hair you were hiding, the stanky, funky stuff you wouldn’t do in public. So that’s part of where the avant-garde became liberatory for Black people… that is, people who learned to capitalize Black the way we once only capitalized Negro.

This journey into Jumaane’s process – into his unfinished work – has left me with an unfinished piece of writing, with a bouquet of loose ends, a tangle of interrelated questions, lines of inquiry, and areas of research that I haven’t even begun to tackle.

The decline of jazz as dance music

The confluence and then the divergence of jazz and tap dancing; a common origin and spirit, shared history torn apart

Parallels between tap and jazz in themselves as expressive forms and genres: Improvisation vs. composition; belonging to the past, reaching for relevance in the present, constructing a sustainable future; Institutionalization and conservation vs. innovation and radical reinvention

Parisian fascination with primitivism in 1913; the Parisian encounter jazz c/o James Reese Europe in 1918

Jazz and African Americans in mid-20th century Paris; Art Ensemble of Chicago and the AACM

Considering Stravinsky and Coleman together; emotional rawness

Ugliness and rejection; hateful reactions: Adorno vs Stravinsky; Miles Davis vs Ornette Coleman

I’m very grateful for this opportunity to experience and write about dance.  Sadly it’s entirely possible to be a scholar of jazz and still know relatively little about the history and evolution of Black vernacular dance. I’m grateful to Jumaane for making it easy for me to start thinking seriously about dance, and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this piece take shape and watching my own ideas come more sharply into focus.        

-Adam Zanolini