Peabody dance faculty Brinae Ali celebrates Baltimore tap dancer’s birthday, legacy with concert and research project
Interdisciplinary artist Brinae Ali started being asked if she knew about a Baltimore tap dance legend shortly after she moved to the city in 2018. A tap dancer and vocalist, Ali would join a jazz ensemble onstage and, inevitably, after the show somebody would come over and ask, “Have you ever heard of ‘Baby’ Laurence?”
The Peabody dance lecturer, who started tapping when she was three, has not only heard of the extraordinary dancer and vocalist born Laurence Donald Jackson in Baltimore in 1921, he was a bit of tap urban myth for much of her life. Jackson died in 1974 at 53, making him a presence Ali and her tap generation had heard about but never got a chance to see growing up. She was nearly 20 when she first saw footage of Jackson dancing, while hanging out with friends in New York City in 2000 watching videocassette recordings of old tap dancers.
The men and women approaching Ali after concerts are local elders, people whose living memories might recall when Jackson was the only tap dancer to release a jazz album as a bandleader. Or when he was profiled in The Baltimore Sun in the 1960s and early ’70s. Or when his obituary appeared in The New York Times. Or when he was featured in a short documentary called “The Jazz Hoofer: The Story of the Legendary Baby Laurence” that was broadcast on Baltimore television in the 1980s. Or when he was regularly named dropped in local print alongside Baltimore’s other jazz legends.
Today, Baltimore’s Jackson is renown among tap dancers but less so in his hometown, one of the many reasons behind Ali’s “Baby” Laurence Legacy Project that aims to rekindle interest in Jackson’s indelible impact on jazz. The research and performance project is supported by a New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project production grant and the Johns Hopkins Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts, where Ali is the 2022-23 Artist in Residence.
“There will never be another Baby Laurence,” Ali says during a Zoom interview while discussing Jackson’s role in jazz history. At 12, Jackson sang with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, a popular early jazz band, before working the vaudeville circuit with bandleader Don Redman. By 13 he was living in New York after both his parents perished in a fire in their home, working at Dickie Wells’ nightclub; the former dancer and nightclub impresario also nicknamed him “Baby.” Jackson frequented the Hoofer’s Club, a 12-by-12 room in the back of a comedy joint on Harlem’s 133rd Street where the greatest tap dancers of the day hung out and challenged each other. One, Harold Mablin, took Jackson under wing and taught him to hoof.
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Jackson was not only listening to but playing with restless explorers such as pianist Art Tatum and saxophonist Charlie Parker in afterhours New York sessions, becoming one of the many tap dancers involved in fertilizing that wildflower of midcentury afro-modernism: bebop.
“He was both the musician’s musician and the dancer’s dancer,” Ali says, emphasizing how Jackson, and other tap dancers of his era, understood the artform as a musical one for the ears, not simply an entertainment for the eyes. As part of her research, Ali’s been listening to jazz recordings from the 1930s whose horn phrasing informed some of Jackson’s improvisational vocabulary.
“It can be challenging to execute the type of clarity that he had,” she says, an observation of Jackson’s virtuosity that also zeroes in on what makes tap such an elusive and ephemeral American artform. It literally has one foot in dance’s movement and one in music’s rhythmic and melodic possibilities. As a vernacular artform it hasn’t been institutionalized by the training curricula of conservatories and dance institutes—Ali notes that she can count the number of colleges and universities that offer degrees in tap on one hand—which means it hasn’t been as formally documented and popularly understood by the larger dance and music professions and general audiences.
“A lot of this art form is really preserved through oral history,” says Ali, who would know. The Flint, Michigan, native was born and raised in a family that threads arts and activism together, which she continues in her own practice. Her father Alfred Bruce Bradley founded a pivotal tap nonprofit organization and festival in Flint and Ali and her sisters came up in the close-knit tap community.
“For me growing up, I would always hear a lot of stories,” Ali says. “There would be forums that would be organized at tap festivals where some of these different tap masters, who are not here anymore, would be present. And we would just sit and listen to them talk and talk and talk.”
So when people in Baltimore started approaching her after performances asking if she had ever heard of “Baby” Laurence, “I would almost immediately want to ask, ‘What do you know?,” she says. Ali wants to connect with Baltimore’s reservoir of tap stories, wherever they may be, through the “Baby” Laurence Legacy Project; she frequently threads him into her local appearances. She dedicated a dance to Jackson during her performance at the October 2022 Walk of Remembrance to honor the lives and legacies of the people enslaved on Homewood Campus.
In January, Ali started a series of events at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center called “Sunday’s @ the Eubie” that aims to bridge the gaps between musicians and dancers. She also recently appeared on WYPR’s “On the Record” with Sheila Kast talking about Jackson and the project. And in February she celebrated Baby’s 102nd Birthday Celebration with the Baltimore Jazz Collective—which Peabody jazz faculty members Kristopher Funn (bass) and the Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair Sean Jones (trumpet)—as well as Associate Professor Wendel Patrick and the Peabody Tap Ensemble to reimagine Jackson’s music through original compositions and choreography.
Jackson’s relative obscurity today is a familiar example of how quickly artists can fade from memory. Like too many midcentury jazz musicians, postwar entertainment upheavals made work scarce for Jackson by the 1960s, and he moved back to Baltimore in 1963. Tap historians know less about this period of Jackson’s life as he faced lean years, inconsistent employment, substance use issues, and few performance opportunities: a 1966 Sun profile mentions a brief nightclub run and a small speaking part in a Peabody musical.
The late James Dilts, a former Sun writer and Baltimore architecture and jazz historian and advocate, produced the 1981 documentary short “The Jazz Hoofer,” which includes Jackson dancing at an early 1970s street festival in Fells Point that was the first footage Ali ever saw of Jackson in motion. In 1991 Dilts wrote a Sun op-ed about the general state of disrepair of the Famous Ballroom, the legendary 1717 N. Charles Street home of the Left Bank Jazz Society from 1966 to 1984 that brought a who’s who of jazz greats to Baltimore. The op-ed is a modest plea for preserving local jazz history and includes a list of the major jazz figures who called Baltimore home: Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Ethel Ennis, Billie Holiday, Ellis Larkins, Chick Webb—and, of course, Baby Laurence.
According to available online media archives, Jackson’s name doesn’t appear in the Sun again until 2002, when Coppin State University and the Creative Alliance partnered on a tap program celebrating Baltimore greats. His name next appears last fall when the paper spoke with Ali.
“Baby Laurence was always educating, not just entertaining, and that was a big thing for him in the later years of his life,” Ali says, pointing out how in the “The Jazz Hoofer” Jackson’s performances are effortlessly dazzling, impromptu tap history lessons. “He was very eloquent with his words, and I’m trying to uphold that tradition and find ways to keep it current. I feel like there’s not as strong a representation of tap dancing in this community as there is in jazz music, and it’s the home of one of, if not the greatest, tap dancers to have ever lived.
“I want to remember this man,” Ali says. “I want to know about him as a human being. And I have this intuitive feeling that some memories reside here in this community that have been hanging out in people’s minds.”
By Bret McCabe