Honoring the Genius of Eddie Brown : Dance: Friends and colleagues plan a benefit for the underrecognized genius of tap.


It's OK if you know, but don't tell tap master Eddie Brown about the foot-stomping, rhythm-dancing benefit show planned in his honor Sunday at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica.

The 73-year-old dancer doesn't usually read The Times so it's safe to report that the show will feature plenty of tap colleagues who care about Brown, including Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Strickler for starters and groups including Rhapsody in Taps and the Jazz Tap Ensemble.

The guest of honor will be Brown. The wispy, soft-spoken man is less known than many who will pay him homage. But to a small, dispersed community of tappers, Brown is a guru of rhythm improvisation, the art of creating complex tap rhythms spontaneously. Brown, who is battling cancer, has long been a vital link to one of the most interesting and intelligent styles of this American dance form.

Organizers hope the benefit will give long overdue recognition to Brown, who lacks not only widespread fame, but material markers by which lives are measured. The Omaha native has no wife, no kids. His rented bachelor apartment is in a timeworn building a few blocks south of the bad part of Hollywood Boulevard, where Brown buys $8 shoes and splashy polyester shirts.

To see him cross a street or stage, it's hard at first to imagine that this man once was a protege of Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, the spectacular, influential dancer who achieved mainstream recognition as Shirley Temple's aged dancing partner.

According to legend, Robinson discovered the teen-age Brown when his troupe was passing through Omaha. The 16-year-old entered a dance contest Robinson had organized.

Robinson asked Brown what number he planned to do.

"The same one that you do," Brown replied.

"And what music do you want?"

"The same music that you use," came the answer.

Brown had memorized "Doin' the New Low-Down," one of his idol's routines, by listening to the taps, scrapes, digs and shuffles on a scratchy 78. Then Brown went to a movie house to watch Robinson on film and match the sounds to the style.

Brown's cheekiness was a risk. Robinson jealously guarded his material. He was reputed to brandish pistols at dancers who stole his steps.

And Brown had stolen them perfectly.

Instead of losing his temper, Robinson offered Brown a job.

Brown ran away to New York City when his parents wouldn't let him join Robinson's troupe. He eventually toured China with Robinson before World War II. Brown left Robinson's company in the 1930s to become a solo performer, mostly in the San Francisco area.

Nowadays, Brown looks as if he would have trouble vaulting an anthill. Even before his recent illness began to sap his energy, he stepped gingerly, slowly, sometimes stiffly.

Start the music, though--or ask him to move to the song in his head--and his toes stirred in his shoes. The feet started to glide across the floor. Brown's face remained expressionless, and the arms dangled loosely. But metal rapped against floor faster than a woodpecker's beak to maple--and with a metronome's precision.

Brown's genius is his ability to release a firestorm of creativity into his short-term memory, and translate that instantly to his feet.

Most tappers who improvise steps are not truly starting from scratch. Rather, they string together patterns from previously memorized routines.

Brown, however, strolls onstage or into class with little or no plan. And no conscious memory of the steps he created last year, last week or five minutes ago. That's the way he's been as long as his students can remember.

It's as though his incomparable inventiveness developed at the expense of other attributes, such as an acute memory. Like a hitter who sacrifices batting average to swing for the fences, Brown's choice is a trade-off.

Brown's part of the bargain includes a few minutes of motion in which the 5-foot-7-inch, 110-pound dancer can practically improvise youth from old age, laying out moves that would wind an Olympian or confound a lesser dancer.

Off the dance floor, it's been harder to improvise through difficult times. After World War II, no one wanted nightclub tappers, no matter how good they were. He taught himself to play the piano and got by as a musician when he had to.

Friends say he fell deeply in love at one point and was crushed when the woman left him. Some speculate that maybe Brown's heavy drinking caused the breakup--or the breakup his drinking. Sometimes his idea of grocery shopping was buying a carton of Pall Mall Gold 100's and a fifth of Korbel brandy.

He's never lost his romantic's heart. Old movies never fail to bring a smile to his face and a tear to his eye when the hero finally gets the girl.

Just six months ago, he talked of getting married someday when his career is better established.

Mostly, he reserves his passion for teaching and performing.

"I have this much time for mortal endeavors," Brown told a friend once as he held two fingers about an inch apart. Then he extended his arms as wide as they would go. "This much is about my dancing."

His turning point as a teacher came 20 years ago, when some young dancers spotted Brown stealing scenes in a San Francisco musical review. They begged to study with him.

Brown soon developed a following, and took his fortunes to Los Angeles about 10 years ago. The reputation of "Schoolboy Eddie," as other veteran black dancers called him, began to spread from coast to coast among the tap-dancing elite.

"You can't create the things he does without having a great mind as well as a great ear and a good sense of time," said Mike Mailloux, an Arizona dance instructor who studied extensively with Brown. "I found the soul of my dancing after working with Eddie."

Other disciples praise his generosity.

"He's never held back anything he knows," said Babs Yohai-Rifken, a San Franciso-area teacher. "There aren't many people willing to share all their stuff."

A cadre of admirers will do almost anything to keep Brown teaching and surviving. Almost everyone has a role in a Saturday class he teaches in a rent-by-the-hour studio in downtown Los Angeles.

Virginia Conti, 74, faithfully keeps the books and collects the class fees for him, as she has done for a decade. Lillian Hill sometimes brings the record player, and sometimes brings Conti or Brown. Constance Danielson writes down steps, so they won't be forgotten from week to week. Carolyn Clarke helps organize some of Brown's performances. Debra Bray takes Brown to the doctor and helps him buy groceries.

He rewards them with a laugh that bounces off the walls when he's pleased with a step they've learned. "That's outta sight," he tells them. "Ain't nobody doin' what you're doin'."

A friend once asked Brown after a class if he had any regrets about the way his life had gone. Brown paused thoughtfully, then carefully pulled off his shoes as he replied.

"No, not really," he said. "None that's worth remembering."

The Salute to Eddie Brown concert will be 7 p.m. Sunday at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $15 for general admission.

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