Dance and jazz music go hand-in-hand — onstage and at dance floors around the world.
It’s a closeness of music and movement that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrates in its “All Jazz” program, shifting between wild solos to Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing — and big-band parties that get the whole company going, as in “The Winter in Lisbon” (photo above).
But the overlap of dance and jazz is also embodied by some of the most famous jazz singers themselves — some who truly loved dance.
Ella Fitzgerald, whose centennial was celebrated throughout 2017, was always a dancer. Fitzgerald consistently told a story about her breakthrough to fame: She entered the Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theatre, intending to go out onstage as a dancer. However, she said, there was a dance act ahead of her, and she felt she couldn’t compete with them. So she took to the stage as a singer — and won. She soon landed a job with one of the premiere swing bands of Harlem.
There’s dance movement and rhythm in everything she sings: She always keeps the dance rhythm going. No matter how far out she gets, you can always follow her. In fact, you can always lindy hop to her.
Here’s a rare example of her dancing in 1957 with the great Nat King Cole. Ella had recently recorded her classic album, The Rodgers and Hart Songbook, and “Dancing on the Ceiling” (from a 1930 West End show titled “Ever Green”) was on her mind. She and Cole use it as an excuse for some low-tech, high-imagination live TV special effects wizardry. “I love my ceiling more / Since it is a dancing floor.”
Frank Sinatra’s big moment as a dancer in the 1945 film “Anchors Aweigh” is the stuff of legend. The number “I Begged Her” is buddy-buddy dance in which two sailors boast of romantic conquests is set to a song by Sinatra’s longtime pals Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne.
Sinatra does extremely well as a dancer, but he never attempted anything this ambitious, dance-wise, again. In 1973, for instance, as Sinatra was coming out of his voluntary retirement, he reunited with Gene Kelly in a TV song-and-dance number that was probably more to his liking, since he did all the singing and Kelly all the dancing.
Sammy Davis Jr. was perhaps the greatest entertainer in all of American showbiz, a brilliant jazz-informed singer and also one of the major tap dancers. This 1969 clip (which, despite the youtube information, is not from the New York Palace theater but from The Hollywood Palace TV series) is a tour de force of his dancing and singing abilities, starting with Irving Berlin’s “Choreography” then continuing through the Count Basie classic “Cute” and climaxing in a series of exchanges with four different drummers.
Even when jazz singers don’t actually dance, they connect with it. When Abbey Lincoln wrote her marvelous song about the deeper meaning of dance, she recruited none other than Savion Glover to tap dance behind her.
Even in this audio-only track from the 1996 album she conveys a sense of the deep implications of what dancing is all about. (Listen to for that little giggle at the end.) Shirley Horn was probably the least animated jazz singer of all time: she just sat in one place, on her piano bench, and virtually never moved a peg. Yet her voice and piano did all the dancing she needed, an idea that resounds in this classic Sinatra (written for the chairman by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) swinger about the metaphoric proximity of dance and romance.
Lead photo of Billy Wilson’s “The Winter in Lisbon” is by Christopher Duggan