by Max Pollak

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When asked "Buster, what is FUNKY?" Dr. Buster Brown would say, "funky? that's when you look like it smells bad." Wrinkling his nose, he'd start playing air-guitar with swiveling hips and his typical mixture of go-get-it enthusiasm and relaxed understatement, typically drawing roaring laughter from the crowd of students, friends or audience.

Dr. Buster Brown, one of the most prominent legends of the tap dance world, passed away in his sleep on Tuesday morning, May 7th 2002, ten days before his 89th birthday.

Dr. Buster Brown was born James Richard Brown in Baltimore, Maryland on May 17, 1913, son of William Brown and Marie Ella Otho-Brown. Dr. Brown's career spanned more than seven decades and began in the late 1920's at annual high school shows in Baltimore called the "Autumn Follies". With two high school friends he formed his first act "The Three Aces" and started touring the US in the 1930's. His next act "The Speed Kings", a trio known for its precision and rapid-fire tap dancing, toured the US and Canada for several years in "The Brown Skin Models" and "The Rudy Vallee Show". Other acts Dr. Brown worked with included "Beige & Brown" and "The Entertainers", sharing bills with, among many others, Sarah Vaughan.

As a soloist Dr. Brown toured with the orchestras of Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Lunceford and most importantly, his personal favorite Duke Ellington. With the Ellington Organization he was the featured tap dancer in "David Danced Before The Lord" during a tour of the Sacred Concerts in the 1960's.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's Dr. Brown participated in two important international tours:

  • to Jazz Festivals in Berlin and other European cities in 1966 with "The Harlem Uptown All Star Dancers" who later turned into "The Hoofers", Dr. Jimmy Slyde, Chuck Green and Baby Laurence. Their band included jazz icons Papa Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Illinois Jaquette, Milt Buckner and Jimmy Woode.
  • to Africa where he gave a command performance for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and was awarded the Medal Of Honor, the Lion Of Judea Coin.

On Broadway he starred in the original companies of "Bubbling Brown Sugar" and "Black And Blue". His TV credits include the PBS Specials "Great Performances: Tap Dance in America" and "Gershwin Gala" as well as the Dick Cavett show; also the film documentaries "Great Feats Of Feet", "Fancy Feet" and "Tap Dancin' ".

He starred in films such as "Something To Shout About" (1943), and "Cotton Club".

Dr. Buster Brown was a member of two legendary and extremely influential groups of master tap dancers, "The Copasetics" and "The Hoofers".

Since 1997 he hosted a weekly Sunday tap jam session at Swing 46, a Manhattan jazz club on West 46th Street. This weekly event quickly became the focal point of attention for the world's tap community because of Dr. Buster Brown's genial presence and enthusiastic support for anyone who wanted to express themselves through the dance. From Buster's vaudeville-era buddies to crowds of tapping children everyone came by to hit the boards.

In February this year (2002) Mr. Brown received an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University, along with eight other legendary tap greats. His trademark tap steps, routines (e.g.: April In Paris, Laura, Fascinating Rhythm, Just You Just Me) and jokes (above all the infamous "light bulb-joke")will live on and on. The shimmering Neil Hefti song "Cute" had been one of Buster's most recognizable staples; this song and many others mainly from Count Basie's band book (like "Shiny Stockings") will remain the portal to his energy and spirit for all of us.

Most importantly, though, his optimism, boundless joy of life and never ending support for other human beings will proliferate through the echoes of countless dancers' rhythms. As Jane Goldberg and Gregory Hines agree, "There are no mixed reviews when it comes to Dr. Buster Brown. He had no mean words to say about anyone. And no one had mean words to say about him. He was a role model." If anyone could ever be the physical incarnation of the abstract word "swing", Dr. Buster Brown is definitely it. For not only did he amaze every single musician and dancer he ever worked with through his effortless artistry, he could also "outhang" them all at the bar after the gig. Dr. Buster Brown was the quintessential Gentleman.

"...if you can move, you can dance..."

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