BUNNY BRIGGS, TAP DANCING VIRTUOSO
His death was confirmed by Sandra Seaton, a playwright and librettist who was related to Mr. Briggs by marriage.
In the world of tap, which especially prizes the passing of traditions from generation to generation, Mr. Briggs was a prodigy early on and a mentor in his later years. He danced on the streets of Harlem as a small boy, and on Broadway, “The Ed Sullivan Show” and at the Newport Jazz Festival as an adult.
Known for the speed of his feet, the breadth of his repertoire and his smooth, unflappable stage demeanor, he was both a showman and a musician. He was a star performer who could hold the audience alone at center stage, as he did in the 1989 Broadway musical revue “Black and Blue,” and a jazz percussionist with the likes of Count Basie, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington, who once described Mr. Briggs as “the most superleviathonic, rhythmaturgically syncopated tapsthamaticianisamist.”
Mr. Briggs was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in “Black and Blue,” which originated in Paris. A highlight was his tour de force solo to Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”
More than two decades earlier, at Ellington’s celebrated 1965 concert of sacred music at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Mr. Briggs was featured as a dancer in the composition “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might,” a performance that Constance Valis Hill, a tap historian, wrote in her book “Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History,” “broke new ground for modern tap dancing on the concert stage.”
Ms. Hill continued: “It was not only the way Briggs shimmers across the floor — splaying 16th notes, rattling, clicking and stomping wild offbeat steps that jar everything around him — and the skimming fluidity of his rhythmic lines, and dynamics of phrasing, but the manner in which he played his feet as an accompanying musician within the orchestra.”
Along with Jimmy Slyde, Honi Coles, George Hillman, Steve Condos and others, Mr. Briggs was a busy performer in the heyday of tap, from the 1930s to the 1950s, when jazz was popular and tap masters were headliners in the swankiest nightclubs and on Broadway.
But in the 1960s, with rock ’n’ roll in ascendance and the civil rights movement gaining momentum, tap went into decline, suffering in part from a perception by some that it represented an era of black subservience in entertainment. Still, unlike some of his contemporaries, Mr. Briggs endured through those lean years, partly through his association with Hampton, with whom he performed at the Rainbow Grill in New York and elsewhere, and especially with Ellington; because of their close association, Mr. Briggs became widely known as “Duke’s dancer.”
“I can’t really define my style,” he once said. “Dancers were dancing fast when I came up. I just wanted to make people feel relaxed. To just say, ‘Ahhh.’ ”
Tap began to re-emerge as a popular form in the 1980s with stage shows like “The Tap Dance Kid,” “Black and Blue” and, a bit later, “Jelly’s Last Jam,” along with the 1989 movie “Tap,” which featured several generations of tappers, including Mr. Briggs, Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Hines and Mr. Glover, then a teenager. All helped emphasize the legitimacy of tap as an authentic, vernacular American art form and illustrated its torch-passing tradition.
Mr. Glover, who met Mr. Briggs when he was a boy and also appeared with him in “Black and Blue,” went on to usher tap into the era of hip-hop by, among other things, creating the Tony-winning choreography for the 1996 Broadway musical “Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk,” in which he starred.
“Bunny was the last of the hoofers, just about the last of the cats who mentored me,” Mr. Glover said in an interview on Tuesday. “But he was different in that, as far as dance style, he had more of an eccentric approach that made him stand out amongst the other cats.
“He’d act out his dance, like he’d have a scene going on his mind. In the middle of the dance, he’d strike these poses. I mean, our objective is always to tell a story, but he was such a sophisticated, lyrical cat.”
Information about Mr. Briggs’s early life is a bit hazy, but public records indicate that he was born Bernard Briggs in Harlem on Feb. 26, 1922. (The origin of the nickname Bunny is obscure. Asked once by the television journalist Bryant Gumbel where the name came from, Mr. Briggs said, “Well, I’m fast.”)
He was brought up by his mother, Alma Briggs, who liked to dance the Charleston. Her sister, Gladys, was a chorus girl, and the often-repeated story is that young Bunny’s mother took him, at age 3 (or 4 or maybe 5), to his aunt’s show, where he saw Bill Robinson perform.
“She danced,” Mr. Briggs recalled in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. “I started hollering. Then out walked Bill Robinson, and I knew immediately what I wanted to do. He was so calm. Everything he did was beautiful.”
One of his mother’s brothers taught him a step or two, he said, but “I never took a lesson.” He took to dancing on the streets of the neighborhood, particularly outside a record shop on Lenox Avenue and 137th Street.
“All the people came around to hear ‘Amos ’n’ Andy’ on the radio,” Mr. Briggs said. “They’d stand around in the street and listen. Then the man who owned the shop would put on a record and I’d dance. People would throw money, and I’d take it home to my mother.”
From then on he never wanted to do anything else, though he acknowledged that at one time he thought about becoming a priest — until his priest told him that God clearly wanted him to be a dancer. As a child, he performed in New York City ballrooms as part of a children’s dance group called Porkchops, Navy, Rice and Beans.
He was discovered by the pianist Luckey Roberts and danced with his orchestra on a high-society circuit of parties in the homes of Astors, Vanderbilts and others. His first movie appearance, in 1932, was in the film “Slow Poke,” with Stepin Fetchit. In the 1940s he toured with big bands, tapping to swing, and, inspired by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, adapted his style to the more complex sounds of bebop. His versatility kept him employed.
“Even when tap was in its declining days, someone would call me,” he said in 1989. “Little clubs, big clubs. Boston. Philadelphia.”
Mr. Briggs, who has no immediate survivors, married Olivette Miller, a jazz harpist, in 1982. She died in 2003.
“When it came time for him to get dressed, Bunny would have a beer or a glass of wine, and the wardrobe people would leave,” Mr. Glover recalled about the backstage scene at “Black and Blue.” “And Olivette would come in and undo everything the wardrobe person had done and dress him the way she wanted him to look. And he would just sit there, like, ‘Yeah, baby, do with me as you please.’ ”