Heather Cornell and "Her Quest For Making Music Dance"

“We have to ask more questions. The search for answers is where improvisation lives.” On Thursday I had the distinct honor of speaking with concert tap dance pioneer and physical musician Heather Cornell. Mrs. Cornell’s work in the rhythm tap community is vast and experienced, her intellect and vantage point razor sharp and uniquely her own. In pursuit of goals past she has come to a new collaboration with several world class musicians in the form of the recorded CD, Making Music Dance. In the lineage of Baby Laurence, among others, Heather Cornell has brought her process of creativity to recording tap dance. She is expressing the desire to ask us as audience members to LISTEN and use our oral facility to take in tap’s expressive and sonic power. I had every intention of speaking to Mrs. Cornell solely about the process, development, and release of the recording however our hour long conversation took several twists and turns into many topics that tap dancers need and should challenge themselves to consider. Selfishly, this interview was also a meeting point with a tap dancer that unbeknownst to her was a major influence in my own path as a tap dancer. Putting this transcript together and reflecting on this hour long conversation has made me realize the scope of how connected we are through tap dancing and how communal the sharing of information is. Before reading our exchange I suggest everyone go to CD Baby (cdbaby.com) and purchase Making Music Dance which is now available. Allow yourself to consider Mrs. Cornell and her collaborator’s world music point of view that defies genre and allows you to view percussive artists as musicians who dance. Enjoy!

OPTAP: I wanted to tell you before we started that Mike Minery is one of my closest and dearest friends. He has been a mentor and teacher to me and so many times he has told me of his times with you and with Manhattan Tap. The way that I came up in tap dancing was within the competition dance community much in the same way he did. I wasn’t trained to function as a musical artist, rather more through technique, steps, and speed. I credit Mike with opening that side of tap dancing up for me and I know that he credits you with opening that side of tap up for him. I just wanted to say thank you! It is an honor for me to speak with you today about your project Making Music Dance!

HC: Mikey is great! I don’t know if he told you but he first auditioned for me when he was 17 and he didn’t know what a 6/8 was. I remember him going, “what is that music doing?” Mikey it’s a 6! (laughter)

OPTAP: He has told me so many stories! The first time he saw Josh (Hilberman) do Jitterbug Waltz and dropping the band out and hearing for the first time what it is to hear a tap dancer playing...what a revelation that was for him. I mean so many stories he told me that were hugely inspiring as a young artist for myself so thank you for that!

HC: Yeah, you’re welcome! Thank you for being such a great support, I appreciate that. It is rare in the scene these days, we need more of it...we need to support each other. I was at an arts meeting last night and at the very end of the meeting this 80 year old woman who has had the most competitive dance studio in the area got up and said, “all I want to say is that we have to support each other a lot more.” I started crying because I thought there is the wisdom. This woman who has been through the whole competition thing and has been up against the wall and has competed and not competed and what she came to the end of it all with was why aren’t we supporting each other more? It was so beautiful, I went up to her and hugged her.

OPTAP: I agree and that is one of the major reasons that I started Operation: Tap was to try and do this...what have I done for tap dancing and for the people who brought me to it? The more exposure I can bring to great projects that are out there the more tap dancers will benefit. So, can you tell me how this group of artists came together in 2012 and the genesis for this project, Making Music Dance?

HC: I have been working my whole career to try and legitimize tap as music and as a musical art form. My first commitment to it was that I would never work with canned music on stage, ever. It has not been easy (laughter), but the positive to that is I have met phenomenal musicians and I have worked with some of the best musicians in the world consistently. When you’re doing that and you’re constantly integrating with music you start to gather your tribe.

Adriel (Williams) is a tap dancer, the violin player, I met him in an improvisation class in Chicago when he was 13, at the Chicago Tap Festival. I walked in the class and the first thing I said, “you can’t teach improv, sorry.” Most of the people in the class rolled their eyes (laughter) and Adriel sparked up and I saw the look on his face. All I can do is put a whole bunch of doors in front of you and encourage you to open them but if you are not willing to open them you are not going to learn anything. That being said, I am not going to teach you anything I am just answering questions for the next five days. Adriel’s arm shot up and he asked a really cool question and the whole five days was me answering Adriel’s questions and a few other people popped in around it but they just weren’t used to guiding their own learning. For me, you can’t teach people improvisation unless you teach people to guide their own learning because that is what improvisation is. Adriel and I became soul mates, he was 13 and we have been soul mates ever since.  

Heather Cornell and Adriel Williams

Andy (Algire) I met when we were both studying djembe, he had graduated from music school and we were in the same performance group. At the same time we started playing balafon...and Andy being being musically trained took off on the balafon and now he is a master balafon player, I am still a beginner so I play back up for him. He is a phenomenal percussionist and plays drums for all of the groups that come in from Africa. Andy started playing for my class 16 years ago at my intensive...I fell in love with working with him because he is phenomenally open and full of joy for the music. 

Andy Algire and Famoro Dioubate

Ana de la Paz is a flamenco dancer locally. She and I have kids the same age and we were showing up on the same stage for every benefit known to man. I said to her “we should get together and get paid to do this sometime and she said, “yeah let’s do that!”. So she had a gig and in two hours we put together a really beautiful evening, this is too good to be true, let’s start developing work! Our work is a fusion of many different cultures. It is obviously African based because of Andy, and jazz based because of Andy and Adriel. Also Adriel plays with a Reggae band in NYC so it has some reggae influence, there is some Indian in there, has flamenco, has tap, and we had Carlos in the original group so it had a flamenco guitar edge to it but we replaced him with Tony Romano who is a jazz guitar player from NYC who has a lot of South American influences in his music. All of that came together and we started making music and all of it is original, except for a cover of Blackbird. I love making music with these people! Ana is leaving and I am bringing in Dayna Szyndrowski who is a student of mine from Vancouver who is doing a Flamenco/Tap fusion right now. Dana will be taking Ana’s place on the second CD because Ana is wanting to get back more into classical flamenco and Dana is really in that fusion place. So that is basically where it all came from.

OPTAP: What is the process by which you guys compose a tune, do you set a structure and use improvisation to find it? When you go into the studio which do you use more improvisation or composition? 

HC: This is the trick when you work with multi-cultural music. You can’t get stuck in a jazz process. I have been trying to teach this to tap students a lot. I don’t get that opportunity to teach composition very often, we don’t have a tradition of teaching composition to tap dancers. YOU know because you are a choreographer that you are kind of left to your own devices to figure out how to choreograph. When I teach composition the first thing I say is that you have to know as much as you can about the music you are working with but you have to without annihilating the rules of the music you are entering into. You have to bring yourself. You can’t say, “I studied African music and now I can create African dance.” The music is going to speak to you in a different way than it would speak to an African and your history is going to enter into the creation whether you like it or not. So for me, every piece that I make has a different process because it has different elements that I am organizing. Lets say Mike’s Movie (track from Making Music Dance), Mike’s Movie was so easy to put together because it is one of Andy’s tunes so it was created but we play it completely different than let’s say Andy’s old band would play it because it has different elements to it and that we have to feature. So the violin ends up playing the bass line at a certain point and I took a very specific drum line and am responsible for delivering that drum line through the entire piece unless I am soloing. There are two dominant notes, “doom” (low pitch), “dat” (high pitch) that have to happen throughout the entire piece or else it isn’t Mike’s Movie. You have stuff like that that has already spoken to you that 90% of your work is done. You have to play this drum line. All you are really choosing is what events are going to happen and who is going to play what part.

Excerpts from Mike's Movie

We just created a tune together because we received a commission from New Music USA and that was a really interesting process because we had a body percussionist, steel pan, battle phone, flamenco, castanets. I can always use sand, tap, or wood and that’s what we started with! We didn’t start with a tune. We started with that, elements. So the process of making that was very different than when Andy walked in with this really cool tune that we just orchestrated in essence and from the orchestration arrived an arrangement. The other thing is even using the word arrangement can be really difficult because often times the minute you talk about an arrangement you are talking jazz. So you don’t want to turn that on too strongly. You don’t want to turn that volume up too strongly if you are collaborating on a piece that has Balinese music and Indian music because there are rules in those forms that need to be respected. So if you walk in with volume up on your jazz arranging you are going to do something that is probably not going to pull the colors out of the music as well as you could. The whole process is in some way to figure out...In some tunes... (pause)

OPTAP: Is defining the parameters?

HC: And to bring a new life to the music. Why am I tap dancing instead of drumming? To bring a life to the music that a drummer can't bring. That is why I have been chosen to be the percussionist on these pieces is because I bring something to the pieces that standard percussion does not. I think that is something for tap dancers to keep in mind. We are not just imitating musicians, we are never going to be considered viable musicians until our voice is so strong that people NEED us in that role. We shouldn’t always be replacing the drummer. We have to go beyond replacing the drummer. We have to provide something where we don’t need the drummer, you need us.

OPTAP: That has been something that I have been thinking a lot about lately because you hear tap dancers say that we are equal parts dancer and musician. Much of the time the musical training of most dancers is so far behind their dance training that their perspective is not at the same level as a musicians. What would you say for a dancer who is stuck in a “jazz process”?

HC: Well, to start, its pretty interesting because I have been called renegade and all of those “r” words because I don’t do things the way other people do things. Even in what we were just talking about I even question that because the conversation I was having right before I spoke to you was with Goddard University because I am thinking about doing an MFA and I want to focus a project in a way that will result in a book and I am having a really hard time getting to the book and I am also having a hard time getting a university started in physical music because I don’t have an MFA so I am thinking of marrying those two things. The first thesis that came up in my mind when I first started talking to a potential adviser there was, why have we in our culture killed ear training? Why have we decided that the only way to study music in North America is through an institution and through reading and writing? You have to be literate now to be considered a legit musician so even before we can have a discussion about whether or not dancers are trained musicians we have to qualify what we mean by “training”. I know the recent result of a lot of my discussion with people is there are a number of dancers that are now in institutions that are now learning music with tap as their instrument. That’s cool! 10 years ago this used to be what I said has to happen and now it is happening in places. I realized as this happens, I am wondering what kind of musicians are we training in these institutions? Now we are training musicians who come out stuck to the written word because they feel that validates them as musicians and something I think we have to be careful of as we get back to music in tap is that we don't identify it as the North American paradigm of music which we are stuck in right now but we think more in terms of global music because tap dance comes from African music. If everybody now has the approach that “I’m very trained and I’m a jazz musician and that makes me”.....we are still qualifying ourselves as being dancers who are musicians not being musicians as dancers. I think this is a new trap that we are falling into now that everyone who is trained as a musician is a legit musical dancer. I would question that. I think the best musicians I have worked with in the past 10 years have been the folkloric musicians from South America and Cuba not the European musicians that I have worked with that are really stuck to the page. I don’t think we are going to find our reconnection through that. How do we get back to that ear training generation that really kicked off tap dancing?

OPTAP: Are you advocating for a tap dancer’s personal training be more the personal process of sitting and listening and opening yourself up to different kinds of music. Taking and extrapolating from it using your own experience, your own training, your own history rather than going to an institution and learning theory and being able to read and write music?

HC: No, I would never dictate what a dancer should do to train. What I am saying is and this is something I always say when I am teaching improvisation, is there is no answer to this...yet. This is something, someplace that we need to start going to question. We have to start asking more questions. That’s what I teach when I teach improvisation, how do you generate questions? If you generate questions, then you have to search for answers and the search for answers is where improvisation lives. It doesn’t live from take 4 bars and stand in a circle and listen to the person before you, that’s not an improvisational artist. An improvisational artist is someone who has so many questions that they can’t stop. They are constantly searching for answers to their self generated questions. So in thinking of turning this into a book and a masters thesis I think just that question of what was happening with Panama Francis’s Band and those early big bands where they had a blend of readers and non readers and it didn’t matter whether you read or didn’t read, it mattered your MUSICIANSHIP. Musicianship is a whole different thing than being a trained musician. I can tell you there is this one musician that is in my mind right now that has a Phd and teaches in a university program. I told him, “bring your upright bass when you come to rehearsal.” He said, “I don’t play upright.” YOU TEACH IN A JAZZ DEPARTMENT, BASS and YOU DON’T PLAY UPRIGHT? Well he is a Phd, that’s how he got the job. Musicianship, the guy had none at all, he was highly trained and knew way more than a lot of people around him but could he play, no he couldn’t play. Could he communicate? Not at all. He was surrounded by the veil of fear that comes with when you overtrain a muscle that’s taking the place of ten other muscles. So I don’t know. I think everyone needs to be asking themselves some questions about what they think musicianship really is before figuring out how they want to train. I am turning 60 in April and I am gonna go back for my masters now because I wasn’t ready to go to do this when I was 50. I hadn’t gotten down this deep yet. You know what I mean?

OPTAP: Yes, for sure.

HC: Now I feel that I am down to this place where I am starting to understand on another level what it takes to be a musician, to have real musicianship. I had an epiphany when I was working in Colombia when I integrated with the folkloric musicians down there who are also jazz trained...their balance of intuition and training is here (hand held high) and when I worked with them they could play anything without FEAR. I feel a lot of what our music is full of these days is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of doing things that have not been done. Fear of breaking out of your little box that is safe for you. There is no place in improvisation for fear. That’s the the thing that stops...so I could never advocate for a dancer to train one way or the other. I would advocate for them to do it in the most unique way possible that is the most honest for themselves.

OPTAP: Amazing, that gives me much to think of for myself as well! That I need to consider and think about profoundly for some time. We are getting kind of far from the CD (laughter) I would like to pivot back to that. I was watching your Tap Love Tour interview with Travis Knights and you said, “every dancer in terms of their training should be recording.”

HC: Yes.

Tap Love Tour Interview By: Travis Knights with Heather Cornell

OPTAP: I know that the first time I recorded myself was probably about five years ago and I was horrified by what I heard (laughter). In that moment, I realized I needed to work on nothing but my sound, and that’s what I have been trying to do for the past five years. Could you speak to the first time you recorded yourself and how that process for you has evolved to this point where you have an album where you are collaborating with world class musicians?

HC: It’s funny because I always feel like such a novice at this at all of this stuff. A lot of my musician friends are on 150 CDs so I am a novice. But if I think about it when I had Manhattan Tap we were recording because we were doing Around New York...I have these radio shows on cassette where we do a half hour radio show once a year. We were their fun act because it was all musicians and us. They thought of us as musicians which was really cool and this was back in the 80’s and 90’s. We would go and have an interview, play live and then I would get this cassette and I would have the recording of myself that was being played on the radio. We did that for five years until I stopped the company and started turning down the shows, unfortunately, because I had wished I had continued doing them every year. That was my first recording experience and it was very naive but unbelievably important to me as a soloist because I would always have a piece or two and solo or two. I would listen to those solos, like forever...one minute going, wow I am really good...and the next minute going, oh my God I suck. Depending on my mood, but I learned so much from listening to myself...so that was my first recording experience.  With Finding Synesthesia, I was commissioned by the South Banks Center in London to create the first dance show for the London Jazz Festival 2008. I created it with Andy Milne who is a phenomenal piano player...we spent a week recording ourselves and writing and he wrote a lot of the music in collaboration with me. We came back and hired the side people for the band and made the show and did it at the London Jazz Festival. When we came back we recorded 7 tunes, we never released it. Pieces of it are online, but it was such a phenomenal experience for me because I was in the studio really with people who recorded forever and ever on a million recordings. They were in one room and I was in an isolation both and it was the hardest experience I ever had because I realized we are physical beings as tap dancers, I need the community. I can’t produce with my eyes closed in the other room. It was so hard for me because I did my solos over and over again. These guys were getting it on the second take. I would have a good first take but than they would get this beautiful second take that I wasn’t really in on because I wasn’t in the room. That was a whole other experience. It really is forward thinking music. It works a lot with textures of sounds, its piano, cello, morrocan vocals, and tap and its beautiful music. Max (Pollak) was starting his CD that year so at Tap Motif we did a little recording project with the students that was phenomenal. We recorded everyone doing flaps for eight measures and then we played them back anonymously. It was really an amazing thing. I started doing that on and off at my intensive...we would talk about the time, the groove. It was really a phenomenal experience and sometimes not very happy for some of the students. (laughter) Some of the students didn’t realize that their time was where it was, that would never be me and it turned out to be them. Other students (snap) the minute they heard their sound said, “that’s me, I know that’s me.” They would listen with a discerning ear. That was a fascinating experiment because I saw the range of understanding of who we are orally in this room of 15 people. Some people really are on top of their oral sound and some people are completely oblivious to it.

Heather Cornell with Max Pollack and Stephen Harper

Probably the next recording and I am probably forgetting some is Making Music Dance. We recorded for two days...very quickly. My experience in recording is live recording. I don’t like tracking stuff because of my experience with Synesthesia I realized I am a live recording artist. if you talk to Max about his CD it was months of mastering and tracking and overdubbing because he really engineered that CD and it’s beautiful but this is a completely different approach. One year Max played a cut from his CD and I played a cut from Synesthesia which was also recorded live...live in the studio...it doesn’t change the quality it changes the groove and the vibe, its a different animal to record one way and record the other way. So for me, because I am an improvisational artist I have always needed to record this way. I like the energy and the feeling of people playing together.

I am like a baby in terms of recording. I don’t have 150 recordings. It’s an interesting thought to maybe switch everything to that now. That would be kind of fun to start recording like crazy. We are already raising money for our next CD with Making Music Dance but I would like to get some other projects on. I have been thinking of going back to Manhattan Tap and recording some of the music with and without the tap on it. Just so people can sort of start musically to study the history. Rather than put out a bunch of videos of Manhattan Tap which I could put out a bunch of oral stuff first, soundtracks so people start listening to what was their style? Instead of looking at the visual. Half the time when I am showing Manhattan Tap footage people are talking. It blows my mind.

OPTAP: Yeah that is awful.

HC: But their not listening! They are not used to listening. It is so interesting to me, I am playing with Ray Brown and their not listening. It’s just crazy. That’s the big gap we have to fill in.

OPTAP: When you perform these pieces live...obviously for the listener or the audience the experience of seeing the piece live and hearing it on the album is going to be completely different. How do you negotiate the difference in these experiences and response of just hearing v. hearing and seeing? Do you think that people see you as a tap dancer in the context that most people see a tap dancer or are they experiencing you as a percussionist or musician?

HC: I think it is interesting because there are some people that are never going to see me as a musician and they are just scratching their heads when they are watching me in some situations. Why isn’t she entertaining me? Why isn’t she smiling at me and looking at me? Why isn’t she dancing all over the stage? In terms of answering the beginning of the question it depends on the venue how it becomes visual. In a jazz club where I have this big space the expectations change from the audience which is a very freeing thing...we were playing a Mexican restaurant in town once a month just because I wanted to be free of this need for the audience to expect me to perform in that way. It was interesting because people still wanted it even when they saw you on a tiny little board, “why didn’t you bring a bigger board, so we could see you dance?” You missed the point, but for me it was fun. The thing is I am from the theater. I am a modern dancer...so I love having full tech theaters. I don’t have them enough these days but give me a full tech theater and a day and you will get some really cool visual stuff happening. But it won’t be conforming to what you expect...when you go visual you go theatrical whether you like it or not. That’s a huge lack in the tap world right now, that understanding that visual is theater. We are by definition, tap dancers. The true multidisciplinary artist in North America for music, theater, and dance. These guys when they were in vaudeville, they were the MC’s, they were the guys, telling the jokes, they were the glue for the shows. They were dancing, they were musicians, and they were actors...we are the roots of American Theater. Anytime anything becomes visual it becomes theater for me and I find some kind of theatrical heartbeat for it...we have everything, we have music, theater, and dance. So that for me is how something on the CD becomes visual. It depends on theater and it depends on the tech.

OPTAP: In preparation for this interview I was listening to other recordings I have of tap dancers. Baby Laurence’s album, Gregory Hines and Stanley Clarke, some of Jimmy’s recordings. How much have those recordings influenced your way of recording? It seems to me that you have a completely different approach as these guys were definitely in a jazz process. What other recordings of other tap dancers have been instrumental in maybe doing an opposite approach or taking part of their approach and using it for your own?

HC: Baby Laurence was our Bible. That LP in the 80’s, that was our Bible. So I would be crazy if I said that didn’t influence me on any level because I probably listened to it 3,000 times. We didn’t have the internet in the early 80’s. We had Baby Laurence’s album that was it. We would get together and hang out and listen to it all night long. We would say, “Wow we are never going to be that good.” It kicked our ass...there was no footage for us to see except in Ernie Smith’s apartment. So that album was God to us, that was one of my biggest teachers was listening to that. I probably learned as much as listening to his album as I did from any of the teachers I worked with. So that obviously influenced me, and that probably influenced me more in terms of the level of musicianship that I understood. Everything we have been talking about the instinctive nature, thats the kind of musicianship that I understand is the real connection between music and dance. Ray Brown said to me one time, we were talking about Bebop...”what people don’t understand Heather, was how important the tap dancers were to the Bebop movement. Charlie Parker would be playing and everyone would be in the room and he would invite up Baby Laurence. Why? Because Baby Laurence was instrumental in pushing the drummer into certain avenues and the drummer was instrumental in pushing Baby”...well without that level of instinctive musicianship there wouldn’t have been any pushing and pulling! It would have just been a tap dancer getting up there and doing what we have seen over and over and over again now a days. Slamming away...LOUD...over the top of what was going on. This marrying is starting to come back but that instinct and that need to go deeper than we are even going now comes directly from the swing and groove of that generation. It continues to teach me where I want to go and where I want to lead the scene to go. It continues to teach me that we haven’t gotten there yet and we are still trying to get there. 

For more information on Heather Cornell go to manhattantap.org! And be sure to check out her album "Making Music Dance."