The Village Gate, a nightclub at the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Streets in Greenwich Village, and its upper-story performance space known as the Top of the Gate, was a jazz mecca and home to jazz tap artists and tap festivals. The club was opened by the jazz impresario Art D’Lugoff in 1958, on the ground floor and basement of 160 Bleecker Street. The large 1896 Chicago School structure by architect Ernest Flagg was known at the time as Mills House No. 1 and served as a flophouse for transient men. In its heyday, the Village Gate also included an upper-story performance space, known as the Top of the Gate.
The Village Gate featured such musicians as John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, Miles Davis, Vasant Rai, Nina Simone, Herbie Mann, Woody Allen, Patti Smith, Velvet Underground, Edgard Varèse, and Aretha Franklin, who made her first New York appearance there. The Gate was also the host to many jazz tap dancers.
In 1964, the Village Gate hosted one of the most infamous of tap challenges between Earl “Groundhog” Basie and Chuck Green. “I’ve been waiting to battle Chuck Green for twenty years,” Groundhog boasted before the event. “Dancing is like a gang war and tonight, I’m up against one of the best. Every dancer is my enemy.” Drummer Max Roach, singer Abbey Lincoln, comedian Nipsey Russell, and other artists from the jazz world took their seats in the audience; while the Jo Jones Trio took its place on the bandstand, and the battle began. Groundhog growled, Green glided into steps, and as the battle intensified, Max Roach jumped from his seat to the stage and ousted Jo Jones from the drums as Groundhog and Green copied and cracked on each other, charging the musicians to keep up or shut up. In the end, after a split-second down-and-up knee drop, Groundhog decided he had won, proclaiming himself the undisputed King of the Gate.
On October 13, 1980, Jane Goldberg and the Changing Times Tap Dance Company produced By Word of Foot I: Tap Masters Pass On their Tradition at the Village Gate. This first week-long tap festival was billed as “a rare gathering of tap's leading dancers to pass on their tradition.” Seventeen of America's foremost innovators of jazz tap dancing talked about the tradition and teaching their own evolved styles to dancers from throughout the country. “Jazz tap dancing, an improvisational musical art, has never been taught in a formal sense. This will be a unique opportunity to learn some of the important elements of "tapology" directly from its creators,” announced Goldberg. The festival also included a daily "cocktail hour” interview with John Sublett Bubbles. Teachers included: Charles "Cookie" Cook, Ernest "Brownie" Brown, Peg Leg Bates, Albert "Gip" Gibson, George Hillman, Marion Coles, Leslie "Bubba" Gaines, Leon Collins, James "Buster" Brown, Fred Kelly, Howard "Sandman" Sims, Alfredo Gustar, Charles "Honi" Coles, and Mable Lee, Bunny Briggs, Brenda Bufalino, and Gregory Hines. Musicians included Jim Roberts, Ram Ramirez, Dick Hyman (piano); David Yoken (drums). Technicians and organizers: Goldberg, with Katherine Kramer and Melina Mousouris. The entire event was video-recorded by Brenda Bufalino. The Jazz Tap Ensemble, from Los Angeles, California, also attended. Goldberg, in her welcoming speech said “We intend to prove this week, that contrary to widespread opinion, tap dancing is not just a novelty, it is not old fashioned or nostalgic, tap dancing is not dead, in fact we at Changing Times think that it is the liveliest of the lively arts." Honi Coles followed by stating that "Tap dancing is dead. It's dead right for everybody!"
Other major tap dance events at the Village Gate included: Tommy Tune Atop of the Gate (1975); Honi Coles and the Copasetics with Brenda Bufalino (1982) in her first public performance with the Copasetics; The Changing Times Tap Dance Company’s Tapping Talking Show at the Top of the Gate (1984); By Word of Foot III Tap Festival (1985); Shades of Harlem with Ludie Jones (1984-85); Pat Tony y noT Tap (1985), Tony Waag and jazz vocalist Pat Tortorici’s cabaret act; Manhattan Tap with Heather Cornell, Jamie Cuneen, Shelly Oliver and Tony Scopino (1989); and the Steve Condos Memorial Concert (1989).
Other artists featured at the Gate: The American Tap Dance Orchestra, Bunny Briggs, Greg Burge, Harold Cromer, Anita Feldman, Savion Glover, Sarah Safford, Jimmy Slyde. The Village Gate closed its Greenwich Village location in February 1994.
By Constance Valis Hill (2016)
American Tap Dance Foundation
American Tap Dance Center
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