Buster Brown (1913–2002) was one of the last surviving members of the legendary Copasetics, a group of master tappers who came together after the death of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. An active teacher and performer for seven decades, in recent years, Brown inspired dozens of young performers as host of the weekly “Dr. Buster Brown’s Tap Jam” at New York City’s Swing 46 Club. Through the years, he received multiple fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and even performed before Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. He was also a resident artist at the Colorado Dance Festival in 1990.
Born in Baltimore as James Richard Brown, he picked up the nickname Buster early in his career, as a dancer with the Three Aces (later renamed the Speed Kings). The trio’s claim to fame was their fast, precision tapping, which Brown perfected along with his signature steps, including wings and over-the-tops. As part of the group, Brown toured with the show Brown Skin Models before going solo. In 1943, at the height of the movie musical craze, he danced in Something to Shout About.
In the 1950s, Brown traveled the world and performed before international audiences, touring South America with Cab Calloway and his orchestra. He performed with the Count Basie Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, and with the Duke Ellington Orchestra as a featured dancer in Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” of the 1960s. In the 1970s, he danced in Africa as part of a commissioned State Department tour.
When popular interest in tap dancing revived in the 1970s, Brown danced in the original casts of the Broadway musicals Bubbling Brown Sugar and Blue. His appearances with the Copasetics, with Charles “Honi” Coles, Charles “Cookie” Cook and Ernest “Brownie” Brown, renewed interest in Buster Brown’s varied styles and exhibited the enduring vibrancy of tap dance. Brown also appeared in the films Tap and The Cotton Club, as well as the television specials Tap Dance in America and Gershwin Gala.
In 1997, Brown began hosting his weekly tap jam at Swing 46, an event that continues today with other emcees. He invited and encouraged dozens of performers to showcase their budding tap skills on the club’s stage, and the dancers in turn acknowledged the master’s help each year with a celebration of Brown’s birthday at the club.
His generous spirit and love of dance put performers of all ages at ease. “Buster just let dancers go, so they developed their own style,” dancer Jane Goldberg recalled in a New York Times article.
Brown’s positive reinforcement inspired many young tappers to get up onstage and try the floor, according to dancer Jennifer Lane, who toured with Brown with Jerry Ames’s company. “He always let children go up first,” she says. “Now, there is a whole generation of tappers who started out at his tap jam.” Though he loved to cheer on new tappers, he always advised dancers to get an education.
Just three months before he passed away he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University along with legendary tappers Fayard Nicholas, Leonard Reed, Bunny Briggs, Cholly Atkins, Henry LeTang, Jeni LeGon, Jimmy Slyde and Prince Spencer. Brown’s generosity and dedication to the learning atmosphere of the tap jam established an enduring legacy for tappers today.
For more on Brown, check out www.DrBusterBrown.com. DT
Los Angeles–based writer Paula Broussard is working on a biography of the Nicholas Brothers. Her book, Gregory Hines Remembered, will be published this year.