Will Gaines at the Talk of theTown 1986
Will is offering to share his ham sandwich with me
Quicksilver tap dancer who could find melody and rhythm in everything from Bach to bebop
Whether he was clicking his quicksilver heels to slinky jazz swing or twitchy improv, the hoofer Will Gaines took the view that he was "just trying to dance the melody". Gaines, who has died aged 86, was not only an extraordinary dancer, but also one of a rare breed of open-minded listeners who could hear melody and rhythm in everything from bebop to Bach to abstract electronica, and he looked and sounded as if he was having the time of his life playing with all of it.
Gaines would show up at gigs resembling the fall-guy in a slapstick comedy – an amiable drifter in a reversed baseball cap, often bearing a large sheet of plywood, and looking as if he had come to board up the windows rather than mesmerise an expectant crowd. But the plywood was Gaines's portable dance floor, and once he set it down and began shuffling and snapping, crouching as if about to roll a dice, then rearing back in mock amazement, delighted audiences could sense a lifetime's learning on the hoof – on Harlem stages shared in the 1940s and 50s with jazz stars including Charlie Parker, Lionel Hamilton, Cab Calloway, Django Reinhardt and Nat King Cole.
After the UK became his home in the 60s, Gaines worked with jazz artists as varied as the mainstream bandleader Humphrey Lyttlton, the saxophonist Ronnie Scott and the free-improv guitarist Derick Bailey; regularly played the London Palladium; performed for Princess Margret; and was a popular visitor to the Edinburgh festival, where he would improvise steps to any aural stimulation going, from jazz to readings of modern poetry.
He was born Royce Edward Gaines, in Baltimore, Maryland, and like many nimble kids in the depression years began dancing for loose change. When the family moved to Detroit, he attended the city's Northern high school – where two hard-bop celebrities in waiting, the guitarist Kenny Burrell and the pianist Tommy Flanagan, were fellow students he could regularly jam with.
The young Gaines was also inspired by witnessing the lightning-fast jazz dancing of Teddy Hale and the elegantly spontaneous Chuck Green among the visiting stars at the Paradise theatre, Detroit. But his technique depended as much on absorbing the rhythm patterns of jazz musicians as it did on copying dancers, and his signature style was a garrulously drumlike, floor-hugging shuffle that avoided the acrobatic buck‑and-wing styles of an earlier era.
Employed in odd jobs in a hatter's and as a shoe-shine boy, Gaines made his first solo appearance at 16 with the saxophonist Lucky Thompson's band, formed a duo with a roller-skating dancer, Bill Johnson, and won an amateur talent contest in 1948 at the Frolic Showbar. After a 13-week run at the Showbar (an establishment so low-ceilinged that, as he recalled, "if you jumped too high you would kill yourself"), Gaines got an agent and began touring the midwest.
In the early 50s, he moved to New York to perform with Duke Ellington and work regularly with Hampton, and in 1957 he joined Calloway's Cotton Club Show in Harlem. Gaines's busy touring schedule even included a Washington stopover to entertain President Dwight D Eisenhower. In 1962-63 his reputation spread to Europe, when he first appeared at the Pigalle Club, London, with the singer and actor Shani Wallis, and was then booked for the first of many appearances at London Palladium.
Gaines crisscrossed Europe's variety shows, army bases, summer seasons and clubs, before tax problems not of his making briefly reduced him to working as an odd-job man in a hotel in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. However, the hotelier knew the bandleader Alex Welsh, who hired Gaines for a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, and the dancer was soon back on the hoof. He settled in Rotherham because it reminded him of Detroit, he said, and he became a popular attraction in northern working men's clubs.
During the 70s and 80s, Gaines was never short of work, and he appeared at festivals throughout Europe, becoming a particular favourite at Edinburgh. He appeared on TV shows including Play School and Top of the Pops, and he was the first American jazz dancer to play the Royal Opera House. In 1997, he recorded a duo show in Holland with Bailey – eventually released in 2003 as the album Rappin' and Tappin', a set that caught the dancer's eccentrically harmonious relationship with Bailey's knotty explorations. Gaines would chat about his early career, telling rivetingly rambling anecdotes about Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, while his rhythmic instincts allowed him to make the most fractious of Bailey's abstractions swing.
At St Paul's Cathedral in 2006, he memorably tapped for Stan Tracy's arrangements of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, bouncing into the nave to mingle David Danced Before the Lord, Happy Birthday (to Tracey, whose 80th was due) and a hand clapping game in which the audience fruitlessly attempted to keep up with the capricious fusillades of his footwork.
Gaines moved to Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in his later years. He grew only a little less energetic as he hit his 80s (the sound of his footwork remained as hypnotic whether he was sitting down or standing up), and only stopped gigging after a suspected heart attack in 2013. Until then, he had also been a regular at Ronnie Scott's London Tap Jam, as a performer, role-model and teacher – though his close friend and manager, Chris Parry, observes that formal teaching was not Gaines's strong suit because he was a totally intuitive improviser who "didn't know what his feet did". Neither did the rest of us, but marvelling at the mystery was one of left-field contemporary music's most unexpectedly diverting pleasures.
Will Gaines Born 6th April 1928 Died 7 May 2014