It's Sand, Man! Ingenuity on Tap and in Time

Jul 20, 2017


"It's Sand, Man!" Count Basie's great jump tune has been on my mind since I took in two ingenious uses of sand on New York movie screens early last week. Over the course of 30 hours beginning on Sunday, July 9, I saw four tap dance films, "No Maps on My Taps" and "On Tap," at Quad Cinema, and "Hoofers" and "Charlie's Angels," at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. "Charlie's Angels" is a performance filmed at The Kitchen in 2009 of Jason Samuel Smith's production featuring three dancers (Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Chloe Arnold, and dancer/choreographer Michelle Dorrance) tapping in unison with the themes and individual alto, trumpet, and piano solos of a dozen Charlie Parker bebop tunes. I was awestruck by the added dimension the dancers brought to Bird's music, not least with how they underscored the degree of rests and space that one doesn't always associate with Parker's complex solos. For anyone just developing an appreciation for modern jazz, I'm tempted to say, "Begin here." The three other films are historical documentaries made in 1968, '78, and '86, all intended to bring attention to the largely African American idiom of tap, which was then in decline. All three showcase Sandman Sims demonstrating his trademark routine of tapping on sand strewn on a wooden platform.

Sims is brilliant and outsized in each film, a rooster among his peers, a man with the physique of a boxer (which he once was) and the cockiness of a frontman, a quality he employed not only as a tap master but as an emcee and judge of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, the original gong show that's still played out weekly before what Rolling Stone described in 2015 as "America's toughest crowd.". In "Hoofers," I was amazed to watch him dancing to the off-camera strains of a band playing "Take the A Train," where he creates the effect of brushes on a snare drum shuffling out the rhythm to the Duke Ellington theme song. But only a half-chorus into the tune, the band lays out while Sims continues for nearly four minutes, all the while keeping the tune's locomotive effect so alive in my head that I hummed it, sang it, conducted it, and followed every little nuance of Billy Strayhorn's orchestral creation through Sandman's taps.

On Tuesday, Jul 11, I saw "Le Trou (The Hole)." The French prison escape caper was directed by Jacques Becker and hailed by Jean Pierre Melville as the greatest French film ever made. I've hosted my own living room retrospective of Melville's movies this year (Le Silence de la Mer; Bob Le Flambeur; La Doulos; Leon Morin, Priest; Army of Shadows; Le Samurai) so seeing his endorsement made it an essential afternoon stop at Film Forum.



Then as we see the character known as Monseigneur returning to his cell in the civilian attire that inmates wore at La Sante Prison in 1947 (the movie's based on a true story), he grabs a handful of sand from an urn at the entrance to his cell-block and places it in his jacket pocket.


I don't know how I'd managed to miss this masterpiece until now, and I'm not sure I'd place it above all other French cinema, but it sure was riveting, right down to the extraordinary detail of watching a hand running an improvised hacksaw through a metal bar. And as a perfect counterpart to Sandman, it makes use of sand. In a scene in which one of the cellmates involved in the escape plan visits the infirmary, he spies a tray of glass vials. It's already been noted that the inmates lose a sense a time when they're tunneling far below their cell. Then as we see the character known as Monseigneur returning to his cell in the civilian attire that inmates wore at La Sante Prison in 1947 (the movie's based on a true story), he grabs a handful of sand from an urn at the entrance to his cell-block and places it in his jacket pocket. Once he gets to the cell, a guard frisks him, and questioning why he's got a pocketful of sand, Monseigneur says it helps with scouring the skillet they've been allotted for their stovetop. Once inside the cell, we discover that Monseigneur's also pocketed two vials, and voila! they create an hourglass that they soon determine takes a half-hour to drain the sand.

I won't give away another fragment of Le Trou, but I'll leave you with this aircheck of Count Basie playing "It's Sand, Man." (The tune was written by Ed Lewis and arranged by Buck Clayton. Lester Young is billed in this YouTube frame, but the original tenor soloist was Don Byas and is most likely Buddy Tate here.) In Good Morning Blues, The Autobiography of Count Basie, the great bandleader related a story about the effect the tune had on a Los Angeles audience in 1944. "We opened with a tune called "It's Sand, Man," and when we jumped on top of that one, everybody rushed out onto the floor, but instead of dancing, they came hopping down and sat on the floor around the bandstand, and we had to do that number again. So we hopped right back on it, and they just loved it, and we went on running chorus after chorus for I don't know how many bars."

Basie's recollection of the tune includes an interesting riff on its vernacular implications. "The title is taken from a dance step that was in style at that time called the sanding or doing the sand. It was a light shuffle step...from side to side like spreading sand on the floor with your feet. In the jive language of that time, if you accused somebody of sanding you, it meant he was bowing and scraping around like a servant hyping the boss man. If you said somebody was a sandman, that meant he was an Uncle Tom. But you could also do a little sanding to get next to a chick, especially if you were trying to get back with her after having messed up." Now that's some signifyin' on sand!