Dr. Jeni LeGon is one neat lady, one of the top tap dancers of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, a teacher who loves her students and fun to be around. Vancouver has been her home since 1969, where she shares a West End apartment with her husband, drummer and singer, Frank Clavin.
As a 16-year-old girl from Chicago, she was dancing in the Count Basie Orchestra’s chorus line and went on to perform with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers and Fats Waller, whom she worked with throughout her career. She danced regularly in Harlem’s Apollo Theater and, as the first black woman to sign an extended contract with a Hollywood studio, appeared in the 1935 MGM musical Hooray for Love, Birth of the Blues, Stormy Weather, Hi De Ho and Easter Parade. LeGon’s red shoes from Ali Baba Goes to Town are on display at the Smithsonian and the NFB released Grant Greshuck’s documentary Jeni LeGon: Living in a Great Big Way in 1999. Three years later she was inducted into the Tap Hall of Fame while Oklahoma City University conferred upon her the honorary degree Doctor of Performing Arts in American Dance.
What’s new for LeGon? For one, she says, a revival of Fats Waller’s Broadway musical Early to Bed. “It was in 1941, I think it was, that we opened and we were there for about three years. Fats Waller wrote all the music to it and it was a very, very good show. It was a big hit. It got wonderful reviews from Walter Winchell and different people and it was a big success. The thing that was interesting is that during that time is when Agnes de Mille did Oklahoma! and she put in the modern ballet. Tap, of course, had been the main thing for all of the wonderful dance shows in New York at the time and she sort of she ran us off the stage.
“So ballet became the thing and the tappers had to more or less sleep awhile because she ran us off. But it was wonderful! We were across the street from her, at the time, at the theatre there. It was successful and we stayed there.
“It was grand! Lots of fun!” she laughs. “And all the tappers were talking about, ‘Oh, what is this new stuff?’”
Artistic Director’s Mel Miller’s new production of Early to Bed will be presented at Manhattan’s off-Broadway’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre March 17–29, 2009. “There are five of us who were in the show originally who are still alive, and he wants to use us in some sort of way in reviving it.”
Secondly, she enthuses, “I received a new award here, down in Austin, Texas, last week.” LeGon and Clavin had put up the 2008 Tapestry Award the day before and she reads aloud the salutation: “‘Dr. Jeni LeGon: For your timeless dedication to the art of tap dance.’ It’s just simply gorgeous! That’s my 46th reward from different places,” she laughs with obstinate joy.
This month LeGon turns 92. “My birthday is August the 14th and my husband’s birthday is August the 19th, and so we sort of celebrate a little bit. We’ve been down in Seattle for the last three years with a show we’ve been doing on a regular basis there – we’re going again this year – called the Century Masters of Lindy Hop and Tap [August 13–17].” After that? “There’s a possibility that I might get a chance to have my life done in a movie. I don’t know for sure. It’s in the semi-planning. It’s not settled yet but there’s a possibility that a company here wants to do my life story. We’d get to it next year, they said.”
LeGon has done it all, with just about everybody, even a role in Snoop Dogg’s 2001 film Bones. “I’ve had a very rare experience in my lifetime. I’ve worked with some of the most wonderful performers in the past and I’ve had a chance to meet a whole bunch of wonderful performers of the past and it’s been really enlightening for me because when I look back on it I say: My goodness! I was just a young, little, skinny girl from Chicago and I had a chance to work with all these wonderful people. I can’t believe it but it’s happened. I’m very, very happy. Very happy.”
Article originally appeared in VLM: Vancouver's Lifestyle Magazine, August 2008.
Photo of Jeni Legon by Rich Hansen
Gary Barclay is a Vancouver-based jazz writer and broadcaster. His On The Town column appears monthly in VLM: Vancouver's Lifestyle Magazine. For a free print subscription to VLM log on to vlmag.ca.