Jimmy Slyde Lives in Our Hearts (Oct 2, 1927-May 16, 2008)
by Melba Huber — Jun 27, 2008 (Dancer Magazine)
For the many who loved Jimmy Slyde, it should be comforting to know that Jimmy died in the arms of a close friend, Roger A. Reed. Reed is a musician, and he and his wife Kathy have a dance and music school in a nearby town close to where Jimmy lived. Jimmy often stopped by their studio and began taking an interest in Kathy’s student, Rocky Mendes. Slyde often danced in a back studio, with a good floor that no one used, to prepare himself to go on the road in Savion Glover’s Footnotes tour. His Achilles tendon, which he had snapped in New Orleans, had been recently reattached.
For quite some time Mendes had been checking in with Jimmy and helping with many chores and personal needs. Reed recognized that Slyde was a private person and did not want to impose, but when things became more difficult and Mendes needed help, Reed pitched in. Reed plays piano, guitar and numerous instruments and would always play for Slyde and even tuned his piano. He wrote a song called “Slydology.”
“Sometimes Roc and I would ride over together; other times, like Jimmy’s last night, it would just be one of us,” Reed said. That night, it was Reed. He showed up about 11:00 p.m. and served Slyde some Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream, which he enjoyed immensely. Slyde asked him to play the piano.
“I played a few numbers on the Starch (piano), the last of which was “On Green Dolphin Street,” and I came to a halt, momentarily forgetting a chord change. Jimmy hollered something out to me that I couldn’t quite make out, and I just said, “Yeah, I know,” figuring it was something about my numb fumbling on the keys,” Reed recalled.
“But he spoke again, and this time I thought I’d better go in and see how he was doing. He wanted to get up so I gave him a hand, and he stood in place momentarily, took a few steps to the left, then back and said, ‘I wanna’ sit down.
“I sat down next to him. He then said what would be his last words, ‘Hold me.’ “I put my right arm around him and took his left shoulder with my left hand and within a few seconds, he went limp. I gently let him down. It was quiet and ‘round midnight.”
“I could not disagree more strongly. He was incessantly teaching; he just didn’t want to do it for a living. He said to me, ‘I couldn’t do what you do,’ but teaching, or to use his term, nudging, is what Jimmy was born to do. The night before he passed away, Jimmy had me doing steps beside the bed: “Biddy-biddy-bop….Biddy-biddy-bip-bop.”
“I met Robert L. Reed for the first time at Slyde’s funeral. Robert and Jimmy were on the cover of Dancer in November, 2004 (Melba’s Tappin’ In photo). Reed had a clock made with that photo on it, and a blanket with the image embroidered on it in black and white. I threw that blanket over Jimmy countless times, day and night. He loved that blanket. I was pleased to be able to tell Robert about that.”
Slyde’s funeral at Union Methodist Church in Boston was beautiful. Dancers spoke and danced, some with tears and smiles. Barry Harris played and sang a lovely tune he’d written for Slyde. Andy McGhee played his saxophone, a poem from Sarah Petronio was read. In the words of friends and colleagues…
Pete Peterson: musician
“I met Jimmy in 1957 in Hollywood, California. Roy Haynes, the great drummer and a lifetime friend of Jimmy’s introduced us. Over the next 51 years, we hung out in diverse cities.
One day in 1958, Jimmy and I were walking home on Vine Street in Hollywood when he stopped to look in the window of Sy Devore, a clothing store that sold clothes to movie stars such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. Jimmy was looking at a woman’s purse and I said, ‘Hey Slyde, why are you looking at that purse?’”
He said, “If I ever get any money, I will know where to get something for my girl.” “What girl?” I asked. “Lil,” he said. “Who is Lil,” I asked? “My Mom,” he said.
Rocky Mendes: student
“Slyde was Slyde. For those who didn’t know him, read about him, watch him and try to figure him out….cause those of us who did know him, we are still trying. He was a loving and caring man that gave you something every time you were in his presence. He was a teacher of teachers or as he would say, ‘just a nudger.’ We will love and remember Dr. Jimmy Slyde.”
Robert L. Reed: dance artist, producer
“Jimmy was everything to me: mentor, friend, confident, father and a spiritual guide. ‘You gotta’ mount to something and pay attention,’ Slyde would advise.”
Barry Altschul: musician
“I am a professional jazz musician who plays the drums and feel honored to have been a very close personal friend, as well as someone who has performed with Jimmy Slyde. We have been like family for 35 years. There is so much to say about Jimmy. He was an astute, smart, intelligent and elegant man who gave much of himself to all who came in contact with him. He was a great teacher about life, music and dance just by being who he was. We have had many experiences together. One which comes to mind was a time we were in Paris, France where we visited a club owned by the great blues singer, Memphis Slim.
“Jimmy called the tune “Rainy Day,” a ballad, when he was asked to dance. This was a surprise to me that a tap dancer would call a ballad for a jam session. How he danced to it was brilliant, his musicality in what he tapped reminded me of a saxophone player playing a solo, the rhythms and flow, his elegance in motion and his swing drew a standing ovation. Whenever I now think of him, his life and who he was, brings a smile to my heart. He will be missed by all who knew him and knew of him.”
Sali Ann Kriegsman: a special friend
“While I was at Jacob’s Pillow, I invited Jimmy to serve, along with Dianne Walker, as artistic adviser to a new community dance program we had begun in the Berkshires, Massachusetts. He traveled back and forth a half dozen times over the year to coach and inspire school teachers and students and aspiring dancers of all ages. Among his appearances, he agreed to perform out of doors in a small community park in Pittsfield. The outdoor stage was soaked by a sudden downpour. We were about to cancel. “Jimmy looked around at the two dozen or so children who had turned out to see him and asked if we could find some wood to put on the grass under a very small tent that had been set up for refreshments. A piece of plywood was found and he danced in the rain to the delight of those who drew close to him and then stayed on to ask each child ‘show me your steps, what you like to do’ encouraging each one in turn
“Those children couldn’t have known he was a great artist, a beloved star in tap’s firmament. I wondered if in later years they would come to know who it was who danced for them and had given them just a word or two of encouragement that might have made a whole lot of difference in their lives.”
Avi Miller and Ofer Ben: producers, performers
“In early 2005, we spoke with Dr. Jeni LeGon to let her know that we intended to do a workshop series to honor Dr. Jimmy Slyde. She responded by telling us that even her generation (about ten years older than Dr. Slyde) looked up to Jimmy as the ‘master of the masters.’ ‘When Jimmy danced, we all paid attention,’ LeGon said.
“Dr. Slyde had a special aura surrounding him that made everyone pay extra attention,” Miller stated. “He was surely the wise statesman of the tap community. He was supportive of our work and we will miss him greatly as a mentor and as a friend.”
Melba Huber: teacher, writer
“He made a difference in my life. Our birthdays were October 1 and October 2, 1927. He would call on one of those days and say, ‘This is the birthday boy calling the birthday girl.’ Some times he would just call and talk to my Mom if I wasn’t home and she would proudly say, ‘I talked to Jimmy Slyde today!’ She is now 99 and loved talking to him.
“He carried Dancer Magazine around with him and would tell everyone, ‘If you want to read about tap, read Dancer.’ He knew he was encouraging me by doing this. I just learned that he would ask Roger Reed to bring over their studio copy because they got it before he got his. I have a beautiful letter that he wrote me about my work and I treasure it, just as I will always remember the inspiration he gave to so many. He never missed St. Louis Tap Festival and was so supportive of Robert L. Reed in honoring all the hoofers. He loved Robert like a son.
“Jimmy’s dancing was exquisite. His sense of humor was always there with great timing. He was a no nonsense business man and an unequaled performer…the top of the list.”