How This Tap-Dancer-Turned-Composer Stays True to His Jazz Roots

January 19, 2021

From Riverdance to HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” tap dancer DeWitt Fleming Jr. has proved to be a triple threat on the stage and screen. He’s also an entrepreneur, selling his own line of wireless microphones, DeW It Right Tap Mics. Last year, he added “composer” to his resumé with the release of Sax and Taps INTERSPLOSION!, the first tap dance and jazz album recorded at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club. One of the songs, co-written with jazz saxophonist Erica von Kleist, was a finalist for last year’s Unsigned Only music competition.

“When you’re invited to dance with a jazz band, it’s always assumed that, as a tap dancer, you’re going to be a feature. If you go all the way back to New Orleans’ Congo Square, and even before then, dance was a part of the music. I wanted to stick to those roots and create an album where everything was intertwined.”

He recently spoke with Dance Magazine about his collaboration with von Kleist and the creation of their album.

Von Kleist stands on the left, while playing a saxophone. She has dark hair and wears brown sandals with a floral dress. Fleming Jr. looks at her as he tap dances to the right of her. He wears brown dap shoes, blue jeans and a burgundy button shirt. His arms are outstretched to the front and back of him. They stand in front of a red curtain with gold details.
Jazz saxophonist Erica von Kleist and tap dancer DeWitt Fleming Jr. perform together.

Photo by Vicky Good Photography, Courtesy Fleming

How he found jazz

“I started learning to play jazz drums when I was 12 or 13. The first book my mother got me was Jazz for Young People, about Wynton Marsalis. I met him about 15 years ago when I performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Coming back and recording something there was a dream come true.”

Working with jazz saxophonist Erica von Kleist

“The connection with Erica was immediate. We have a natural give-and-take, which is supposed to happen in jazz. A lot of times, it’s not easy when you’re working with jazz musicians. You have to massage someone’s ego or speak their language so they’ll let down their guard.

“I would send Erica a voice note of me sitting in the car singing out a bass line. Or I’d be on the subway, looking crazy, trying to scat the piano part, then the drum part, then the bass part. I would send her ideas, then she would shape them and add things.”

How to tell a story without the help of live performance

“We wanted to write something reflective of the times, that could speak to positivity and change. I was always taught as an artist you have a responsibility to use your platform in a positive way. Usually you can accomplish that in live theater. You have time to go through all those emotions, say your message, have your moment. At home, it’s hard. How do we reach an audience from home?

“The first song we wrote is called ‘Piggy Bank for Charity.’ We talked to a Jewish woman who was terrorized for years by a white supremacy group. She practices tzedakah, in which she puts some of her money in piggy banks, and once a piggy bank is full, she gives it to charity. The song has a repetitive melody that resembles dropping money into a piggy bank.”

On pulling the final product together

“We rehearsed literally a day before the show. We had booked the club a year in advance and wanted to do it live to save on studio costs. We gave the musicians the sheet music, got in the studio for a few hours, ran the songs, did a sound check the next day and then just did the show. We just had to make sure we had a good night—and we did.

“We are definitely continuing this work. We are writing new music and hope to have another album later this year.”