It all started, reckons Alex Dugdale, when he saw Savion Glover — and Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire — tap dance on TV, and decided, “I want to do that, too.”
Now 23, Dugdale is a jazz saxophonist with a recent undergrad degree from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. And he’s still a devoted tapper. This week, in Earshot Jazz’s “Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music” concert with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, he will step and glide through a number originated by the late, great jazz hoofer Bunny Briggs, “David Danced Before the Lord.”
Seattle resident Dugdale, stockily built but feather-light on his feet, has performed the extended solo every year with Earshot since 2006. But every year it is new.
“There’s a lot of improvisation and finding different rhythmic motifs that work at a fast tempo,” he explains. “And it’s a lot of joy and freedom, doing what I do and just trusting it will come together.”
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Though he exudes an affable, jazzman-style aura of low-key cool, Dugdale is clearly passionate about making music — with his feet, and his horn. He and his band Fade perform often at Lucid, in the U-District. He also plays with the Smith Staelens Big Band at Tula’s, and with the Hal Sherman Big Band.
And Dugdale is committed to turning younger people on to music. Toting a strip of dance flooring in his trunk, he has put over 10,000 miles on his Toyota Matrix in the past year, dashing between gigs and teaching stints at local schools.
Yet while his talent flared early, Dugdale had to muster extra determination and drive to become the hardworking pro he is.
Born in Colombia, and brought to the U.S. as an infant by his adopted father, a doctor, and his mother, a nurse, Dugdale started tap lessons at Seattle’s Johnson and Peters Tap Studio at age 6. He threw himself into talent shows, recitals, and at 8, became Tiny Tim in the studio’s popular “Tap Dance Christmas Carol” show.
Several years later, Dugdale was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “My dad took a huge interest in helping me manage my illness,” he says, adding matter-of-factly, “It’s physically strenuous, tap dancing. And that can really affect your blood sugar. But I haven’t passed out onstage yet!”
While in the Eckstein Middle School jazz program, he learned to monitor his blood sugar, administer insulin and eat regular, healthy snacks. Though shy as a child, Dugdale says Eckstein music teacher Moc Escobedo (“he’s a really great mentor”) boosted his confidence, encouraging him to play clarinet and sax, and keep dancing. Later, in Roosevelt High School’s award-winning jazz band, Dugdale traveled with his peers to the Essentially Ellington high-school competitions in New York.
“I was the band’s secret weapon,” he notes with a puckish grin. “I’d jump out of nowhere during a number and dance.”
After the supportive high-school music scene in Seattle, studying at Eastman was a rough adjustment for Dugdale. “It’s so rigorous and competitive, and there’s a lot of attitude among the students. They call it vibing, like sending out bad vibes to someone.”
Though his focus was on studying saxophone, he never gave up on dance. “But I got a lot of flak for it,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘Oh Dugdale isn’t a real musician. He only made it in because he’s black and dances.’ I got that all the time.”
The extra stress, along with managing two health conditions (diabetes and attention-deficit disorder), took a toll on Dugdale. But with typical resourcefulness, he found a “lifesaver” outlet for his hoofing, by joining University of Rochester’s Radiance Dance Theatre.
Dugdale doesn’t see his bebop-inflected sax playing and dancing as separate pursuits. “I view myself as an instrumentalist who taps. My style is percussive, but it changes depending on the music or sometimes from step to step.”
In Seattle, no one ribs him about his dual passions.
“Everybody I’ve met here,” he says happily, “ thinks it’s pretty awesome that I play music and dance, too.”