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Rochester Democrat Chronicle,  February 2002

Hailing a Cab

That's Rochester's own Cab Calloway, whose orchestra returns under his grandson's baton

By Jeff Spevak
Democrat and Chronicle

(February 3, 2002) -- The University of Rochester academicians were cloaked in blue-and-gold finery one afternoon in 1993 as Cab Calloway, native Rochesterian, received his honorary doctorate.

''I was sitting directly behind him,'' recalls Paul Burgett, UR vice president and general secretary. ''I looked at his feet, and he was wearing black socks that had red dice embroidered on them. The guy sitting next to me, who was also a university official, and I started chuckling to ourselves. After the ceremony was over he says to Cab, 'Dr. Calloway, let's swap socks.' Calloway just looked at him and said, 'Thanks, but no dice.' ''

No dice: Calloway invented that kind of jive talk seven decades ago. It's one of the Jazz Age's cultural signatures that can be traced, in part, to Calloway.

''He was probably saying 'no dice' in 1930,'' Burgett says. ''And in answer to my friend's question, Cab Calloway's jive is as effective today as it was then.''

As the Cab Calloway Orchestra arrives in town this week to carry on his legacy with a Saturday show at Nazareth College Arts Center, many know Calloway best for his hit ''Minnie the Moocher.'' But
Calloway's impact was widespread. The flamboyant style of the actor, singer, bandleader, composer, linguist -- horse-track raconteur, even -- was a thread that ran through all of his work until his death in 1994 at age 86 -- and it continues even today. Perhaps even hip-hop owes a little to Calloway.

That legacy began in Rochester, where Calloway was born on Christmas Day 1907. Our claim is tenuous -- he moved to Baltimore with his family when he was 5 -- but it is celebrated with a plaque in Otto Henderberg Square, a small park on Sycamore Street in the South Wedge. Calloway's family lived there, in a house long since demolished.

C. Calloway Brooks, too, is preserving that legacy. ''The kind of representation we do is a little bit different,'' says Calloway's grandson, who assumed his grandfather's zoot suit and baton a few years ago at the head of the Cab Calloway Orchestra. ''Granddad's shows were a little more Las Vegas the last 10, 15 years. A little more pop music. Right now, the focus of the Calloway Orchestra is on the authentic Calloway, his golden age of the late '20s to late '40s.''

That time included the 10 years he shared billing with Duke Ellington as the house orchestra at Harlem's Cotton Club.

''It's the Harlem Renaissance kind of sound, the prime years of the swing era,'' Brooks says.

Burgett, who occasionally teaches music history and theory classes at UR, says, ''I think we can fairly generalize that the language of people like Cab and others, in the bebop and subsequent beatnik generations, informs American colloquial speech today.''

Calloway was at the very least instrumental in propagating that style of speech -- ''jive'' -- with a slang compendium called Mr. Hepster's Jive Talk Dictionary. He coined words such as ''beat'' (tired), ''chick'' (woman), ''pad'' (apartment), "jam'' (musical improvisation) and ''square'' (unhip).

''In many ways, he was one of the most influential fibers in the development of American culture,'' Brooks says. ''Jive was integrated into his whole modality of speech.''

Style was a big part of the Calloway legacy, which reportedly inspired George Gershwin to create the character Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess.

''Cab Calloway, in movies like Stormy Weather and others, was the personification of the idea of jive,'' Burgett says of his roles.

Playing Calloway meant wearing a zoot suit, a loose-fitting, huge, overlong jacket with padded shoulders and heavily draped trousers, worn with a long watch chain and broad-brimmed hat. Brooks points out that, at a recent hip-hop retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, ''One of the very first things people saw when they stepped in the door was one of Grandfather's zoot suits.''

Calloway was the original Mack Daddy. Brooks cites his grandfather's ''Come On With the 'Come On' '' as a hip-hop precursor. ''If you just changed the groove and sorta the vocal approach,'' he insists, ''it could pass for a hip-hop song in a heartbeat.''

More obviously, however, ''He was a huge influence on the swing revival,'' Brooks says, listing recently popular acts such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

The best known of Calloway's songs, of course, was ''Minnie the Moocher.'' Unbeknownst to some listeners is the sly reference to drugs. Today, Brooks will sometimes eliminate the line about Minnie's boyfriend being ''a little cokey.''

''It depends on the crowd,'' Brooks says. ''For this crowd, we will do it, because it will be pretty much of an adult audience.''

But the question of black performers even going there has always been a dicey one. Calloway's drug songs include ''Reefer Man,'' and he even played the cocaine-dealing Sportin' Life on stage. And at the Cotton Club, which was segregated in the early years, he performed for a largely white audience.

''There has long been a kind of tension in the African-American community about how African-Americans are portrayed in the popular media,'' Burgett says. ''It goes back to the minstrel syndrome. Louis Armstrong did what Louis Armstrong did, going back to minstrel days, because that's how you made a living. But the black intelligentsia often struggled with how blacks were portrayed.''

Brooks sees the sometimes seedy aspect of his grandfather's characters as useful.

''Granddad ended the national state of denial about drug use,'' he says. ''He had other characters who used drugs -- Smokey Joe. And other songs, like 'Reefer Man.' But he never cast drugs in any positive sort of light.'' 

C. Calloway Brooks -- complete with zoot suit -- is the grandson of the flamboyant Cab Calloway, shown at top in his role in 'The Blues Brothers.'

Jive Talkin'

What: The Cab Calloway Orchestra.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Nazareth College Arts Center, 4245 East Ave., Pittsford.

Admission: $32. The Nazareth box office is open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and an hour before the show.

Call: (585) 389-2170. 


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