Special to the Plain Dealer
Expect high style, high-stepping, good humor and deep theatricality when the Cab Calloway Orchestra plays the Palace Theatre today. Even though its creator died nearly nine years ago, the orchestra is determined to keep the legacy of the big-band swing era so alive and kicking that it's more swing than legacy.
Under the direction of Calloway's grandson, C. Calloway Brooks, the orchestra updates traditional repertoire from the Harlem Renaissance era, along with some Brooks originals.
Many remember Calloway for his appearances in "The Blues Brothers" movie and Janet Jackson's "Alright" video. Others recall him for cameos in films such as 'The Cincinnati Kid" and "St. Louis Blues." Yet others remember him as an early prince of hip for tunes such as "Minnie the Moocher," "I Beeped When I Should’a Bopped" and a series of ditties based on "Hi-De-Ho." "I feel he's sort of the icon of the swing era," Brooks said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Westchester County, N.Y.
Although the music Calloway made in the late 1920s to thelate'40s is easy to characterize, his mastery of the media made him timeless, Brooks said. Cab Calloway and His Orchestra performed tunes characterized by low-register saxophones, virtuosic trumpets and a Kansas City-style rhythm section, Brooks said. In fact, he said, the group anticipated the more overtly jazzy styles of Count Basie in the Missourians, the band Calloway fronted at Harlem's Cotton Club early in the Depression.
Among the musicians who played in the band fronted by the "Royal Highness of Hi-De-Ho" were saxophonists Ben Webster and Chu Berry, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Cozy Cole and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
While his influence was greatest in jazz, Calloway was echoed stylistically by Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the great'80s band led by August Darnell, and by Prince, the most flamboyant rock artist of that decade, 'We're kind of like the Swiss Army knife of bands," said Brooks, who launched his orchestra in the late 1990s. "My Granddad's persona is able to plug into a lot of settings. For me, that's the quintessentially American feature about it, It's able to combine many diverse aesthetic streams in a way that's greater than the sum of its parts and still manages to appeal to the different sensibilities it encounters."
Brooks' orchestra aims to evoke the early 20th century.
'You had people like Benny Goodman and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and my grandfather, all of whom went into this Harlem, post-Louis Armstrong milieu. They pulled together streams from Africa and from Hasidic and Hispanic music, and during that time, this music was loved popularly," he said.
How does his grandfathers legacy live on today? "I think almost all of hip-hop, a lot of rhythm and blues, a little bit of rock'n'roll," Brooks said. "And the whole subcultural language. He was a real pioneer of that."
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