Author(s): Steve Greenlee, Globe Staff Date: November 8, 2002 Page: C10 Section: Arts
Cab Calloway, one of the hippest and most flamboyant bandleaders in the history of music, was not a press darling in his heyday, the '30s and '40s. The critics considered him a novelty act, long on flash and short on substance. While it's true that his tunes - with such names as "Papa's in Bed With His Britches On" and "Foo a Little Bally-Hoo" - smacked of silliness, his orchestra could match up with the best jazz bands, and moreover they were entertainers. Heck, it's where Dizzy Gillespie got his start.
Hindsight has done wonders for Calloway's reputation. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz notes that Calloway, who died in 1994, was "one of the most successful bandleaders" of his age and singles out his scat singing for praise. Alyn Shipton's recent tome "A New History of Jazz" spends a dozen pages on Calloway, calling him a "larger-than-life character" whose band "shaped the sound of the decade." C. Calloway Brooks is doing his part to make sure history doesn't forget the importance of his grandfather. Brooks (whose first name is Christopher) leads the Cab Calloway Orchestra, which performs tomorrow night at "Steppin' Out," the annual benefit
for Dimock Community Health Center. The event takes place at Boston's World Trade Center from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. The Calloway band is among the evening's 25 performers, who also include another progeny of jazz royalty: drummer T.S. Monk Jr., son of the famous bebop pianist Thelonious Monk.
Brooks, who is writing a biography of his grandfather, wants to spread the word about him as much as he wants to entertain. "It's really been underappreciated that he was a full performance artist," says Brooks, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music who took over the band four years after his grandfather died. "A lot of the critical public had a great difficulty in getting one's arms around the African-American aspects of my grandfather's art. It was really befuddling to many critics used to European standards of aesthetic perfection."
With catchphrases such as "Hi-De-Ho" and "Are you all reet?" Calloway brought the call-and-response tradition into big-band jazz. His manner of dress - the zoot suit, the fieldworker's hat with the Native American feather, the European two-tone shoes - confused the critics, who couldn't reconcile his quirks and his stage presence with his musical talents, which might have appeared to be secondary but weren't.
Brooks's stage show (which will include 13 musicians tomorrow) may look like a trip back in time, but he says it's not merely a nostalgia act. While Brooks may dress like his grandfather and play his tunes, their voices sound nothing alike, and Brooks - a talented singer and guitarist in his own right - doesn't try to imitate Calloway.
"Basically, what I've done is taken material from the golden era of the Calloway repertoire and use that as kind of a basis for a fresh offering and a fresh slant on swing, and my own individual and unique approach to the Calloway legacy and the swing legacy generally. We do my own original songs, and we rearrange a lot of the Calloway repertoire," he says. "It is by no means intended as a Calloway clone kind of presentation. By the same token, it's heavily influenced by it."
Brooks, who lives in Westchester, N.Y., with his wife, was immersed in the jazz world early on. (Though he won't say how old he is, he appeared on Edward R. Murrow's TV show as an infant with his grandfather in 1958, and he enrolled at the New England Conservatory in 1976 - so we guess he's about 44.) One of Brooks's fondest memories is meeting Louis Armstrong backstage at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., at age 9. At NEC, he studied Third Stream music and tone color theory. He played with his grandfather's band, of course, but he has performed with Kenny Burrell, Anthony Braxton, and Lionel Hampton. In other words, he's a serious musician himself, not simply the heir to the Calloway throne.
But the question remains: Why? Why carry Cab Calloway's torch instead of trying to light your own? "It's an incredibly satisfying thing to do," Brooks says. "It's a very, very important piece of American heritage. I really feel as though my granddad, more than anybody else, epitomized the essence of the American spirit at the time."
Steve Greenlee can be reached at email@example.com