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,
''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
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''
''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
''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
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
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
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
''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
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.'
The Cab Calloway Orchestra.
8 p.m. Saturday.
Nazareth College Arts Center, 4245 East Ave., Pittsford.
$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.