June 14, 2002

Interreflective Energy

A Calloway performance ignites audience participation


By ANN MARIE STEWART
Tribune Correspondent

 

For jazz fans around the world, the name Cab Calloway is immediately associated with his most famous song, the sultry yet playful "Minnie the Moocher," which he performed in the film "The Blues Brothers" with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The hook for the song: the familiar call and response phrase "Hi-de-Hi-de-Hi-de-Hi."

 

But outside of being a catchy part of a song, that phrase, which bears a passing resemblance to Ned Flanders' "Hi-diddly-ho" in "The Simpsons," is a greeting to friends, an invitation to exchange. And it is just that warm interactive quality that is present at Cab Calloway Orchestra performances.

 

"Live performance is one of the most powerful and fascinating of cultural phenomena," said C. Calloway Brooks, Cab's grandson and musical heir, the current director of the Cab Calloway Orchestra. "When you watch TV or listen to a CD, it usually isn't as interreflective, it's largely solitary. A Calloway performance always surfs with that interreflective energy of a crowd of people.  "That's one of the reasons why there is more audience participation in a Calloway performance than with any other Jazz artist. Expect to do a little singing yourself," Brooks added.

 

In 1996, two years after his granddad passed away, Calloway began prelaunch preparations for the creation of the orchestra.  "I pulled together hundreds of his original charts from his golden era and some of the finest jazz musicians in New York and performed the orchestrations, some of which had never been recorded," he said. "That was the birth of the band I now lead."

 

Like rock 'n' roll, big band music draws from diverse musical styles and blends them together to create a new amalgam. It is perhaps this aspect of jazz that Calloway finds most appealing and American.  "In order to create this music, many American cultures came together on a co-equal basis, including African, European, Native American and Hispanic, in order to form a tremendously successful, truly authentic American sound," he said. "Cotton Club-style music epitomizes the possibilities inherent in merging American diversity. In the patriotic fervor sweeping the country, even before 9/11, swing is really the most American of all art music, the one which the world most clearly identifies with the United States.  "The music helps us look beyond the things that divide us and celebrate our common humanity."

 

Brooks comes from rich musical roots, sharing his grandfather's bloodline, training at the New England Conservatory of Music and earning a degree, as well as having his unique experiences watching Cab and performing with him.  "When I was just a little tyke and Granddad was in town, he was the de facto day care, and it gave me a chance to spend time with him in the hotel and to watch him rehearse the band," Brooks said. "Once, when Mom came to pick me up at the Blue Room, I refused to go home. I was just mesmerized watching him. I spent a lot of time watching him perform and rehearse, all through his life, to his very last years sitting down together, talking about the music. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we see and choose our parents, so who knows."

 

Every day Brooks carries on the tradition of American big band music. Made popular during the 1930s and 1940s by Calloway and other famous jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne and Dizzy Gillespie (all of whom performed with Calloway at some point in their careers), swing music and the big band sound is still energetic, joyous and soulful -- and still appealing to audiences, young and old.  According to Brooks, his granddad's last wish was that he would try to keep the music alive.

 

"We were sitting in the den of his huge house in White Plains in New York, listening to a recording of the band, and he got all choked up, which was rare, because he was one tough cookie offstage," Brooks said. "Granddad talked about the music and said that he couldn't understand why more people didn't know and love it. He said he was afraid it would die out and that everybody would forget it.

 

"I'm glad so many people are helping me prove the old man wrong. I somehow know that Granddad is smiling down on us and maybe scatting along to some of his favorite tunes.

of his favorite tunes."