PBS' 'American Masters' to air new tribute to Cab Calloway for Black History Month

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A new documentary on legendary bandleader and showman Cab Calloway will air on the PBS program “American Masters” as part of Black History Month. Cab Calloway: Sketches premieres nationally on Monday, February 27.

Best known for his signature song “Minnie the Moocher,” his inspirational role in the creation of Sportin’ Life for Porgy and Bess, and his appearance in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, Calloway died in 1994 — but not before becoming a profound influence on figures as disparate as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (who both apprenticed in his big band), Michael and Janet Jackson (who cribbed his signature onstage persona) and many of today’s hip-hop artists (who owe an endless debt to his way with the language).

Watch Cab Calloway: Sketches on PBS. See more from American Masters.

I wrote this column on Cab Calloway as part of an obituary package for the international Gannett News Service wire upon Calloway’s passing. He was 86 …

Between the tombstones of the two World Wars, there emerged the knock-down joys of swing music. Perhaps no single figure from the period was more affable, or more famous, than was Cab Calloway. Turns out, he’s still salve for a conflict-weary country, even after all this time.

Back then, the repeal of Prohibition, and the slow upward climb of American economics after the Great Depression fueled the frenzy around this upbeat jazz. The time was right, and maybe it is again, for an explosive, even wild, popular music. Enter the hip phraseology — ooh-bop-sh’bam! — fresh, lowdown jackets and wide-brimmed hats. Enter, too, Cabell Calloway, who began his career as a big-band leader in 1929.

That was the year he took over leadership of a midwestern group called the Missourians, producing a brash sound that seemed, at the time, almost violently danceable. His singing, with a vast range that went from bone-deep bass to squinting falsetto, was astonishing — and completely outside the then-considered standard style of Louis Armstrong. Onstage, he was just as visually explosive, juking around the bandstand, chicken-winging his arms.

It would be said, first and foremost, that Calloway was a dazzling, truly revelatory entertainer — and this was long before the word applied to people who try a lot of things and are good at none of them. But, make no mistake about his fleet group of backing-band hipsters. From his units emerged some of the music’s most important names, including Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Milt “The Judge” Hinton, Doc Cheatam, Don Redman and Danny Barker, among others. It was while touring, in fact, with Calloway’s band that a young Dizzy Gillespie would run into a saxophonist named Charlie Parker. Result: the thing that would overtake swing — bebop.

Calloway became so popular that he would one day replace Ellington as the Cotton Club’s regular act. Along the way, he matched or bested any of the big bands for recorded output. The period included the sexy then smoking “Minnie the Moocher,” his first — and best — hit. “Jumpin’ Jive,” another million seller, spawned one of the most popular dances during World War II.

By the late 1940s, however, the new sound coming from next-gen innovators like Bird had begun to matter more. Calloway’s core group disbanded, and he moved into film (“Stormy Weather”) and musical theater (“Hello, Dolly!” and “Porgy and Bess”). Gershwin, in fact, was said to have modeled the role of Sportin’ Life from “Porgy and Bess” on Calloway.

He continued to assemble the occasional band, and made a celebrated appearance in the 1980 hit film “The Blues Brothers.” But in the period leading up to his passing in the early 1990s, Calloway’s frisky, fun voice had been largely quieted.

Even today, though, like Ella or Sinatra, he seems to loom larger in silence.

Calloway could take funny and far-from-deep, even lyrically empty tunes and breathe swinging life into them. That seems as important in our modernity as it did back then. These records are forever young.

Calloway is always of sharp dress and even sharper attitude — head flung back, hair a-flying. He scats, he scoots. “Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee ho,” he sings, jowls going. And, always, we smile.

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