Thoughts of "CB" Director of The Calloway Orchestra C. Calloway Brooks.
What are some of the things you feel are most special about your grandfather?
Cab Calloway has brought great joy and happiness to millions of people. His uniquely American celebration of life was so joyous, gripping, seductive and compelling that it caused people to forget their problems and divisions and to recognize their common humanity in a new way. My grandfather was certainly one of the most successful performing musicians of the 20th century. His performing career spanned 70 years. The name Cab Calloway and his Hi De Ho slogan are universally known. Granddad was a brilliant communicator and artist who immersed himself in the moment and was thrilled with creating and melding new ways of moving an audience.
What should people expect when they come to your Cab Calloway Orchestra performances?
Live performance is one of the most powerful and fascinating of cultural phenomena because hundred and thousands of people go through a collective emotional experience that is both simultaneous and inter-reflective because theyíre all in the same room reacting to each other. When you watch TV or listen to a CD, it usually isnít as inter-reflective, itís largely solitary. A Calloway performance always surfs with that inter-reflective energy of a crowd of people. Thatís one of the reasons why there is more audience participation in a Calloway performance than with any other Jazz artist. Granddad used to say ďIím a performing artist, not a recording artistĒ. Audiences will get that Calloway feeling. Fun, tight ensemble work, authenticity, freshness, nice staging and presentation thatís what you get as well. And such a range of musical colors! You wonít just be listening to 1 or 2 soloists all night: weíve got trumpets, bass, saxophones, piano, trombones, drums, and each one gets a feature at some point in the performance, plus I play guitar as well as sing and conduct the orchestra. Expect to see a Zoot suit and to sing a little yourself. We also do a few originals. The band has a huge dramatic range: happy, tragic, intimate, bombastic, dazzling, it is basically a ďgood time bandĒ at the root. So expect to walk away smiling.
What are some of your earliest memories of your grandfather?
Both my mother and father worked full time, so when granddad came to town, he was the instant babysitter. My earliest memory of him is watching him rehearse the band at the old Shoreham blue room in Washington D.C. (where was born and I grew up) when I was about 4 or 5 years old. That was absolutely the most fascinating thing I had ever seen. Unforgettable! My mom came back to pick me up and I angrily refused to leave! She tried everything to get me to go with her, but finally she let me stay, and I guess Iíve never been the same since.
What are some of the features of the Calloway style?
He had an uncanny ability to be both a bit irreverent and yet enormously relevant at the same time. The Calloway performance style is so utterly American: it combines so many diverse cultural and artistic streams into something greater than their parts while displaying a unique expressive coherence that never fails to capture the imagination of all our audiences today. It epitomizes the Swing era, and comes directly out of the Harlem Renaissance. My grandfather always said that as a bandleader and artist, his greatest satisfaction was to bring such exquisite delight to so many people. Today, Iím proud to say that our legacy continues to do just that.
How Did You Pull All This Together?
Iím Cabís grandson by his first of 3 wives. I first started playing guitar at age 7, won my first musical awards at age 11, and went on from there to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music. As a Conservatory graduate, and having had the experience of performing with my grandfather, I wanted nothing more than to continue his legacy, and he encouraged me to do this. A few years after he passed away, 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. That was the birth of the band I now lead, Cab Calloway Orchestra.
What was it like to start the band?
Iíll never forget our first rehearsal a few years after granddad passed away. These grizzled cocky, top gunslinger, world famous New York musicians whoíve seen it all, came up to me with tears in their eyes saying that they hadnít had this feeling for years, and that they were afraid after Cab died that they would never have it again. They were so glad, and knew what we were doing is so important. I got a bit emotional myself as I recall, I still do. After something like that, there is no way I will let our legacy down. Itís my honor and duty to lead great musicians through great music, and help the public appreciate a great American treasure, especially since the music is in my blood.
You did a lot of performing with your grandfather. What did you learn?
We worked together off and on for about 15 years. I learned how to relate to a crowd, how to pace yourself, how to program and sequence a show, how to keep track of the tempos, how to rehearse the ensemble, how to put your moves together, how to appear both on and off stage, how critical it is to be on time, and how important it is to work successfully with the many different people and personalities, and the collaboration it takes to be successful.
In maintaining your demanding touring schedule, whatís the best part of your job?
Working with people to do something wonderful together. The audience, the musicians, the sponsors, sound engineers, agents, mangers, producers, the stage hands, the travel agents, the pilots the drivers, the hotel workers, the ushers. When people work together to get something this sweet to happen for other people, itís just a great, great feeling, like a flower blooming, or a light shining in everybodyís heart, and I really go for that feeling from the very first note of the performance.
What are your favorite Cab Calloway performances?
His whole recorded output to me is pretty uniformly astounding, though lately Iíve been fascinated by his live sessions at the Cafť Zanzibar. In film , he was great in the Blues Brothers with Belushi and Aykroyd, St. Louis Blues with Nat King Cole, and The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson, but I like Stormy Weather with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson the best, though the Max Fleischer Betty Boop animations run a close second. The best I ever saw the man perform live, was the night he outdid Louis Armstrong at the National Theatre in Washington. Granddad sang It Ainít Necessarily So and just brought the house down. I wish I had a recording of that! I finally got to meet Louis for the first time after the show, I was just 9 years old. He didnít mind being upstaged by Cab: Granddad and Louis loved each other like brothers since the 20ís.
Do you have a personal story to share?
I will never forget one of our conversations together not long before Granddad had the massive stroke that took him. We were sitting in the den of his huge house in White Plains New York, listening to recordings of the band, and he got all choked up, which was rare, because he was one tough cookie offstage. Granddad talked about the music and said that he couldnít understand why more people didnít know and love it. He said he was afraid it would die out, and that everybody would forget it. Iím glad so many people are helping me prove the old man wrong for a change. I somehow know that Granddad is smiling down on us, and maybe scatting along to some of his favorite tunes.
Keep that HI DE HO in your soul!
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