The Cab Calloway Orchestra: Notes of Interest

Through dance, music, language, dress, attitude, and many other cultural developments, the Swing Era is recognized as the period in which America first discovered it’s own unique multi-cultural voice on a global scale.  Cab Calloway became the cultural epitome of the American Swing Era.  It is difficult to think of any other single figure who as visibly and effectively fostered, embraced and extolled as many aspects of this new and utterly American Swing culture as Cab Calloway. From our decade long residency at the Cotton Club and beyond, Calloway Orchestras have performed in ballrooms, theatres, concert halls, outdoor arenas, and clubs; breaking box office records globally, always dazzling the crowd, bringing the house down, and carrying the good news of the best that humanity has to offer. 


Musical Notes

The Calloway Orchestra became famous for its hot, unpretentious sound that featured confident soloists, simple, effective and highly rhythmic lyrics, precision sectionwork, a driving Kansas City style Rhythm section, low ranging saxophone writing, big powerful wails, uninhibited attitude, broad emotional range, and blues grounded inflection, and the charismatic singing and band leading of Cab Calloway.  It is multifaceted, open, fun loving, and has elements of Swing, Dixieland, Blues, European Classical, Boogie Woogie, early Be-Bop, early Rock, early R&B, and a host of other musical styles.  It always has a dramatic flair, and an enduring universal appeal to all sorts of audiences.

In the late 1920’s Cab Calloway was the only major bandleader to have shared the stage under the legendary Jazz master - Louis Armstrong.  Cab and Louis worked together at the hottest nightclub in Chicago at the time – the famed Sunset Café.  Cab’s band leading older sister, Blanche Calloway, introduced the two future musical giants in 1925.   Blanche, by all accounts was more famous than either Cab or Louis at the time. 

“Blanche Calloway and her Joy Boys” made some of the earliest recordings of Louis Armstrong as a sideman with Blanche’s band way back in 1925. Cab Calloway later credited Armstrong with freeing up his singing voice, and said that Louis was one of the main influences in his career.  Cab probably had a bit of influence on Louis as well, as they were lifelong friends.  Cab introduced his grandson; Calloway Brooks nicknamed “CB”, to Louis Armstrong when Brooks was just 9 years old.

Cab was always around great trumpet players such as Jonah Jones, Doc Cheatham, Shad Collins and Dizzy Gillespie.  Cab encouraged Dizzy Gillespie to record “Pickin the Cabbage” and “Paradiddle” when he was with the band, both of which are considered to be precursors to Be-bop and “modern” Jazz.  Many historians feel that the Calloway Orchestra was an incubator for that next era in jazz – the Be-Bop era.

In 1930 Cab and his band, The “Missourians”, roared into Harlem’s Cotton Club to replace the Duke Ellington Orchestra while Duke was on tour.  Cab’s debut was a huge success they changed their name to Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra, and took up residency at the club.  Calloway Brooks first met Ellington at age 3.

The Calloway theme song “Minnie The Moocher”, was one of Cab’s many wonderful works of American Urban Folklore about the culture and nightlife of Harlem. It became so popular that “Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho” became a catch phrase throughout the world.  “Minnie” was innovative in its use of responsorial audience participation.   As a major part of the Harlem Renaissance, Cab and his Orchestra recorded a whole series of songs following “Minnie The Moocher” that referenced the hip subculture of Harlem, and Cab’s special Urban Folklore of the era including: “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” “The Ghost of Smoky Joe,” “You Gotta Hi-De-Ho,” “Jitter Bug,” “The Man from Harlem” “The Scat Song,” and “Harlem Hospitality,” all of which were wildly popular.


Cultural Notes

One of the great things about Cab’s artistry is that that so many wonderful historic artists grew out of his band, and that so many of today’s artists turn to the Calloway approach for inspiration.  At the 2001 opening of the biggest-ever “Hip Hop” museum exhibit in New York, the very first thing a visitor sees is one of Cab Calloway’s own Zoot suits in a glass case.  Many of today’s R and B, Jazz, Hip Hop artists claim Cab Calloway as the root of their approach.

Cab became the cultural icon for what many researchers believe is the only truly American suit:  the Zoot Suit.  He did this at the same time that the so-called  “Zoot Suit Riots” were taking place in the US and became a cultural hero to Afro, Latino, and Anglo youth across the country.

Known as a multi-dimensional artist with tremendous style and wit, in 1938 Cab compiled and published “Cab Calloway’s Hepster Dictionary: The Language of Jive.”

There was a youth movement in France prior to and during the German occupation that named themselves the “ZazZous” after Cab’s famous scat singing song, Zah Zuh Zaz.  They later developed into a branch of the French Resistance, and used the song as their anthem during WWII.

During WWII the Calloway Orchestra recorded songs full of social commentary including “Doing the Reactionary,” “The Fuhrer’s Got the Jitters,” “The Great Lie,” “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” and “My Lament for V Day.”

Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra were the first major African American Jazz Orchestra to tour the south, and had a significant impact on the evolving cultural landscape of the time.


Dramatic Notes

Hollywood recognized Cab’s dramatic flair long ago, and he has appeared in dozens of films including the 1940’s classic -- Stormy Weather with Bill Bojangles Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers, and Katherine Dunham.  Cab also appeared in the 1950’s in St. Louis Blues with Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt, telling the life story of the great Blues Composer W.C. Handy.  Few other musicians have appeared in a film side by side with the likes of Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, and Ann Margaret as Cab did in the 60’s production of The Cincinnati Kid. More recently, Cab topped it off big in 1970’s,  “Hi de Ho-ing” right along in Belushi and Aykroyd’s smash hit, The Blues Brothers. There were appearances by other minor artists such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Ray Charles in The Blues Brothers.

In her groundbreaking video collection Design of a Decade not only does Janet Jackson sing about Cab Calloway in “All right”, but Cab himself struts the stage in a cameo at the finale, in his Zoot Suit no lessIt was one of his last major firm appearances, Cab passed on not too long afterwards in 1994.  


Legacy Notes

Cab introduced his grandson C. Calloway Brooks (CB) to the world on the Edward R. Murrow series “Person the Person” when CB was just a few weeks old infant Decades later, Brooks went on to perform and study extensively with his grandfather during the 1970’s and 1980’s and early 1990’s.  Now Brooks directs the Cab Calloway Orchestra.

The Cab Calloway Orchestra, directed by Cabs Grandson, C. Calloway Brooks continues to delight audiences nationally from the historic jazz club “Birdland” in New York, to venues all over the world.

After his granddad passed in 1994, C. Calloway Brooks retrieves hundreds of the Calloway Orchestra’s original charts, some of which have yet to be recorded.  Brooks also performs new and original works with the Orchestra.

C. Calloway Brooks, a dean’s list graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music assembles the world’s finest jazz musicians so that the Cab Calloway Orchestra will continue advancing the legacy of the great American Jazz Orchestra tradition.


Personal Notes

Cab was an avid fan of horse races, and sports generally.  Was always well dressed.  Lived in Westchester NY most of his life.  Was very particular about drummers. Died satisfied that he had lived his life to the fullest.  Had 3 wives, 5 daughters, and 5 grandsons.  Never owned a foreign car.   Cab loved barbecue cooking - and champagne.  

Keep That Hi De Ho In Your Soul!!