Date: Wed, 6 Dec 2006 17:34:41
From: Steve Voce
Subject: OT: Cab Calloway

I've just found an interview that I did with Cab Calloway more than 50 years ago.
Steve Voce

The recent visit of Little Jimmy Rushing to this country brings back memories of another great American singer who visited this country not so long ago.  Although he has little in common with Rushing, he did popularise a number which is now a standard in the Rushing repertoire -"Evening"". 

Cab Calloway spent several weeks in the autumn of 1955 playing to cheerless and diminutive variety audiences throughout the country.  It seems a pity that he couldn't have put his visit forward a couple of years to the present time when he would probably have gained the acclamation that his talents merit. 

Possessing all the attributes of a great jazz singer-a perfect ear, superb phrasing and timing, and the ability to swing a band with his own voice, it is highly desirable that Cab should be unearthed by somebody like John Hammond or George Avakian and restored to the place in jazz that should be his. 

Following a decade of virile hot music which placed Cab and his band second only to Duke Ellington for popularity, the Calloway band came to be regarded, in the late 'thirties, as the school for anyone with something new to say.  It featured such progressives of the time as Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glenn and Dizzy Gillespie.  Later it formed a refuge for such mid-period men as Jonah Jones, Sam Taylor, J.C.Heard, Keg Johnson, Shad Collins and Greely Walton.  Among the jazz greats whose talents flowered and matured with Calloway were Chu Berry, Milt Hinton,Danny Barker and Quentin Jackson

Cab himself, equipped as he was with a strict musical training and natural perfect pitch, required of his musicians that they should be equipped with fluent techniques, a sympathetic approach to section work and the ability to turn out a jazz chorus that was more than just good. 

"It's no good trying to be a musician unless you're satisfied that you've had a full musical training.  I spent a lot of time at grammar school and all my time at high school studying voice-about eight years in all. "

On such of his records as "St. James' Infirmary", "Harlem Camp Meeting" and "Harlem Hospitality" you can hear a combination of musical abilities not to be found anywhere else in jazz.  Along with Ella Fitzgerald, upon whose singing he has had a great influence, he has that technical confidence in his ability that enables him to give free rein to his jazz ideas without stumbling over any technical limitations. 

After hearing Cab's observations on the necessity of hard musical study, it was interesting to confront him with the case of Armstrong who has devoted about as much time to the subject as Lady Astor has to drinking draught Bass.  But Louis was the great exception:

"When you've got that much, man! You don't want any more. "

Louis and Cab have a certain similarity of phrasing, and I asked Cab about this. 

"Of course, Louis was singing and playing way before I was, and he influenced me quite a bit.  He was the only male singer around at that time, excluding the country boys, who was doing anything other than straight singing, and we became competitors later on.  But I don't say that I've ever copied anything from him.  Each of Louis' phrases was a thing of beauty on its own.  You listened to Louis - you didn't listen to the band.  I was concentrating more on swinging and getting the band to swing with me. "

According to Cab his first record was "Miss Jenny Lee", made for the Conqueror label, a subsidiary of RCA Victor, in 1928.  Cab says that the band was a pick-up group and he can't recall the personnel.  However, this would appear not to be Rust-proof, since the Hot Discography lists "Sweet Jennie Lee" on Conqueror 7769 as his second recording date on 14th October, 1930. 

Cab's first band was formed in 1929 and was known as the Alabamians, and he played second alto as well as taking the vocals.  It is a fact completely overlooked by most discographies that Cab played alto on several of his earlier recordings. 

"I brought the Alabamians from Chicago to New York in late 1928 and we went to work in the Savoy Ballroom.  We were a big flop there because we were playing Chicago jazz, and they didn't like it too much in New York.  They were playing the Eastern style, and it had a more solid and cumbersome beat to it.  The kids couldn't dance too good to our music, and they really didn't like it.  But while they didn't like the band.  they went for my vocals. 

"One night the manager of the Savoy arranged a battle of jazz between my band, the Alabamians, and another band called the Missourians.  The Missourians had a leader and vocalist called Lockwood Lewis, and during the battle I out-did Lockwood Lewis but the Alabamians were outplayed by the Missourians.  So the manager decided to put the Missourians and me together.  Most of us stayed put together for the next seventeen or eighteen years!"

The Missourians changed their name back to the one they had used in 1925 - the Cotton Club Orchestra - and replaced Duke Ellington in the Cotton Club show.  Broadcasts followed, and the group built up a large following, second only to that of Duke Ellington himself.  Soon Cab was billed as leader and began recording for American Brunswick.  With such great soloists as Reuben Reeves and Lamar Wright on trumpets, De Priest Wheeler on trombone and Walter "Foots" Thomas on tenor and baritone, the records sold like hot cakes. 

Louis had recorded "St. James' Infirmary" some years before and made a hit with it: a year before, Woolworth's had issued a cardboard disc of the number by Ellington as the pop tune of the week.  On 23rd December, 1930, Cab set down the version that was to make it his tune and was to be his first best-seller.  Foots Thomas on baritone and Jimmy Smith on tuba laid down a sombre, compelling rhythm for Lamar Wright's pure-toned introduction.  The ensemble followed and then Foots' baritone played a surprisingly agile chorus that even Harry Carney would have been hard put to match.  Cab's vocal was masterful.  Full of blues feeling, it ranks today as one of his most dynamic and convincing recordings. 

The reverse, a tearaway version of "Nobody's Sweetheart", featured another vocal, some Bubber Miley-like work from Reuben Reeves, and a clarinet solo, full of vitality, by William Blue, who had previously played with Dewey Jackson's Peacock Orchestra.  Blue was at this time making use of a style as pungent and biting as Teschmaker's and yet still fluid and full in the manner of Bigard and Noone. 

Reuben Reeves, who joined the band from Chicago's Regal Theatre Orchestra modelled his style on that of Bubber Miley with a dash of Louis thrown in.  However, when playing open horn his style was very similar to that of the other two trumpeters, Lamar Wright and R.  Q.  Dickerson (nobody seems to have bothered to find out his christian names) and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between them.  The fact that Cab insisted on shouting encouragement to "Red" during Reuben Reeves' solos gave rise to the theory that Red Allen was in the band.  Harry White, who had done stints with Ellington and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, shared the trombone chores with De Priest Wheeler.  In addition to William Blue and Foots Thomas.  Andrew Brown was in the sax section.  He stayed there until the late 'forties.  Earres Prince played piano until he was replaced in 1932 by Bennie Payne, who was later to become Billy Daniels' accompanist.  The rhythm section was completed by Charley Stamps (banjo), Jimmy Smith (string-bass and tuba) and LeRoy Maxey (drums). 

With Reeve's trumpet and the Nanton-styled soloing of De Priest Wheeler the band had quite an Ellington flavour. 

"Ellington had at that time the greatest array of sidemen jazz has ever known" says Cab.  "Artie Whetsel, Bubber, Tricky Sam, Bigard, Carney, Hodges and Wellman Braud.  Braud was just about the finest bass-player around in those days.  He was just about the first bassist to pick the bass, and he really started the style. 

"All the guys patterned themselves after Duke's soloists because they had no one else to pattern themselves after.  It was the Duke and his men who started the big band business and throughout the years since he's always been at the top. "

At this time Cab's arrangers were Foots Thomas and Eddie Barefield.  Foots, who hasn't played for some six or seven years, is still in the band business running a booking agency in New York.  Barefield does most of Cab's arranging today (for a small accompanying group) and is still playing, running a quintet in New York.  He also made a recent appearance on a Buck Clayton jam session. 

From the 1930 version of "St. Louis Blues" featuring Wheeler and Reeves to the wartime version of "Bye Bye Blues" featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Cab has had only two peers as far as arrangements were concerned - the Count and the Duke.  From the superb alto of Hilton Jefferson on "Willow Weep For Me" to the bouncing tenor of Chu Berry on "Three Swings And Out", Cab's men have carved all save the really exceptional. 

"Chu had been around with Teddy Hill and Fletcher for some time when I first took him on, and I was lucky because he was just making his turn onto the up grade. 

"People hadn't heard much about his playing, but he got his recognition while in my band.  He died in an automobile accident while we were travelling from one job to another.  He was in a car that overturned and he never regained consciousness.  He hadn't hit his peak when he was killed. 

"He was one of the finest musicians I have ever met in my life.  If he had lived he would have been without a question of a doubt a tenor sax immortal like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.  He had such a fantastic taste, and his solos were both tasteful and easy for the kids to listen to.  And could that boy swing! I used to play second alto parts with the band until Chu joined.  After listening to him I just didn't have the heart to pick up my sax. "

Cab was also eloquent on the subject of John Birks Gillespie:

"Dizzy came out of Teddy Hill's band to join me a little time after Chu.  Whether a lot of people know it or not, Dizzy is one of the finest legitimate trumpet players in the whole of America.  The school he started is very complex and is really a very difficult style to play.  There's no one come along that has done as well with it as Dizzy has. 

"He's one of the only musicians to come into my band and cut the book.  As you know I had some very intricate arrangements, and he had no trouble with them at all.  As a rule when you had a new man you had to rehearse for two or three days, maybe a week before he'd be ready for the job.  If one man was leaving, we'd normally rehearse a new man from the time that the other man's notice was in till the time that he left.  But Dizzy walked in, sat down and just blew his way through those arrangements like he'd been playing them all his life. "

Mention of Tyree Glenn and the wonderful star-loaded session that produced "Are You Hep To The Jive?" (apart from Tyree there were Dizzy, Mario Bauza, Quentin Jackson, Hilton Jefferson, Danny Barker and Milt Hinton together with such faithfuls as Foots.  Andrew Brown Lamar Wright and Benny Payne - 8th March 1940) elicited from Cab the opinion that Hinton was the finest bassist around anywhere. 

"People are beginning to realise it now, but it's been that way since Blanton died.  Milt's present job is staff man with CBS, both radio and television.  He's on all the current recordings by Perry Como and Jackie Gleason and he's done a lot with Sinatra and Billy Daniels.  He's the top studio man there, and whenever recordings are to be made, he's the man that's in on the session from start to finish.  Milt developed from my band, because I took him right out of his first year in college to join me.  He came in after Al Morgan left in early - 1936 and stayed about thirteen years. 

"Tyree is also a staff man in New York at television station WNEW and he does recordings in the same way that Hinton does.  I think it was with those boys that some of my favourite of our records were done.  Did you ever hear "Ebony Silhouette"? No? That was, I believe, one of the finest bass features ever waxed.  And 'Three Swings And Out'? One of Chu's best, that one. 

You know I loved that band, and most of the guys in it are big names now.  Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Dizzy, J.C. Heard.  But I don't think I'd have another big band.  The Cab Jivers suited me very well.  There was Chu on tenor, Jonah Jones on trumpet and the rhythm section - just a nice size. 

"It's so difficult to keep a big band together these days.  Bands nowadays are more or less concentrating on the ensemble sound in playing, because soloists don't stay in a band too long before they become stars in their own right, and it's pretty hard to keep a man who can take a good jazz chorus in an orchestra.  He wants to be on his own, and the result is that most of the bands have to depend on ensemble work to develop a consistent style of their own. "

Recently Cab has resumed his more energetic activities.  He is cast with Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson in the new film "St.Louis Blues", and there has even been some talk of getting the old band together again.  In spite of the fact that a lot of them have become stars, there are still enough about in New York to make this a reasonable proposition. 

Reproduced with the kind permission of the author