Friday, February 24, 2012

The Cool Master: Cab Calloway

With the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess back on Broadway, it is a fine time to pay homage to the original Sportin’ Life. It was a role modeled on and originated by the timelessly hip jazz vocalist and bandleader Cab Calloway. Though far from exhaustive, Gail Levin hits a lot of his career highlights in the breezy and informative Cab Calloway: Sketches (trailer here), which airs on PBS’s American Masters this coming Monday.

Naturally, there is a lot of “Minnie the Moocher” in Sketches. It is the Calloway song everybody knows, even if they do not know they know it. Here’s a hint: “Hi de hi de hi de ho.” Sound familiar? Legions of fans were first introduced to it in the Blues Brothers movie. Understandably, Sketches spends a great deal of time on this late career renaissance for bandleader, featuring the reminiscences of director John Landis and Blues Brothers band members Steve Cropper, Lou Marini and Donald “Duck” Dunne, who still give Calloway props for coolness.

Levin also assembles the usual suspects of jazz talking heads to place Calloway in a musical-historical context. However, some of the most insightful commentary comes from his grandson Chris “Calloway” Brooks, the leader of the Calloway ghost band. While his stage persona is a bit shticky, Brooks really breaks down the inner workings of Calloway’s band and music in a way that should inspire fresh appreciation for the bandleader among those who previously had trouble getting past the zoot suits.

Sketches touches on the Cotton Club years, The Hepster’s Dictionary, and his appearance with Lena Horne in Stormy Weather. Of course, there is plenty it misses, like his run on Broadway in Hello Dolly opposite Pearl Bailey or the spitball controversy involving his soon to be former sideman Dizzy Gillespie that inspired Jean Bach’s award- winning documentary short (which it actually saves as an outtake for the American Masters website), but as a bite-sized sampler, it is an easily digestible introduction to the American Hepster Master. After all, when was the last time you saw Calloway on free TV, besides maybe a rebroadcast of The Blues Brothers?

At just under an hour, Sketches is brief, but entertaining and affectionate. Arguably, if it leaves viewers wanting more, it has achieved its purpose. A nicely put together jazz tribute, Sketches is recommended for general audiences when it runs on PBS this Monday (2/27), as part of the current season of American Masters.

(Photos: Artline Films / J.-F. Pitet)