If jazz enthusiasts think of Cab Calloway at all nowadays, it is probably as the leader of a big band which at various times included such famous musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Doc Cheatham and Milt Hinton but which was dominated by the leader singing novelty songs like Minnie the Moocher (with thinly-veiled allusions to drug-taking) and doing a lot of attention-grabbing dance steps and scat vocals.
British journalist Steve Voce said that Cab had "all the attributes of a great jazz singer" and Gunther Schuller called Calloway "a true jazz musician" and "the most unusually and broadly gifted male singer of the 30s" (seemingly forgetting such people as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller). However, Max Harrison, writing in The Oxford Companion to Jazz (2000), gave a different view of Cab's vocals. Max refers to "Calloway's vocal grotesqueries" and "the embarrassing inanity of his singing - if you want to call it that".
Harrison's views may be harsh, yet his views were at least partly substantiated for me when I listened to some collections of Cab Calloway's recordings. Too often Cab's high-pitched yells were painful or tiresome rather than exciting, and his prominence in the orchestra meant that few of his musicians - certainly in his early years - got enough exposure in solos. Even later, Illinois Jacquet left the band after only a year because "there wasn't enough solos". Bassist Milt Hinton, who joined the Calloway band in 1936, recalled: "We didn't have much solo work in Cab's band because it was all featuring him".
Many big bands seemed slow to learn the value of showcasing the jazz talents of individual soloists, although people like Louis Armstrong had shown the possibilities. Benny Goodman learnt the lesson by featuring not only himself but also star soloists like Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Gene Krupa. This widening-out of the individual musician's role is illustrated by what I consider to be the greatest big band of all - the Duke Ellington Orchestra - where one can trace the way that Ellington increasingly allowed his soloists space to show their individuality. You have only to hear successive recordings of an Ellingtonian staple like The Mooche to understand how this freedom developed over the years.
Alyn Shipton's biography of Cab Calloway does its best to correct disparaging criticisms of Cab and his band, but it can be an uphill struggle. For example, when Alyn thanks Calloway for "a treasury of music that is as vibrant and fresh today as during the sixty-odd years in which it was recorded", one has only to listen to some of those recordings to feel dubious about such high praise. In his understandable eagerness to counteract the neglect which many jazz critics have shown towards Calloway, Shipton is in danger of over-praising the man and his band. After all, as Alyn points out, Cab virtually inherited the band ready-made rather than assembling it himself, and only gradually did he try to improve its standard.
Even Shipton's own assessments can underline the weaknesses in some of Cab's recorded work. For instance, Alyn's justified opinion about how the band was improved by the arrival of Chu Berry and Cozy Cole in the late thirties suggests that the band was inferior before then. As Shipton himself says of the earlier band: "the Calloway orchestra was generally perceived as a slick, well-oiled machine to support Cab's singing and dancing, rather than primarily being an instrumental jazz group in its own right".
It is true that the Calloway band couldn't compare with the easy swing of a band like Benny Goodman's in the mid-thirties. The jazz content in Cab's recordings often consisted of a few eight or 16-bar solos by instrumentalists in the midst of heavy orchestration. Shipton describes Harlem Camp Meeting as including "choruses from Arville Harris on clarinet, Ed Swayze on growling muted trumpet and Bennie Payne on piano" but Swayze only gets 16 bars and Payne a mere eight. The band was lifted considerably by the arrival of Chu Berry and Milt Hinton, as you can hear in the light touch of a 1938 recording like At the Clambake Carnival. Chu encouraged Cab to let the musicians play more and longer solos, which resulted in such high points as Berry's long tenor solo in 1940's Ghost of a Chance.
It may be unfair to judge Calloway without having seen him in concert, as his charismatic singing, scatting and dancing, salted with plenty of showmanship, apparently appealed strongly to audiences. And Shipton rightly points out the importance of the call-and-response passages which Cab shared with his band, often including those scat phrases (as in the book's title) which made Calloway performances almost a singalong. In fact Cab's hipster slang (or jive talk) caught on with the public, and Calloway even produced a book (the Hepster's Dictionary) about it. Certainly Alyn is right to describe Calloway as an all-round entertainer but this meant that his repertoire included many songs which could be described as novelty numbers rather than jazz pieces.
Perhaps it is significant that several of my favourite Calloway band numbers - for example, Moonglow and Hot Toddy - are instrumentals, without Cab present. Indeed, I often find Calloway's vocals overbearing, especially as he sang in a declamatory (sometimes almost hectoring) style which the admittedly hard-to-please Hugues Panassi‚ called "endless yelling". Calloway may have copied his forthright vocal style from Louis Armstrong, but it has much less jazz content than Armstrong's.
Nonetheless, Alyn Shipton does his best to make the positive case for Calloway - and, as ever, he has worked tirelessly to uncover the facts. Of course, Alyn's work on the memoirs of Calloway's guitarist and trumpeter - Danny Barker and Doc Cheatham, plus his biography of Dizzy Gillespie, supplied Alyn with some background which he has filled out with his usual fastidious research. His book underlines what we already know about the hard work involved in being an African-American musician in the USA, which entailed not only the cruelties of segregation but the need to play as many as six shows per day, seven days a week.
Shipton has also dug out interesting insights into such things as the influence that Cab's elder sister, Blanche (also a singer) had on him, and the way that Cab not only adopted Louis Armstrong's penchant for scat singing but also introduced Jewish elements into his vocals, taken from the cantorial styles heard in synagogues. Later, the presence of Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie in the band allowed it to take on some Cuban influences.
The book also includes some fascinating sidelights, such as the fact that, during the Second World War, a British MP complained in parliament about the use of "Hi-de-hi" by British troops influenced by American soldiers. He said that its use "made officers look ridiculous in the eyes of their men"! And Shipton repeats from his Dizzy Gillespie biography the intriguing detail that violinist Stuff Smith insisted that his musicians should be "high" when they were playing. Smith's trumpeter Jonah Jones (later employed by Calloway) confessed "I was drinking 100% proof and smoking marijuana because Stuff wanted you high every night".
Many jazz biographies tend to turn into catalogues of concerts and tours, but Shipton largely manages to avoid this tendency by filling out the details from his careful investigations. He shows how Calloway's career was revived by his appearances in such shows as Porgy and Bess and The Blues Brothers.
Shipton ends the book by hailing Calloway for "the extraordinary influence he had on jazz singing". Alyn even says that Cab surpassed Louis Armstrong - a statement which would be questioned by many jazz critics, who can discern Armstrong's influence on many jazz vocalists. How many jazz singers were influenced by Cab Calloway?
Alyn seeks to justify his assertions about Calloway's influence by saying that "without Cab, and his particular brand of verbal dexterity, vocal invention and sartorial style, the early twenty-first century's most dominant form of contemporary urban black culture in the United States, hip-hop, might never have existed". One might reasonably ask what hip-hop (let alone sartorial style) has to do with jazz music.
This is undoubtedly an authoritative biography of a man who has tended to be neglected by jazz critics. It is a pity that Alyn is led into such excessive approbation, and I still have reservations about Calloway's abilities and influence as a jazzman. Yet there is no doubt that Cab was a great entertainer and his band fostered the careers of many famous jazz musicians.