PBS treats Baltimore's Cab Calloway as an American Master

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It's not often in judging the biography of a great artist that you can just pick up the phone and call one of the people who knew him best — and remains a principal keeper of the historical flame.

But that is exactly the case with Cab Calloway, the Baltimore-raised jazz bandleader, singer and actor who is profiled in TV's "American Masters" series at 10 p.m. Monday on PBS.

Camay Calloway Murphy, the performer's daughter, lives here and is happy to talk about her late father and how she feels he is treated in "American Masters Cab Calloway: Sketches."

"I love the documentary,' says Murphy, founder of the Cab Calloway Jazz Institute and Museum at Coppin State University. "And what I truly love is its sense of movement, the way it captures the feeling of electricity and constant activity that my father generated."

As she sees it: "His music was more than just from his throat. It was from his feet, from his knees, from his hands, from his hair. You know, it came from everywhere. And they really brought that out in the documentary through some different ways of telling his story."

While Emmy Award-winning director Gail Levin built her film on such staples of traditional documentary storytelling as great archival footage, interviews and talking heads offering informed analysis, she also made some daring and original choices. In telling the story of this hip-shaking, zoot-suited bandleader who started during the Harlem Renaissance era, she employed a visual artist, a choreographer and even animation.

Yes, Levin has a man dancing in an empty studio, a guy sketching at an easel and Saturday-morning cartoonlike characters as key parts of a documentary for one of the most distinguished and celebrated series on PBS. And it all makes for an engaging and illuminating portraits of an American artist.

"I think one of the most important things in telling the story of a life is trying to capture the essence of that life," Levin said. "It's not about 'He was born here, he did that there and he grew up here,'" she explained. "I really wanted to figure out a way to make this guy real and present now."

To do that, Levin says, imbuing the film with a constant sense of movement was key.

"It's remarkable how many people really don't know him," she explained. "It's remarkable how many don't know how much of an effect he's had on what's modern — hip-hop, rap, street dancing, break dancing, Savion Glover, one thing after another. So it was really important to me to create something that was contemporary. To make people feel like, 'Wow, this guy's cool.' To make him dance again. And for all of that, movement was crucial."

Calloway and his family moved to Baltimore from Rochester, N.Y., in 1918, when he was 11 years old. He started taking music lessons as a teenager, and it was at Frederick Douglass High School that he truly developed as a musician, according to his daughter.

"I really think my father had such an excellent career, because he had these excellent teachers here in Baltimore who trained him as if he was going to be a star," Murphy says. "He said this himself, that they gave him all the performance-type of tools he needed to have a career and sustain that career. And in those days [the 1920s], they didn't really do jazz as a study. Maybe they'd do spirituals, something that might have some syncopation, but it wasn't jazz per se. He was trained in classical music."

Murphy, a retired teacher and school principal, says she can't help but note that an African-American teenager in Baltimore in the 1920s had more educational opportunities in the arts and music than such youngsters do in some schools today.

"So his training in classical music allowed him to go into something like'Porgy and Bess,'" she added. "It allowed him to go onto Broadway and sing in musical revues. And he would not have been able to do any of that after his band career was waning if not for the training at Douglass."

Calloway's resume beyond bandleader and singer suggests his wide-ranging talents. In 1938, he published a "Hepster's Dictionary" of jive-talking slang — a lexicon that would be embraced by Beats in the 1950s. In 1943, he starred in the feature film "Stormy Weather" with Lena Horne. His "Minnie the Moocher" trademark song broke the color barrier and became a crossover hit, landing some of Calloway's dance moves and his music in a "Betty Boop" cartoon.

But he is most widely known for his band career, which kicked into high gear in Harlem in the 1930s at the famed Cotton Club.

The film opens on the image of an old-time emcee sitting at a table in front of a microphone on a nightclub stage.

"This program is coming to you from the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City," the announcer says. "Now, Cab Calloway, the Prince of Hi De Ho, will entertain you with hotcha razzmatazz."

And on the downbeat of his baton, Calloway, looking tall, slim and fine in white tie and tails, starts sliding, gliding and bouncing around the stage in front of his band. The moves are smooth and lighting-quick, and unlike anything you have ever seen — even decades later from James Brown.

While all kinds of people in the film link the movements to hip-hop, the Calloway seen in this vintage film reminds me of the Minnesota musician Prince in his early days. That's one of the links I see between Calloway and hip-hop today. But that's the kind of film this is: It not only makes you want to get up and dance, it makes you want to connect your own cultural dots.

"If you look at Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in the beginning, in the context of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson or Louis Armstrong, where in the hell does the stuff he's doing come from?" jazz critic Gary Giddins asks in a voice-over. "There's nothing like it. Louis Armstrong's scat is very musical and very intricate, but it's not the theatrical craziness Cab is willing to unleash on the stage."

John Landis, who directed Calloway late in the artist's life in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers" with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, says simply, "Cab Calloway is hip-hop."

And with those words, and with the screen filled with the images of Calloway doing his stuff onstage almost a century ago, the film is off and running.

There are some traditional interview moments that are used to tell the Calloway story. In one, Murphy talks about the "odor" and the "aura" of her father from her earliest memories as a little girl.

"It was sort of like the odor you smell when you go backstage, and you smell the mixtures of perfume and cigarettes and makeup, and it all gave him a sort of an aura that I remember as being good," she says sniffing the air as if she might find the long-lost scent again.

There are also interview moments that brilliantly contextualize Calloway in terms of race and culture. Cecelia Calloway, another daughter, talks about the "brown paper bag test" that was used to gauge acceptable skin color for the women in the Cotton Club's chorus line. That was the world of race in which Calloway had to make his way.

And cultural critic Stanley Crouch is stunning in his analysis of how Calloway's hair and the wild ways in which he swung it to and fro onstage defined a new space in the 1930s and 1940s between black and white identity. Crouch's take on Calloway's hair alone is worth the time spent with this film.

But in the end, what makes this production soar are moments like the ones with Matthew Rushing, choreographer and principal dancer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Levin uses Rushing throughout the film to talk about Calloway's movements and connect them to both formal modern dance and the urban movements of today like hip-hop. At one point, viewers are treated to a performance in which Rushing mimics the movements of Calloway in archival footage until the poetry and modern dance of Calloway are impossible to miss.

At the documentary's end, Rushing starts to perform the Calloway movements alone in an empty studio — and is then joined by an animated version of Calloway that appears like a spirit from another world dancing side by side with the choreographer.

Levin says she wanted to "sort of copy Gene Kelly and Jerry Mouse, in 'Anchors Aweigh,' but without the budget."

She did better than that. For a few seconds there at the end of "Cab Calloway: Sketches," she makes you believe that Cab Calloway, who died in 1994, is dancing again across the stage.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

"Cab Calloway: Sketches" airs at 10 p.m. Monday on MPT, Channels 22 and 67, and WETA, Channel 26.

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