story of jazz cannot be complete without reference to the venue that served as
the springboard to fame for Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, two of the most
notable bandleaders of their time.
Cotton Club was the most famous of New York’s nightclubs in the 20’s and 30’s;
attracting an audience that often included the cream of New York society. It
was a legendary nightspot in Harlem and featured prominent black entertainers
who performed for white audiences. The venue first opened in 1920 as the Club
Deluxe, on Lennox Ave in Harlem under the ownership of the first African
American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson.
1922 the club was taken over by Owen Madden, a well-known underworld figure in
Manhattan. Madden changed the establishment of the club and limited the
audience to white patrons. He turned Cotton Club into the most popular cabaret
in Harlem and expanded the sitting capacity from 400 to 700.
fame of the club spread with weekly radio broadcasts of its programs exposing
its musicians to a national audience. The club’s best years were from 1922 to
1935 when it was forced to close after the race riots in Harlem.It reopened in
September 1936 and moved downtown to West 48th street where it continued to
operate until June 1940, when it finally closed not being able to regain its
its heyday, the club’s glittering revues provided a medium for performances by
the most prominent jazz musicians of the day. The house band when the club
first opened was Andy Preer’s Cotton Club Syncopators, and in 1927 after
Preer’s death, Duke Ellington’s orchestra was engaged and its residency became
the most celebrated in the club’s history, lasting until 1931.
of the principal jazz musicians of the time played at the Cotton Club at some
stage, including Louis Armstrong. However, the club was better known and
identified with the music of Duke Ellington and later on Cab Calloway. Cab
Calloway and his orchestra took over as house band at the club in 1931 and they
too; had a long run of success.
was born Cabell Calloway III in Rochester, N.Y. on December 25th, 1907. He was
a bandleader, songwriter and vocalist. He was closely associated with the
Cotton Club and appeared there as a regular performer.
was a master of energetic scat singing and his band featured trumpeters Dizzy
Gillespie and Adolphus Cheatman, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon Berry,
guitarist Danny Baker and bassist Milt Hinton.
spent his early years growing up in West Baltimore’s Sugar Hill area, considered
at the time as the cultural, political and business hub of black society.
1922, his parents realizing his aptitude for music enrolled him for private
continued to study music and voice throughout his formal education. Later on,
he began playing and frequented nightclubs in Baltimore where he met drummer
Chick Webb and pianist Johnny Jones who would become his mentors.
had a sister called Blanche who was also in show business and after his
graduation from high school; he joined Blanche in a touring production of a
popular black musical called, “Plantation Days.”
would later credit Blanche for inspiring him to enter show business. His main
interest was in singing and entertaining and he spent a lot of time at clubs
such as the Dreamland Ballroom, the Sunset Café and Club Berlin.
was during this time that he met Louis Armstrong who taught him to sing in the
“scat” style. He eventually left school and began singing with a band called
1930, Calloway joined a failing band called “The Missourians” and transformed
it with a new name, “Cab Calloway and His Orchestra”
band served as backup to Duke Ellington’s band at the Cotton Club and quickly
proved very popular with audiences across the country. In 1931 Calloway
recorded his most famous song “Minnie the Moocher” with the catchy chorus
line “Hi De Ho” earning him the nickname
“The Hi Di Ho Man”The popularity of this song also opened other avenues in film
for Calloway and he along with Ellington were featured on film more than any
other jazz orchestra of the era. In those films, Calloway can be seen
performing a gliding back step dance move which was the precursor to Michael
Jackson’s “moonwalk” and was called “The Buzz” at that time.
1936, Calloway made his first movie appearance in “The Singing Kid” alongside
Al Jolson. He sang a number of duets with Jolson and the impact of their style
with the exploration of rhythm and stretching melody was felt deep within
American culture. In the area of music, Calloway’s band was one of the most
popular American jazz bands of the 1930’s. His vocal style is a blend of hot
scat singing and improvisation.
1941 Calloway separated with Dizzy after an onstage fracas which led to some
physical altercation. In 1943 he appeared in the 20th Century Fox musical film,
“Stormy Weather” which was one of the first films that featured an all-star
also delved a bit into writing and in 1944 he published a dictionary called
“The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive. Calloway and his
band also starred in an all-black full length film named after the chorus to
his song “Hi De Ho”.
the 40’s, Calloway and his band stayed busy touring and promoting the films
that they made, but because of bad financial decisions as well as Calloway’s
gambling habit, the band was forced to break up.
the 1950’s he moved his family from Long Island to Greenburg, N. Y. but
continued to appear in a number of films and stage productions that used both
his acting and singing talents.
1952, he played the prominent role of “Sportin’ Life” in a production of George
Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess”.
1967, he appeared in the Ed Sullivan Show and also co-starred opposite Pearl
Bailey in an all-black cast version of “Hello Dolly”. In 1973-74, he again
appeared in a Broadway revival of “The Pajama Game” alongside Barbara McNair.
1976 he released his autobiography entitled, “Of Minnie the Moocher and Me”. In
1980, he attracted renewed interest and appeared as a supporting character in
the film “The Blues Brothers” performing “Minnie the Moocher”.
also appeared in “Sesame Street” and the movie “Forbidden City”. In the 80’s,
Calloway helped establish the Cab CallowayMuseum at Coppin State College in Baltimore,
Maryland and in the same year, Bill Cosby helped establish a scholarship in
Calloway’s name at the New School of Research in Manhattan.
1990, Calloway was the focus of Janet Jackson’s video “Alright” where he made a
cameo appearance playing the role of himself at the end of the video.
1994, a creative and performing arts school was opened and dedicated in his
honor in Wilmington, Delaware. It was called The Cab Calloway School of Arts.
In June that same year, Calloway suffered a severe stroke and died five months
later in Hartsdale, N. Y.
article is dedicated to Mr Minkailu Janneh for bringing the concept of the
Cotton Club to the Gambia and to Mr Hatib Janneh Jr for making it a reality.