Continuing its celebration of Black History Month, PBS premieres American Masters’ documentary Cab Calloway: Sketches on the 27th of February. Born in 1907 Calloway was to become one of the best known entertainers of the thirties and the big band era. His vocal gymnastics combined with his gyrating dancing and flamboyant personality made him unique not only among the black superstars of the period, but among all performers regardless of race. Filmmaker Gail Levin has created an important study that is less concerned with the details of his life than it is with trying to understand his success in the context of the socio-cultural environment of the time.
The film traces his career from his initial failure as a bandleader at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where he and his band were let go after two weeks, to his successes at the famed Cotton Club and in films like Stormy Weather, his stint as Sporting Life, a role that was modeled on him by the Gershwins in Porgy and Bess, and his introduction to a new generation in John Landis’ 1980 film The Blues Brothers.
He comes to New York at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a period when African American artists in all genres were demanding recognition beyond the stereotypes common in the segregated white society. New York City’s Harlem, a center of Black migration north, was quickly becoming the black cultural capital of the country. It was there one could find writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and leaders like W. E. B. DuBois. It was there one could find musical giants like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and Calloway was to emerge as a giant in his own right.
Archival footage demonstrates his dynamic performances; this was an artist who knew how to take the stage and command attention. Whether in a tuxedo or a zoot suit, this was a man who exuded confidence and assurance. His voice was his instrument, and he played it with virtuoso style and energy. “Minnie the Moocher,” the song that is identified with his name was one of the earliest black performances to go mainstream, and this despite the dark nature of its subject matter. “Hi de hi de hi de ho” was to become a tagline that followed him for the whole of his life.
Among those interviewed for the film are Calloway’s daughters and his grandson, a band leader himself, who gives some insight into how Calloway’s big band achieved its particular sound. The daughters also talk about Calloway’s sister Blanche, a bandleader in her own right and her role in his development. Other interviewees include John Landis, jazz critic Gary Giddins, and musicians Gerald Wilson, Steve Cropper, Lou Marini, and Donald “Duck” Dunne.
Jazz historian Stanley Crouch makes some significant points about race and success—the importance of straight hair and light skin. One of the daughters tells the story of what she calls the “brown bag test.” A dancer for the chorus at the Cotton Club, she says, couldn’t be hired if her complexion was darker than a brown paper bag. Crouch comments that maybe Michael Jackson’s physical modifications weren’t all that unwarranted. The Cotton Club, owned by the mob, was a place where blacks could perform but couldn’t patronize. Some attitudes towards race have changed, some it seems have not.
Reminiscent of some of the old Hollywood musicals, there is a sequence at the end of the film where Matthew Rushing, dancer and choreographer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, dances with a cartoon version of Calloway that artist Steve Brodner had been drawing throughout the film. It is a nice creative moment which metaphorically captures the man’s originality and helps to differentiate Sketches from the run of the mill documentary. In the words of Gail Levin: “This film is not just another biopic in the sense of interviews and recollections, but a reinvigoration of the whole Calloway presence—a reprise of a timeless virtuoso.”