Break The "A"
Train Habit; Take The Cab To Harlem For A Night On The Town
The first line of defense when life gets you
down is a sense of humor. For several decades now, jazz lovers have been making their slow
way back to the basic material of their music -- the blues -- with a suitable reverence
for the form and appreciation for the musicians who understand it and convey it.
But sometimes an anomaly pops up in the history of the music that leaves out a basic
ingredient of the blues -- the aforementioned sense of humor -- and that rueful sense of
sheepishness and that lack of care about deadly serious questions that can turn an
otherwise dire situation into art.>
This is worrying me now, because I'm hearing far too much intellectualizing about jazz and
far too little from people who actually listen to it. Too many are contemplating jazz as
they would a marble statue in a museum when they should be hearing it as a vital,
ever-changing art form. I know I contradict myself by writing about it, but that's tough,
because this an important development to watch as jazz everlastingly grows into something
that occasional listeners don't recognize anymore, or something worthy only of discussion
and not consumption.
It does some good every once in a while to go back to the starting line and trace what
brought us here. I've been doing a lot of that lately and the musical developments I trace
make perfect sense, but every now and then a side trip down one of jazz's dim corridors
will cause the landscape to light up with neon and smoke and rain-slicked flivvers parked
at the curb, and I'll find myself in Harlem's famous Cotton Club in a tuxedo, smoking an
unfiltered cigarette, drinking a martini and digging the time when whole orchestras
traveled the cities of the world and made music an event for those who still liked a night
on the town that featured abandon instead of pretense.
After the Ellingtons and the Basies and Goodmans came a gush of orchestras that benefited
from those masters' insistence on good musicianship wedded with entertainment. And, in my
musical fantasy, I spy the humorous old hipster himself, Cab Calloway (1907-1994), passing
my table on his way to the bandstand.
Now there was a man who knew how to entertain, and it is an irony that, except for his
original fans, now in the 70-to-90-year-old range, Cab is known mostly to the younger
folks for his reprise of the hipster in John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's 1980 film,
"The Blues Brothers."
My own mother, a septuagenarian, recalls having traveled 70 miles by train with a gang of
her girlfriends sometime around 1940 to see Cab when his big hit, "Minnie The
Moocher," was already 10 years old. His early recordings are woefully hard to find
and, if you can find them at all, they're usually on budget labels that won't exist at
this time next year.
Be that as it may, it is worth checking out Calloway's hip-talking, zoot-suited,
scat-singing style of entertainment. If someone says "Hi-dee-ho," anybody who
knows jazz and blues thinks of Cab and not of the character he played on "Sesame
Street," the Hi-Dee-Ho Man.
I see him dervishing about the bandstand, the long tails of his white jacket swirling
about his waist as he waves a baton in front of his orchestra, his conked hair rising from
his oversized pate, sometimes falling into his face and covering the humorous gleam in his
eye as he tells the old street story of that rough and tough frail, Minnie, the lowdown
hoochie-coocher, and her friends, that cokey bloke named Smokey who took her to Chinatown
and showed her how to kick the gong around and the king of Sweden who gave her that car
made of diamonds with platinum wheels.
And I hear the humor that made the drug references in the song a sly wink to his mainly
black audience at the expense of the white folks, who had no familiarity with the street
smarts implied by the lyrics.
It was fun. It was spectacle. It was entertainment. And it was art.