Favorite Fridays: Cab Calloway, “Jitterbug”

Cab Calloway was a musician who made “singer” and “bandleader” mean something.  That’s not always the case, as too often anyone who can warble some lyrics or wave their arms gets to claim those titles.  As “Jitterbug” from 1934 illustrates, Calloway had a superb command of his voice and an imaginative technique to go with it.  At the same time a musician (and businessman)’s ear for talent made sure his band was never just accompaniment.

The introductory sax soli makes it easy to imagine Cotton Club patrons dropping their jaws, putting down their drinks and mouthing “c’mon!” as they pulled their partners onto the dance floor.  It’s not just Al Morgan’s ground-shaking bass and Leroy Maxey’s powerhouse drums; the whole band swings with inviting intensity.  Slightly ragged saxes glow with the energy of four teammates, rather than the airtight, overly streamlined blend of many contemporary sax sections.  Biting yet warm brass declaim the opening chorus, and when Calloway enters, there’s no sense that this was just instrumental prelude before the vocal main event.

Calloway sings like an instrumentalist, sometimes a languorous sax (“grab a cup and start to toss…”), other times scatting like he’s back to his early days as a drummer (“BUTCH-ee, wutch-ee, time will tell…).” Louis Armstrong’s influence is prevalent in the relaxed delivery and elongated phrases, but the smooth timbre and sudden falsetto outbursts (“’git along!”) are sheer Calloway.

Signature humor also shapes each syllable into an event: a pattering, “His favorite jitter sauce is…” finishes with a drawn out, massaged “rye.” It’s the same use of contrasts that the best Rossini tenors capitalize on, and which made Calloway a dynamic stage presence at The Savoy, The Cotton Club and throughout a sixty-year career.

Like the best opera singers, surefire technique enhances Calloway’s theatrics: intonation and timekeeping never take a backseat to emotion.  That same technique also allows Calloway to lock in with a stream of exciting obbligati.  Full band, wry muted trumpet, swirling saxes, Harry White’s gutbucket trombone and Eddie Barefield’s winking alto all have their say alongside (never behind) Calloway as he shapes variation after variation on the same sixteen-bar theme.  What could have passed for a novelty paean to the joys of the bottle turns into a virtuosic jazz performance.

Calloway’s theatrical “All Bugs Out” makes musical sense when double-time sax figures segue into a call and response with the brass, followed by an agitated clarinet solo from Arville Harris.  By this point if you’re not dancing (on the floor or in your seat) you probably need your pulse checked. A syncopated brass break calls the final shout chorus to order, with some big-toned tenor exclamations by Walter “Foots” Thomas, until the rhythmic ante reaches its limit.

Just what the hell Calloway is saying as the record closes is a mystery to this writer, the best transcription being “how-some-dickie-in-som-mee-dips-a-mania.”  The singer and bandleader’s flair for onomatopoeic extemporization is fitting nonsense: words were just the beginning for Cab Calloway.

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