Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November 18: Cab Calloway, "Are You Hep To The Jive"

Artist: Cab Calloway
Album: Are You Hep To The Jive?
Year: 1934/35 (recorded), 1994 (released)
Label: Various

Those worthy of the title "icon" are very few and far between, and their contributions to the development of modern music are among the most wide reaching and overall influential of anyone in history. While an overwhelming majority of the time, these gifts to the world of music came in the form of new approaches to the music itself, there are a small handful of artists who are largely responsible for the varying types of vocal delivery and stage presence that one finds throughout modern music. When it comes to seeking out those who took the theatrical aspects of Vaudeville and adapted them into the more formal sense of musical performance, few stand as significant as the King of Jive himself, the legendary Cab Calloway. A true musical prodigy, Calloway is responsible for countless "classic" songs, and both his appearance and vocal delivery remain among the greatest the world has ever experienced. Along with being a dynamic performer, Calloway also stands as one of the finest composers and conductors of the "big band" era, and the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Ben Webster played in Calloway's bands over the years. Though the only way to really access the music of Calloway is via the countless collections that have been made of his music, there are only a handful of these "best of" discs that give a through picture of everything that makes him an icon. Easily the finest collection of Cab Calloway's songs, capturing the work that he did from 1934 to 1945, can be found on the absolutely indispensable album, Are You Hep To The Jive?

The term "jive," as it applies to the music of Cab Calloway both refers to the way in which he sings, as well as both his style of dance, as well as the style of music. Though the jive style of music would eventually morph into the far more well known style of "scat" singing (made famous by Ella Fitzgerald), after hearing the music of Cab Calloway, there is little doubt that the beginnings of the later style are present. While the base of the music is the "big band" sound, there is a bit more of an upbeat twist to the songs of Calloway, and this is where his music becomes an entity all to itself. Furthermore, the shouting and general content of the lyrics of the song often run consistent with the "jive" or slang vernacular that was becoming increasingly popular at the time. This ability to bring the current popular culture into the music was also done by the fact that the actual lyrics themselves are mostly tales of peoples' lives or simply songs crafted for the sole purpose of igniting dance-hall crowds. Even when the songs are slightly slower, as with the song "Hey Now, Hey Now," the spirit of the "zoot suit" style and swagger are still very present. Regardless of the tempo or lyrical content, Calloway performs brilliantly, with his vocals becoming nothing short of mesmerizing as he winds his fantastic tales along with his wonderful sense of humor. As amazing a performer as Calloway was, there are times when his performance almost overshadows the amazing musicianship behind his singing, yet there is no question that without the high level of talent within his band, the songs simply would not have had as much impact.

As is always the case with albums which collect the works of early artists, it is a rather futile effort to try and figure out all of the musicians present throughout the songs. Since Are You Hep To The Jive? captures Calloway's finest decade of work, it is understandable that the band went through countless changes, and the exact recording lineups are virtually unknown. While many of the performers are not known, there are a handful of music legends who were a part of Calloway's band at the time of these recordings. As previously mentioned, trumpet-icons Dizzy Gillespie and Jonah Jones, bassist Milt Hinton, and saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry are among the brilliant musicians who can be heard throughout Are You Hep To The Jive? Though they are obviously not the only players on the songs, the band moves as a stunning, single unit on every song, and the bright and powerful sound that Calloway pulls from them makes the songs nothing short of addicting. Whether they are playing a slower, meandering tune or a full-title jive masterpiece, few bands had as impressive a sound as Calloway's band, and there is not a dull moment anywhere in their songs. It is the ability of Cab Calloway's band to present and almost free-wheeling, somewhat chaotic sound whilst sticking firmly to the orchestrations that became the blueprint for countless other bands, and this is yet another reason why Calloway demands to be named among the greatest band leaders in history.

While Calloway's backing band plays masterfully on every song, the truth of the matter is, every single song centers around Calloway's own, charismatic and completely engrossing vocal performances. Spinning his tales with his fantastic voice, the songs of Cab Calloway charm listeners today as quickly and as completely as they did more than seventy years ago. Though a majority of people know Cab Calloway from his most famous song, the truth of the matter is, that song does not accurately reflect Calloway's amazing voice. Throughout Are You Hep To The Jive?, listeners are treated to one of the most pure and all-around beautiful male voices in history, and Calloway's trademark sense of humor makes the singing even better. However, there is little doubt that if there is one Cab Calloway song that has stood the test of time, it is the legendary tale, "Minnie The Moocher." Given a second life when Calloway performed it in the cult-classic film, The Blues Brothers, the version found on Are You Hep To The Jive? bears a distant resemblance, as this is obviously the original recording. From the tale of Minnie to the legendary call-and-response sections, there has simply never been another song quite like "Minnie The Moocher" and it remains one of the most beloved songs of all time. In fact, in 1999, the song itself was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, forever preserving the song as one of the greatest ever. While the song itself is well written in every sense of the word, there is little doubt that it is Cab Calloway's vocal performance that made the song a true legend of music.

There are those who are considered important and those who are considered great within the long history of recorded music. Standing high above these performers is an extremely elite group of musicians whose contributions make them truly worth of the term "icon." It is these individuals whose actions and vision shaped music as we know it, and without their performances, many of the greatest aspects of recorded music most likely would have never come to pass. Forever changing the way in which singers performed, as well as re-working what was capable in the "big band" setting, Cab Calloway is unquestionably deserving of the most highly regarded title of "icon." Whether it is solely based on the way in which he made his own band sound like no other, or his uniquely mesmerizing vocal performances, Calloway serves as the archetype for nearly every singer who has ever put a bit of "umph" in their vocal delivery. From the classic "Minnie The Moocher" to other memorable songs like "Chant Of The Jungle" and "Are You All Reet?" Are You Hep To The Jive? presents memories of a time forgotten, yet the songs are absolutely as enjoyable today as they were all those decades ago. Although there are countless collections of Cab Calloway's recorded music, the 1994 compilation Are You Hep To The Jive? brings together all of his greatest songs and perfectly presents everything that makes his music timeless, as well as why he remains among the most revered musicians to ever step in front of a microphone.

Standout tracks: "Are You All Reet?" "Are You Hep To The Jive?" and "Minnie The Moocher."

No comments: