“Hi de hi de hi de ho!” Charismatic music and dance pioneer Cab Calloway (12-25-1907 – 11-18-94) is an exceptional figure in the history of jazz. As a singer, dancer and bandleader, he charmed audiences around the world with his boundless energy, bravado and elegant showmanship.
Calloway was also an ambassador for his race, leading one of the most popular African American big bands during the Harlem Renaissance and jazz and swing eras of the 1930s-40s. American Masters celebrates “The Hi De Ho Man’s” career and legacy during Black History Month with the new documentary Cab Calloway: Sketches premiering nationally Monday, February 27 at 10 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). In the New York metro-area the film airs Sunday, February 26 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
Emmy®-winning filmmaker Gail Levin explores Cab Calloway’s musical beginnings and milestones in the context of the Harlem Renaissance and segregationist America using archival footage, animation based on caricatures by famed illustrator Steve Brodner and French cartoonist Cabu, and interviews. The animated Cab dances alongside Matthew Rushing, choreographer/principal dancer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Uptown), who explains how modern Calloway’s movements were and his impact on hip-hop. Additional interviewees include Calloway’s daughters Cecelia and Camay; grandson and Cab Calloway Orchestra bandleader Chris “Calloway” Brooks; horn player Gerald Wilson; and The Blues Brothers (1980) director John Landis and band members Steve Cropper, Lou Marini and Donald “Duck” Dunne. The film introduced Cab and his music to a new generation, when he acted and performed as The Blues Brothers’s mentor, Curtis.
“I am especially delighted to bring Cab Calloway to younger audiences – and he does become quite alive through the inventive animation in this film,” says Susan Lacy, American Masters series creator and executive producer. “He, and his era, are such a vital part of our musical cultural heritage – and such an energetic one!”
“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,” adds Levin.
With The Cotton Club – where Blacks could perform but not attend – as his home stage, Cab became a star of New York’s jazz scene, and then a household name with his signature song “Minnie the Moocher.” Despite its tragic, taboo subject matter, the song broke into the mainstream and was even used in Max and Dave Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoon of the same name, along with Cab’s dance moves. Breaking the color barrier with this “hi de ho” hit, Cab was one of the first Black musicians to tour the segregationist South. He published a Hepster’s Dictionary of his jive slang in 1938, starred in films including Stormy Weather (1943) with Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and played Sportin’ Life – a role George Gershwin modeled on him – in a 1952 touring production of Porgy and Bess, making “It Ain’t Necessarily So” an enduring part of his brand. With his zany theatricality – scat singing, jive talking, zoot suit wearing, straight-hair, head-shaking, and backslide dance (a precursor to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk) – Cab transcended racial specificity on his own terms.
In 2011, American Masters earned its eighth Emmy® Award for Outstanding Primetime Nonfiction Series in 11 years. Now in its 26th season, the series is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21, New York’s public television stations, and operator of NJTV. For nearly 50 years, WNET has been producing and broadcasting national and local documentaries and other programs to the New York community.
Cab Calloway: Sketches is a co-production of Artline Films, ARTE France, and AVRO, in association with Inscape Productions and THIRTEEN’s American Masters for WNET. Gail Levin is director and executive producer for Inscape Productions. Jean-François Pitet and Gail Levin are co-writers. Olivier Mille is producer for Artline Films. Susan Lacy is the series creator and executive producer of American Masters. This program is made possible in part by the support of CNC, PROCIREP, ANGOA, and SACEM.
American Masters is made possible by the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding for American Masters is provided by Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Jack Rudin, Vital Projects Fund, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, and public television viewers.