I have always felt that I was born about thirty years too late, at least where my musical tastes are concerned. I was fifty years too late to sing with Artie Shaw or Bennie Goodman, and fifty years too late to sing at the Copacabana or the Coconut Grove or the Cotton Club. Those wonderful clubs had the very best musicians of the day. Bandstands of that era would be stuffed with singular talent, executing clarinet riffs and brassy trumpet runs that would float on clouds of cigarette smoke emanating from the tips of unfiltered Lucky Strikes.
In June of 1934 my Dad counted up the money he’d saved from odd jobs he’d held while going to high school. Having just turned 18 and recently graduated from Gladstone (Michigan) High School, he put his purple and white Braves football jersey in mothballs and headed south. Though it was smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and his last name was not Rockefeller, he had decided, before he began to work fulltime, get married, and start the family that he wanted so badly, to treat himself to a graduation gift.
His frugal, if no less epic journey from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Detroit, began with a knapsack and his thumb. The trip today, depending on how many speed limits you’re willing to break, takes seven or eight hours. Now there is the beautiful, five-mile long Mackinac Bridge which connects the U.P. to the lower peninsula. The longest suspension bridge in the world, it spans the Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Huron and Michigan, and takes about ten minutes to cross by car. In 1934, the ferry that got you from one peninsula to the other didn’t cross the straits if the weather was bad and wouldn’t cross them until it had a full load of cars. Sometimes travelers waited hours for that eventuality.
Still my Dad was determined.
What was it that drew my Dad south with such indomitable single-minded purpose? Big Band music, of course, and Cab Calloway’s band in particular. Cab was at the peak of his popularity at this time. I remember when my Dad told me this story a few years ago, my first question was: “Did Cab sing Minnie the Moocher ?” His response: “Did he ever!” That performance of that song at that moment in time remains indelible to him, almost eighty years later. The lure of the Big Band Sound had cast its spell over my Dad, just as it would on millions of other music lovers into the late 1940s.
Cab’s band would have been archetypical for its day: a flashy (and talented) conductor, a sassy brass section with mostly trumpets and trombones, reeds like clarinets and a range of saxophones from soprano to tenor.
Paul Whiteman’s orchestra – with George Gershwin himself at the piano -- introduced the world to Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. It was a watershed performance. The Rhapsody in Blue was a concert piece that incorporated many of the hallmarks of jazz music, including the spine-tingling clarinet arpeggio that opens the piece. Into the 1930s, jazz bands were moderate-sized orchestras. The jazz quartet or trio would have to wait until the early 1950s to truly find its niche. Into the late1940s, jazz bands shrunk markedly. Having a single standing bass as the only representative of the string group became the usual and the ratio of percussion instruments to winds increased as well.
Burgeoning new innovations in Jazz, such as improvisation, vocalese, and fusion, opened for business thanks to artists like Jon Hendricks and Miles Davis. The days of stage-filling bands with full string sections capable of playing three-movement orchestral pieces such as Gershwin’s Concerto in F, were numbered.
If I resided in the 1940s, I would have loved to be a Big Band singer a la Peggy Lee or Helen Forrest. I can only describe their singing style as “straight singing,” a simple style that respects the song, avoiding runs and embellishments that – in my opinion – show off the voice but bury the lyric – and sometimes even the melody.
My Dad never told me the story of his trip to see Cab Calloway in concert until I was in my thirties and he was almost eighty years old. Hearing it as an adult, I saw a side of my Dad that I had never guessed was there . . . a young side. He had been an impulsive, music-loving kid on a quest for the best music of his day. I love that.
Though the live performance of Cab Calloway singing Minnie the Moocher was over in less than five minutes, on film, acetate, DVD, and YouTube the music lives on.
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