Harlem Dramaturgy Project, Part 4: Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance — Cab Calloway , Harlem Dramaturgy Project , Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance — AAPEX

Monday, June 11, 2012

Harlem Dramaturgy Project, Part 4: Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance

Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho, 1934

When I started writing Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance, I knew I wanted to include the Cotton Club but I couldn't decide on a year-- until I read Cab Calloway's autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, and then it became a no-brainer: 1931, the year the Cotton Club built a show around him called Rhyth-mania. This was two years after replacing Duke Ellington and his band at the club when they went to Hollywood to make their first movie, an all-African American short called Black and Tan (1929). Cab was just 22-years old when he took up the Cotton Club baton. He got the gig thanks to Irving Mills, a white music agent and producer who broke down color barriers when he brought black and white bands together to rehearse and to make music for his company EMI. What I didn't know at that time when I started writing was just how original and dynamic a performer Calloway was. This was 30-years before YouTube.com where you can easily click onto a vintage piece of film from that by-gone era and see the man for yourself. As for me, seeing the video reinforces my conviction that I made the right decision. Aside from being the right age-- most of my characters are in their twenties since they're members of of a legendary gang called the Jolly Fellows-- he and my main characters Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson tap the zeitgeist of that era. Although the Duke was a genius, he was too intellectual and laid back for what I was trying to convey. Cab fulfilled that mission and more-- his Hep-Cat Dictionary helped me nail down the jive from that period.

The first thing that strikes you when watching the video is how handsome and charismatic Calloway was. The second thing, no one ever conducted a band like he did. He was a force to be reckoned with, channeling a daemon that filled his body and soul with uninhibited abandon. The video above shows Cab when he was about 26-years-old when he made a short for Irving Mills called Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho to promote his new record. Since it's nearly 80-years-old, it can be forgiven for its lameness and cliches but it does have a surreal element that makes it worth watching until the end. And although parts of it takes place at the Cotton Club, I doubt if it was actually filmed there (the club was much more claustrophobic inducing but it does accurately depict what a "high-yeller" Cotton Club "Tall, Tan & Terrific" showgirl looked like). Still, it gives those who have never seen Cab doing his thing a chance to see what "all the hubbub" was about back then surrounding this young band leader working out of a small mob-ran club in Harlem. Thanks to nightly nationwide live radio broadcasts, Cab and the Club's young Jewish songwriting team of Harold Arlen-- who would later write the music for The Wizard of Oz-- and Ted Koehler were selling records "like hotcakes" and transforming America and the world with the new sound of "Swing."

DC Copeland

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Jaz Dorsey

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