10 Feb

Pioneering entertainer Cab Calloway may be known to recent generations from appearances in cultural high water marks such as Sesame Street or the Blues Brothers movie. His stature as a musician attaches to his being Duke Ellington’s replacement at the legendary Harlem hot spot, The Cotton Club and for surrounding himself with up and coming talent such as Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jonah Jones. Now comes jazz scholar Alyn Shipton’s Hi-de-ho The Life of Cab Calloway (Oxford University Press) a comprehensive and diligently researched biography of the great jazz singer and bandleader (it apparently is also the first). Shipton follows Calloway’s life from his upbringing in Rochester New York, his career beginnings in Baltimore and his catapult to fame at the Cotton Club. Its a wonderful portrayal of the white tie and tail clad Calloway who fixed the Hi-de-ho” chorus of “Minnie the Moocher” in the American Songbook and much more.

I have occasionally wondered (usually upon the publication of a new edition) why no one has followed the lead of gloriously inventive writer and a singular film scholar David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film (now in its fifth edition). I suppose 35 years is not too long for a good idea to marinate in the juices of contemporary culture. At last comes Will Friedwald’s A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon) which strolls a lengthy stretch of the waterfront with snapshots of the lives of three hundred singers— Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland to Jeri Southern, George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, Joe Mooney, Ivie Anderson,Billie Holiday, Perry Como,Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé —you get the idea, right? Included as well, in this survey of 20th century American singers, is Friedwald’s idiosyncratic take on the evanescent American Songbook—that is, the songs these singers sing.

A fun read and serious albeit opinionated scholarship— that makes for a good package.

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