King of Hi-de-ho

November 22, 1994

Bassist Milt Hinton once recalled how Cab Calloway's big band traveled in grand style in its own Pullman train. Once he peeked into the baggage car and his eyes "nearly popped out. In the middle of all these trunks and instruments was Cab's big green Lincoln. . . Everywhere Cab went he took that beautiful car with him, and when he got into a town the rest of us would get taxis, but Cab would roll that old Linc down off the train, with his coonskin coat on and a fine Homburg or derby, and drive off. . ."

Onstage or off, eye-popping flash was the hallmark of Cabell "Cab" Calloway III, the Baltimore-reared jazz giant who died at age 86 last Friday. The colorful "King of Hi-de-ho" was an archetypal figure of 20th century American culture: a charismatic vocalist fronting his own band. The bright zoot suits, the smile that seemed as wide as a piano keyboard, the loose strand of hair swinging wildly, the baton bobbing to the beat of the million-selling "Minnie the Moocher," the slick dance moves -- all predated a long line of popular musicians who followed a trail blazed by Cab Calloway.

But there was more to Mr. Calloway than surface "star" appeal; his dramatic, trumpet-like voice, for example. And though not in bTC the league of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, the Calloway band was respected for some of the hottest arrangements of the big band era, performed by such top-flight players as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Chu Berry and Ben Webster and drummer Cozy Cole.

A grad of Frederick Douglass High School, Mr. Calloway often brought his band to his home town, to the Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue and the Century on West Lexington, among other night spots now long gone. His Baltimore memories were mostly good, despite the segregation of the day. The reverence he felt for his family and teachers was matched by his fondness for the characters he encountered in what he called "that rough and raucous Baltimore Negro night life with loud music, heavy drinking and the kind of moral standards that my parents looked down on."

He kept making music around the world, staging concerts as late as last year. He led a sing-along to "Minnie the Moocher" in May 1993 during commencement ceremonies at the University of Rochester. Five months later, Mr. Calloway received a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton.

From West Baltimore to the White House, it was indeed a royal life for the King of Hi-de-ho.

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