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Calloway’s grandson keeps big band tradition alive

Calloway Brooks, Cab’s grandson
Calloway Brooks, Cab’s grandson

Cab Calloway was one of the brightest stars of the big band era, a band leader and vocalist who rose to prominence performing at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club in the ’30s and ’40s. He died in 1994 at the age of 86, but he continued to perform up to his death.

“He was very, very active all the way through until the very end,” said Calloway Brooks, Cab Calloway’s grandson. “His dream was to basically be carried off-stage feet first.”

Brooks took the reins from his grandfather in 1998 when he founded a revamped version of the Cab Calloway Orchestra, which makes its way to the Northern Quest Resort & Casino on Saturday. The 14-member orchestra’s repertory includes Calloway classics like “Minnie the Moocher” and “The Calloway Boogie,” as well as big band standards popularized by the likes of Glenn Miller and Count Basie.

“The Calloway sound is about the bluesiest of all the big bands, and it also has a universal simplicity to it and emphasizes audience participation,” Brooks said. “It’ll be a pretty authentic representation of what it is my grandfather became famous for.”

Brooks’ desire to be a band leader was sparked when he was young, watching his grandfather rehearse and being captivated by the process.

“I first really fell in love with my granddad’s music when I was 4 or 5 years old, when I went to a rehearsal,” Brooks said. “I really didn’t want to leave after that. I didn’t want the rehearsal to end, and I made a big scene at the time saying the musicians had to keep going. … I’ve been bitten by the bug ever since then.”

He recalls meeting Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington as a kid, and after graduating from the New England Conservatory, he occasionally toured and performed with his grandfather in the ’80s and ’90s. Now he’s carrying the torch Calloway handed off to him.

“It’s a big responsibility, and it comes with a lot of expectations,” Brooks said. “But the track record has proven that I’ve fulfilled that legacy pretty well.”

Brooks says that the orchestra sticks pretty closely to Calloway’s original arrangements – some of their featured pieces are songs Calloway himself never got a chance to perform – though the soloists occasionally take liberty with their parts as they see fit.

“It brings that immediacy of the contemporary manifestation of the style,” Brooks said, “and I find that keeps a good aesthetic balance between the old and the new.”

Although big band music is closely associated with a specific time and place, Brooks says it’s not antiquated: There’s something fresh and vital about the songs, he says, that allows the Cab Calloway Orchestra’s performances to be both a monument to an era and a lively modern entertainment.

“It’s an undying historical artifact of American culture,” Brooks said of his grandfather’s music. “American big band music is no more going to vanish from the scene than Beethoven’s piano sonatas or Mozart’s symphonies, or anything else of that ilk. It’s the greatest American music of the first half of the 20th century. It’s identifiably American music that reflected our sensibilities in every conceivable way.”

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