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Cab Calloway Orchestra, Mills Brothers delight Seattle Pops young-at-heart audience
Cab Calloway Orchestra, Mills Brothers delight Seattle Pops young-at-heart audience
by Lorelei Quenzer - SGN A&E Writer

A Night at the Cotton Club, Featuring the Cab Calloway Orchestra with The Mills Brothers
Thursday, March 29, 7:30 pm
Benaroya Hall

The opening night audience for "A Night at the Cotton Club," dressed to the nines for the filming of a PBS special, was fraught with anticipation. Well, as fraught as a crowd of 70-somethings can be without taking their heart medication. I'm probably not the target audience for Big Band music, but being at Benaroya Hall last Thursday made me feel remarkably spry. After all, I'm a good 30 years younger than most of those who were in attendance. I'm at a loss to explain my love of music from this era. It might be because my grandfather played clarinet with Artie Shaw; but, then again, I was adopted. Maybe it's just because it's damn good music!

C. Calloway Brooks, the grandson of Cab Calloway, glided on stage in a white zoot suit, complete with feathered hat and gleaming smile. He twirled his baton, pointed it at the lead saxophonist, and with a flick of his wrist the CCO, as it's known, started swinging. With classic tunes like "The Calloway Boogie," "Besamé Mucho," and an updated version of "Reefer Man," the orchestra was prepared to take us back in time. Other than a few modern hairstyles (surely even jazz musicians didn't wear braids back in the day?) I'd swear I was there.

I may not have first-hand knowledge of the Big Band era, but I know my jazz history. Cab Calloway became famous in the 1920's for leading his orchestra at New York's Cotton Club. A number of great musicians came from the CCO, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Ben Webster and bassist Milt Hinton. Cab was the first African-American jazz musician to achieve a number one hit and sell one million records, and he appeared in major films and musicals like Porgy and Bess and The Blues Brothers. Although Cab died in 1994, he was inducted posthumously into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1995.

This 2007 tour marks the start of the official, family-endorsed celebration of Calloway's 100th birthday, and I can't think of a better way to get the birthday party started. As the current ensemble's leader, Brooks delivered an authentic swing sound. It helps that he utilizes Calloway's original vintage orchestrations, but it's his stage style - zoot suit and all - that reminded me of all the vintage Calloway footage I've ever seen.

Of course, no evening of Cab Calloway music could be complete without his most famous song. Brooks teased the audience, pretending he couldn't remember what came next on the playlist, eventually asking the audience for help. We demanded and he answered: with a rollicking version of "Minnie the Moocher." There's something really satisfying about call-and-repeat songs. I loved singing "Hi-de-hi-de-ho!" His encore of "Stardust" completed the first half of the Seattle Pops evening.

The Mills Brothers, who took to the stage after the intermission, were equally enchanting. The original Mills Brothers quartet started performing in 1922. They were best known for singing a cappella, recreating all the sounds of a big band with their vocals. The members of the current duo aren't actually brothers, although one of them is a Mills. John Mills began performing with his father, Donald, in 1982; Elmer Hopper - who was with the Platters for 21 years - joined Mills in 1999.

The repertoire of the Brothers is both diverse and extensive. The group had a certifiable hit every year between 1935 and 1947, and - backed by the CCO - they performed a good number of those hits this evening. The duo started off with "Opus One," moving on to "Yellow Bird," "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" and "Paper Doll." Mid-way through the set Hopper took the stage solo to sing the intro to the Platters' "Twilight Time." He then sang a lovely version of "Only You," reaching the song's high notes with a little difficulty, but with a sweet twinkle in his eye just the same.

Mills rejoined Hopper for a swinging version of "Bye Bye Blackbird" that moved so fast you'd swear the duo was on wheels. And while their rendition of Louis Armstrong's "Basin Street Blues" was fabulous, with Mills vocalizing the part of Armstrong's muted trumpet, it was the only song of the evening that featured the style that had originally made the Brothers' famous. I would love to have heard more songs like that! They closed their set with "Glow Worm," leaving the audience with a warm little glow of their own. It's too bad that a few anxious elders left the auditorium before the encore "Up A Lazy River," but I guess it was past their bedtime.

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