In the 1920 and 30s, Harlem, Manhattan, was hopping, but for some, Liberia was hoping. The music scene was on fire, as was the imagination of one man who hoped to change the future of Black America, to lead the people back to Africa. Cab Calloway led the band; Marcus Garvey led the charge to Liberia. Folks were jitterbugging: across the Cotton Club dance floor; folks were steaming shipboard across the Atlantic Ocean. Two leaders, one destined for musical fame, the other destined for disgrace and imprisonment. Together, they and those who followed the beat of distant drummers, danced to the end of time.
Cab Calloway was born in Rochester, New York, 1907. His near contemporary, Marcus Garvey was born in 1887. One died in 1994, preceded by the other in 1940. The events and legacies of these men’s lives affects the United States– and the world– to this day, from the swinging hot dance jazz of Calloway to the fervent dreams of freedom in Africa espoused by Garvey. Lace up your shoes, dear reader, and batten down your hatches for a long voyage into a dark and stormy past.
Cab Calloway, born Cabell Calloway, was the child of “Martha Eulalia Reed and Cabell Calloway, Jr. Martha was a teacher and church organist, whereas Cabell was a lawyer who worked in real estate. The family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1918, to an area known as Sugar Hill, considered to be the economic and cultural centre for affluent blacks at the time. Cab belonged to a comfortably well off middle class family.”1. On Christmas Day when Calloway was born maybe God was bored and created Calloway to lived up the joint. If so, most of the moral authorities in the cities he grew up to play in thought otherwise, condemning Calloway and frequently accusing him of public indecency for getting up the folks dancing in the aisles of the big band clubs. In American cities of the 30s, the Jazz age dropped down on the dance halls and music venues like a tornado, whipping up the spirit of long oppressed and poverty stricken people who had slowly migrated north from the hard-scrabble life of share-cropping in the misery belt of the South.
The tornado of sound and soul that Calloway brought to the dances hall blew apart the social conventions of tight-lipped scolds and barrel-bellied scowlers who sat on their hands in church as the organ piped its dirges. “Forgive us, O, Lord, for we have sinned and blah-blah.” Meanwhile, across the tracks, Calloway was leading the band, singing out, “Saint’ James Infirmary Blues.” Few would have known, and fewer at the time would have cared, that the tune possibly came from Bristol, a slave-trade center in southern England a hundred years before. For American Blacks, small clubs, a week of work in a factory for a pittance of pay, and the weekend to let it all go and live a little. Stout, gray-faced matrons in feather-salad hats and floor-dusting skirts and men in chest high trousers held up with suspenders grumbled; mustachioed Irish cops– fathers, sons, grandsons– decked out in dark as night blue with double rows of brass buttoned uniforms, leather truncheons at the ready, made a storm of their own as they crashed the dance hall parties to restore middle-brow propriety among those kicking up their heels and letting go of the restraints of dignified stodge. Blacks got busted; whites went to the Cotton Club to enjoy Negro music–The Jazz Age.
In Bavaria at the time, an Austrian ex-corporal in the German military was living in a homeless shelter, picking up loose change by working as a spy for the government, reporting on the local Communist rabble in beer halls, joining one such group with a membership of seven or so, the German Socialist Workers’ Party, and coming to the attention of a newspaper publisher who saw in the former Herr Schicklgruber the promise of a malleable man who might bring in a much needed element of street thugs to his own shadowy group of anti-government, super-rich occult dabblers in Vienna. Dieter Eikhart met Adolf Hitler. The rest, as they say, is history: Nazis and World War Two.
In Akron, Ohio, Harvey Firestone, born in 1898, entered the family business after World War One and began his venture into rubber. At the time, the English and the Dutch formed a rubber monopoly. The price of latex was exorbitant. “Starting in 1924, Firestone was assigned to travel worldwide in search of locations where the company could grow its own rubber. After visits to Asia and to Mexico, he settled on Liberia as the base for Firestone Plantations Company. He arranged for the lease of 1,500 square miles (3,900 km2) of Liberian territory, a little more than 3 percent of that nation’s area. The 12,000 Liberian employees were paid low wages, because, as former employee Arthur Hayman described, the Liberian government felt that ‘men with money in their pockets would eventually have demanded the ballot’.”2.
In the years of the Roaring ‘20s times were tough. Across the United States, “in 1930, only 13 percent of farms had electricity. By the early 1940s, only 33 percent of farms had electricity.”3.
For many Americans, owning a pair of shoes was a luxury they indulged in only when the weather was too cold to continue going barefoot. Moving to a new land mostly meant staying there for the duration because distance was a tyranny as brutal as any feudal baron. The Roaring Twenties was only heard by a few. Most suffered in silence, the lucky few hearing the music of Cab Calloway; others hearing the siren song of Marcus Garvey’s call to the return to Africa, to the shores of Liberia, the land of the free.
Liberia beckoned. Marcus Garvey responded. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic watched wary.
In Paris, France, Josephine Baker danced, Ernest Hemingway wrote; in Russia, Leon Trotsky with his wife lit out for San Angel, Mexico City to escape Stalin’s wrath and secret assassins. In Romania, Cornelius Codrianu, leader of the facist religious cult, the Iron Guard, was killed, along with most of his followers, when they were laid out on a road in the night and run over by military trucks. Pink neon lights lit up the sky about the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan, and people stopped and stared in amazement. Marcus Garvey had his eyes on Liberia.4.
For Cab Calloway, life was good. In the early 1930s, he was making $50,000 per year– at the age of 23.5.
“He had musical talent: his parents enrolled the young Calloway in vocal lessons in order to strengthen his technique. He began to be attracted towards jazz music, a fact that both his parents and teacher disapproved of.”
“His parents wanted him to study law, so he enrolled at Crane College; but his love for jazz was strong and he became a regular at several of the nightclubs in Baltimore. During college, he met jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Armstrong taught Calloway a singing technique known as ‘scat singing.’
Calloway left school and moved to New York where he was a regular at The Cotton Club, the most respected jazz club in the country. He also joined and took over a band called The Missourians, later renamed Cab Calloway and His Orchestra.. The band began performing regularly at the Cotton Club with the likes of Duke Ellington and also toured the country….. They were regularly featured on a live radio show broadcast from the Cotton Club.
His most famous song was “Minnie the Moocher” released in 1931, which reached No. 1 and sold almost a million records.”6.
Cab Calloway was a hit at the Cotton Club, owned by notorious gangster of the time, Owen Madden, known as “Killer Madden.” “Mae West said that Madden was ‘sweet, but oh, so vicious’.”7.
“Attending clubs in Harlem allowed whites from New York and its surrounding areas to indulge in two taboos simultaneously: to drink, as well as mingle with blacks. Jazz musicians often performed in these clubs, exposing white clientele to what was typically an African-American form of musical entertainment.”8.
“The original Cotton Club opened in the 1920’s on 142nd street and Lenox Avenue when central Harlem was the playground of the rich. The club was segregated in the sense that only white patrons could enter the establishment while all the service and entertainment was provided by black entertainers who often worked jungle themes or black face parodies for their guests. If you were a Black woman and wanted to perform there, you had to be ‘light, bright, and damn near white!’
After the earlier years, what did emerge from this historic venue was a legendary jazz history. The likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker to even Mae West have made an appearance at the Cotton Club. The Club was renowned worldwide and still is one of the most recognizable names associated with Harlem.
The heyday was enjoyed well into the 20’s and 30’s until race riots of 1936. The Cotton Club of the Harlem Renaissance closed for good in 1940. By 1958, the Cotton Club was a boarded up building.”9.
Calloway was the first African-American musician to sell a million records from a single song. In 1993, Calloway received the National Medal of Arts from the United States Congress. He posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. His song “Minnie the Moocher” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2019. He is also inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and the International Jazz Hall of Fame.10.
“At his peak in 1923 he had millions of followers around the world. Cab Calloway was the best-known black entertainer of the era.”11.
Life for Marcus Garvey took turns in other directions. We will follow that next.
Main Photo: Cab Calloway, PBS