-Cab Calloway, Minnie the Moocher
"When I'm gone you wait and see! They'll all be sorry that they picked on me!"
-Betty Boop, Minnie the Moocher cartoon
When one chooses photography as either a profession or simply a serious hobby, there is often this internal conflict of what is actually more important: meeting and interacting with someone (ie experiencing life), or photographing them (capturing and saving a special moment forever).
This dilemma becomes more apparent when a photographer sometimes has to choose one over the other.
Obviously, some of the most special moments of my life were when I got to spend time with incredible individuals and also got to photograph them, but that doesn't always happen.
My final Black History Month blog post (which also happens to be a perfect Throw Back Thursday post as well) deals with a wonderful moment in my life, a warm Miami Beach winter's afternoon, where I found myself in the presence of the immensely popular Big Band legend, Cab Calloway.
Calloway was a remarkable performer whose career spanned more than seventy years, and was someone that, in my wildest dreams growing up, I could never have imagined actually seeing perform live in person.
He was a man whose music may not have had been defined by racial boundaries, but whose life definitely was.
In this case I didn't get to meet him, but I did get to see him perform. And photograph him.
about Cab Calloway
I won't even try to present a biography of Cab Calloway (1907-1994). Too much information for too small a space. If you're interested, everything about him is out there on the web -
Suffice to say the timing of his life and his particular talents aligned perfectly with an evolutionary chapter in American history: the arrival of African American individuals who may not have been considered equal by whites when it came to bathrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, or hotels, but who were loved and adored by millions...as entertainers.
Cab Calloway was obviously sanitized a bit for consumption by a mainstream white audience, but many facets of his personailty and style: things such as his jazz music and scat singing, his zoot suit appearance, and especially his jive way of talking, were very black, and appealed to whites especially because they were new, different, and exotic.
He was also a little dangerous, as he only loosely concealed the fact that he and his crowd were recreational users of both reefer (marijuana) and cocaine.
Now, I am neither a music historian nor a black historian, but I can safely say Calloway successfully crossed over to white audiences in ways that very few African Americans had up until that time. There is no question he also paved the way for many black entertainers and performers that came after him.
His cool factor for most of his life was off the charts, as he accended from leading what was originally a fill-in band for Duke Ellington at Harlem's Cotton Club in the 1930s, to becoming a star of radio, stage, and screen, both with his orchestra and as a solo artist.
He even had the distinction of being featured in both Max Fleischer and Warner Brothers cartoons during those early years, two of the most successful American animation studios at the time, both of whom catered primarily to white movie theater audiences. A high honor indeed.
miami beach in 1987
It is almost impossible for me to describe what Miami and Miami Beach were like in the late 1980s if you weren't there to experience it for yourself.
The infamous Mariel Boatlift of 1980 was nearly a decade past, and the city of Miami had already become hugely Hispanic, specifically Cuban. Miami Beach, however, was still jokingly referred to as God's waiting room, as it continued to be made up of many older, retired New York Jews as well as others from the northeastern United States.
The beach was very different then from the international hot spot it would soon become in the 1990s (when it was rechristened South Beach), and drastically different from what it is today.
The Tropical Art Deco district, including Ocean Drive, was made up partially (if not mostly) of semi-run down buildings that local preservationists were desperately trying to save.
As an FYI, all of the images from my South Beach Tropical Art Deco gallery series were photographed during this time period, and trust me, it was never difficult getting shots of the various hotels and deco buildings with no people in front of them. It really was that deserted on Ocean Drive at times.
Still, as someone who moved to South Florida from another part of the state (and before that another part of the country), Miami and Miami Beach seemed like beautiful rare jewels to me.
Downtown Miami was super modern, with an ever-expanding skyline of taller and taller skyscrapers.
Across the scenic causeways, Miami Beach, old and rundown as it may have been, presented itself as a fantasy world, with tropical deco buildings everywhere transforming the streets into a surreal vintage playground for the young or the young-at-heart.
It was in this new, exciting spirit of rebirth that Art Deco Weekend first started being held on Ocean Drive every year.
Visionary real estate developer Tony Goldman had already begun renovating many of the nicer Art Deco buildings, and Art Deco Weekend quickly became a celebration of both the style and the place. A festival that centered around food, music, art, clothing, jewelry, and anything else that was Art Deco.
the blues brothers?
The immediate irony of Cab Calloway's performance at Art Deco Weekend was that he was known, at least to younger viewers, primarily due to his fun appearance in the 1980 comedy movie The Blues Brothers.
Thankfully, my upbringing and education was a little more well-rounded than simply watching Saturday Night Live characters, and I had been well aware of both the man and his music for many years from listening to older records and watching classic movies.
So I really had a much greater sense of what a significant event it was for him to be performing right there in front of me. Especially at age seventy-nine.
short but sweet
Nicknamed "The Hi De Ho Man" due to his most famous song, I'm sure few expected Calloway, at his age, to perform for very long, and he didn't. It was a song and dance routine he obviously had repeated thousands of times over the course of his career, but you would have never known that from the enthusiasm, energy, and playfulness he displayed that afternoon. And even though most of us knew what was coming, it felt fresh.
I guess that what's to be expected from someone who absolutely loves and appreciates what he's had the priviledge of doing for most of his life.
I made the most of my short opportunity, and squeezed off a roll of film during his brief show.
For me, it was more than enough, and I walked away from the festival that day not only happy I had captured such a prolific man and moment, but pleased at the thought that I was now forever personally connected to his amazing place in history.
About Black History Month
Call this my Middle-aged Suburban White Guy Disclaimer. I have never and will never catagorize my work based on the skin color of my subjects. That would just be dumb.
I also believe black history is American history, and should be celebrated the year round, not just one month a year.
What I do enjoy is keeping within the spirit of Black History Month, having the opportunity to share personal stories of some amazing individuals who happen to have an ethnic and cultural element to their lives that is a significant and crucial part of their place in history. Our history.
All of my Throw Back Thursday posts this month will showcase famous African-Americans I've had the pleasure of meeting and photographing.
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As always, your comments and suggestions are more than welcome!
All photos ©Steven Paul Hlavac. All rights reserved.