THE RECENT death of Cab Calloway brings to mind the many great black entertainers who spent much of their formative years in Baltimore. The list includes Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday, Avon Long, Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots singing group and Ethel Ennis. Such internationally known artists have lots of stories about their climb up the ladder of fame, but few probably can match that of "the King of Hi-De-Ho."
Cab Calloway, a swing-era singer, band leader and actor, in an interview once recalled how he quite by chance joined a band: "I was hanging around with a gang on Druid Hill Avenue and North [Avenue] in the late 1920s one night and this guy comes running up to me and asks, 'Any of you guys play drums? I got a gig tonight and I need a drummer bad!' I said I'd do it -- though I had never played drums in my life. He said, 'Great! You're hired. And bring your drums!' I didn't have any drums, so I went down to Conn's on Howard Street and made a deal for some drums. Next thing you know I was playing with a four-piece group out on Washington Boulevard."
Cab Calloway, was a product of Frederick Douglass High School. During his lifetime, he often credited the school's outstanding music teachers of the 1920s with helping him achieve his level of success. He studied classical music at Douglass, but went on to success as a jazz musician.
While Douglass provided his formal education, Cab Calloway turned to Pennsylvania Avenue for informal lessons. "The Avenue," as black Baltimore then proudly referred to the street, was home to top nightclubs that were showcases for major black stars during its heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Once, in an interview, Cab Calloway recalled that the Baltimore of his teens "was one of the great centers of jazz."
After living in Baltimore for about 10 years, Cab Calloway left the city in the late 1920s for Chicago, and shortly after that New York.
Much will be made by historians of Cab Calloway's life, and his contributions to jazz. They ought not to forget Douglass High School and the Pennsylvania Avenue clubs.
Cab Calloway never did.