Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 29, 2003 edition of U.S.

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Chris Calloway: More than Cab’s Daughter

Chris Calloway has been proving that she not only has

what it takes to be the daughter of a legend, but also that she has

what it takes to portray a legend. If her father, the unique band

leader and singer and "King of the Cotton Club" Cab Calloway,

was renowned for the skatty style of flamboyant jazz that he brought

to the big band era, Chris has gained recognition in her own right

as an actor, singer, and writer. At the moment, she is portraying

jazz legend Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and

Grill," the Lanie Robertson music-filled play, now at the Bristol

Riverside Theater.

About the way she plays Holiday, Chris says, "It is the emotional

baggage that Holiday carried around with her that made her singing

memorable. She didn’t have much of a voice, very little range and

toward the end, her life style took a toll on it," says her interpreter

about whom the Washington Post has said "every bit as capable

of carrying on the family tradition of supercharged performance smoldering

with passion."

Calloway believes that the appeal of Holiday, especially with young

audiences, is that she wore her emotions on her sleeve, something

that she says is rare to see in performers in the 21st century. "It’s

extraordinary to experience this woman whose feelings were so in your

face," says Calloway about the role she has been playing on and

off for the past 10 years. "This play is especially important

to me this time around because I lost my only son on September 5th

this past year from complications from drug addiction. He was a drug

addict off and on for the past 15 years," she says, revealing

how the show is now part of her own healing process. "He needs

to speak through me. Artists do their job by healing the audience

as well," she says talking about all the people who have opened

up to her about their own loss.

Chris’ spiritually-based philosophy, which she says helped her confront

a recurrence of breast cancer, is based on "focusing on how I

live as a human being and as an artist. I’m not here for a long time,

but I’m here for a good time. As an actor, it is my job to give Holiday

an inner life," she says paraphrasing Stanislavsky. "The more

I color the aspects of Holiday’s inner life the more that effects

the way my voice comes out and how Billie can speak through me. I’m

not trying to sound like Holiday but assume her emotional life and

circumstances."

We share candidly our opinions of other artists who have portrayed

Holiday with more voice than verity. "You can’t see me through

the phone," she says, "but I am a red-haired, light-skinned

black woman and I don’t look a bloody thing like Holiday. My job is

not to look like her or even look good up there but to portray her

as the crass, hard, gut-bucket woman who had had her ass kicked."

The Holiday that Calloway brings us is the tragic singer at the end

of the line. The place is Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia at

midnight on a Friday in March 1959, four months before Holiday’s death.

It is in this evocative dump that we hear Holiday’s story, a blend

of stream-of-consciousness monologue and cabaret. Notwithstanding

her heroin addiction, Calloway wants us to see a Holiday whose life

at this point, as well as her music, as filled with brave defiance,

justifiable arrogance and unavoidable suffering. The rich drama, that

includes insights into Holiday’s childhood and her debilitating marriage,

as well as the infamous tour with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, unfolds

amid such songs as "When a Woman Loves A Man," "Them There

Eyes," "God Bless the Child," and "Livin’ For You."

Under Susan D. Atkinson’s direction, Calloway will have musical assist

from David Alan Bunn, on piano, and Arthur Harper on bass.

There is no denying the love and dedication with which Chris has worked

to preserve Cab Calloway’s legacy and keeping his flame lit since

his death in 1995. She put together her father’s last band, The Hi-De-Ho

Orchestra, for the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City in 1999 and

a subsequent 55-city tour called "Cab Calloway’s Legacy of Swing."

But Chris is equally dedicated to her own artistic pursuits. Part

of that pursuit has been touring with "Lady Day" from Alabama

to the Edinburgh Arts Festival, from Dallas to a tour of England,

from Winnipeg Canada, to Sarasota Florida, and to Santa Fe Stages

International Theatre Festival.

It was in New Mexico that Calloway was given the title Santa Fe’s

"Reigning Diva of the Night" where she performed at the major

hotels and lounges, perfecting her own style. It was there that she

structured the material for "Celebration of a Legacy," a showcase

marking 75 years of show business history for the Calloway family,

that was notable for its music, the bulk of which was written or recorded

by her aunt Blanche Calloway and her father.

"I settled in New Mexico to get away from my Dad," she says

qualifying that with "I needed to figure out who I was as an artist

as I had spent the majority of the past 20 years touring and performing

with my father as a team and his Hi-De-Ho Orchestra throughout the

U.S. Europe, South America, Japan, and Australia. The touring was

good because I had a job, but bad because I knew that they weren’t

coming to see me. I was always introduced as Chris Calloway, Cab Calloway’s

daughter. I knew they were thinking, Oh, God, here comes Nancy Sinatra.

So, the pressure was on me to be better than they expected. That became

a blessing in disguise. I worked to establish a performance level

and an ethic that was up to the legacy."

Calloway’s special talents as an actor, a singer, and most recently

a playwright have kept her active in show biz since she made her first

professional appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show with an introduction

to the world by her Dad in the mid 1960s. But introductions can only

do so much as Chris learned the hard way starting out as a "singing

hat check girl" at New York’s Improvisation, the Catskill Mountains

circuit, and a brief stint with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. But

perhaps as Calloway recalls, it was really when she was about 12 years

old that she got the singing bug lip-synching to Mahalia Jackson’s

"Oh Holy Night," for her father on his birthday — Christmas

Day.

Active with her high school’s drama club in White Plains,

N.Y. where the Calloway family lived, Calloway made a decision to

attend Boston University School of Fine Arts, where she says, "I

didn’t quite make it through to the end. "Dad was so pissed that

he threw a television set at me," she says also allowing (with a loud

laugh) that it missed. Chris remembers how her dad "knew how to

hustle" when it came to making a living in the waning years of

the big band era. "He went on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters

and was the half time show in the gymnasiums. There was only him and

a piano."

As had other members of the Calloway clan, Chris was anxious to get

her musical career going. "Dad’s brother Elmer was a band leader,

and my baby sister Cabella was a dancer, and my middle sister Cecilia

worked with my Dad for a bit, but it was Aunt Blanche (Calloway),

who was one of the only females to front an `all male’ band in 1931

and who directly influenced my dad, who was so inspiring that I decided

to write a play about her."

In the spring of 2001, Chris dove into a project that was "a dream

come true for me." Santa Fe Stages produced Chris’ one-woman show

— "Clouds of Joy" — that she wrote about her Aunt

Blanche. It has recently been revised by co-author Mark St. Germain

and renamed "Blanche and Her Joy Boys." Plans for a New York

run are in the works. Chris talks even more enthusiastically —

"I’m a happy girl" — about the prospects of a Broadway

musical about Cab Calloway. Chris’ own big Broadway break came when

she was picked to appear with her Dad in the history making "all

black" David Merrick production of "Hello Dolly," starring

Pearl Bailey.

After a nine-month tour with the musical review "Eubie" that

followed the "Dolly" run, Chris settled in Hollywood where

she hosted her own radio talk and music shows. She was one of the

first black DJ’s in the LA market. A TV soap — "The Doctors"

— entered the picture for a year with Chris playing the mysterious

Dr. Ivey Gooding, co-starring with Alec Baldwin and John Panko.

I asked Chris what she considered the best part of her life. "It’s

my spiritual life and my understanding of who I am and why I’m here,"

she says. "I know its sounds bizarre, but the death of my son

was a gift because it gave me focus. My grieving was so pervasive

and definitive that I knew I had to pick myself off the floor. I don’t

do fear." More than she knows at the moment, the Diva of the Night

seems to be expressing the sentiments of Lady Day.

— Simon Saltzman

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Bristol Riverside

Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Opening night

for the musical starring Chris Calloway. To February 16. $37. Thursday,

January 30, 8 p.m.


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