Cab Calloway was of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1930s and 1940s whose legacy today is complicated by his repertoire of novelty songs with references to minstrelsy, his residency at a segregated Harlem cabaret, the Cotton Club, and his marketing to white audiences by manager Irving Mills. Calloway’s sound and persona—commercial, racialized, theatrical—did not square with an emergent art discourse around jazz during the 1930s. Hit songs like “Minnie the Moocher” (1931), with its dark, minor sound world, exaggerated depictions of seedy Harlem nightlife, and cultivated use of local slang, catapulted Calloway to success and stardom while erasing him from a burgeoning narrative that defined jazz as an autonomous, high-art tradition.
Drawing on an elaborate press manual prepared by Mills, Calloway’s reception in historical black newspapers, and musical analysis of recordings of “Minnie” and other lesser-known Calloway numbers, this article examines the music, marketing and reception of Calloway during his Cotton Club residency (1931–34, with sporadic appearances thereafter) to illuminate the contemporary valences of an important interwar performer. Rather than hearing Calloway’s music in terms dictated by jazz’s post-war art discourse, the article strives to locate his songs in their original time and place, and seeks to understand Calloway’s significance by exploring the construction of his public persona. The application of a lens of historical particularity reveals that Calloway’s “novelty” songs acted as powerful articulations of contemporary black life during a pivotal period of Harlem culture.