Listen to it, a hummed chime of greeting in the summer-day gloom of an apartment house on upper 16th Street, emanating from 72 years' worth of roguish elegance, Cab Calloway himself. He's a bit heavier than in his white-silk-tailcoat heyday at the Cotton Club in the '30s, it's true, but the grin still glows like a strobe-lit piano.
Mmmmm/hmmmm," he sings, a perfect rising third.
He's here to play in "Bubbling Brown Sugar" for three weeks at the Warner Theater. He reclaims his armchair in the living room of a friend, puts his newspaper back on his lap, and turns off the radio, where he's been looking for a ball game.
He wears plaid pants and a red sport shirt, nothing that would make him stand out at, say, Bowie race track, where he plans to be on Thursday afternoon. Then again, you can't expect to find him spending his spare time in spectator shoes and a derby, or the zoot suit he claims to have popularized back in the '40s, or any of the 50 suits, pairs of shoes and gloves he once claimed to maintain as a constant wardrobe.
Elegance! He drove a Lincoln convertible, rode in a private railroad car with his band, led one of the most prominent jazz bands of the '30s, singing, dancing, becoming the model, he says, for Sportin' Life, the consummate seducer of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."
"The way we dress today is pitiful," he says. "You can't even think of the word 'elegant.' People wearing jeans and sweat coats, they're something, I tell you. You have to see somebody who's 50, 60 years old who's got on a tie. They don't know what a tie is anymore. They go on stage looking like a bunch of bums. Elegance. I can say that's what I believe in.
"In 1928, after I bombed at the Savoy with a band called the Alabamans, I had the good luck to be asked to join a show called 'Connie's Hot Chocolates.' I went into a rehearsal, I think it was a Saturday between the matinee and the night show, I walked in with my raccoon coat on, and a derby."
And here he pauses for the longest time, researching his listener's face to see if the detail of the derby is fully appreciated.
"I was sharp, man. I was (SECTION) harp."
How, he is asked, could he maintain such a wardrobe, seeing that he'd just arrived in New York, and had failed totally?
"I did a little gambling, too, you know. I still do."
He's always gotten on very well in Washington, too -- except for some problems with a horse in the second race one March day in 1952.
"I was playing, what was the name of it, the Blue Mirror, and a guy came in and said he had some horses down in Charlestown. There weren't any bookmakers in town at that time, so I had to go out to the track. We were on the other side of Leesburg when the cop pulled us over.
"I tried to tell him, 'This is important,' but he wouldn't listen. I said 'How much is the fine going to be? And I took a bill and tried to grease it to him, you see. Well, he led us straight to the police station. Now," he says, ripping into the patented Cab Calloway raffish laugh, "I've got bri-i-ibery, too! And the worst of it was -- the horse won!"
And then he subsides into shyness' again, holding the newspaper, waiting for another question, hardly the rake of his stage persona.
He was suppposed to turn out a lawyer, like his father. He grew up in Baltimore as Cabell Calloway III, middle-class kid, a basketball player -- "We came over and beat all the Washington high schools, Dunbar, Armstrong . . ."
But at 20 he followed his oldest sister, Blanche, to Chicago to get into show business. He became one of what is now a nearly vanished breed of entertainers, a bandleader -- not just the man waving the baton, but a master of ceremonies, introducer of comedians and novelty acts, a singer, a star and popular-culture exemplar in his own right.
There are no modern equivalents. But then, there's no elegance either. Nowadays, the Duke of Windsor would have his own monogrammed line of men's wear and cologne; Clark Gable would play headwaiters; Joe Dimaggio would be ignored as being good-hit but bad-quote.
When the big-band era finally died around 1950, Calloway was sufficiently established as both star and archetype that he was the natural choice to play Sportin' Life in a revival of "Porgy and Bess," a role that, of course, he'd originally inspired. He had to compete with Leontyne Price and William Warfield for audience attention, and he got raves.
He went on to other roles in other stage productions such as "The Pajama Game," and the celebrated "Hello, Dolly!" with Pearl Bailey. In 1971, he was received by Richard Nixon at the White House with the words, "Ah, Mr. Ellington, it's so good you're here." He's had two marriages, six daughters and seven grandsons.
A few years ago he published an autobiography, and described himself as being in semi-retirement, living in a 12-room house in White Plains, N.Y. In January of this year, he shared a bandstand with avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman in a benefit for the Carter-Mondale campaign.
He got into the white tails to become one of the few worthwhile moments in the movie disaster of "The Blues Brothers." And now he's at the Warner.
"I respect audiences," he says. "The kids today, they don't pay any attention to 'em. I say, entertain 'em."
In the movie, he sings his greatest hit, "Minnie the Moocher," with the trademark phrase he invented one night in the Cotton Club when he forgot the words: Hi-de-ho.
That's what he would like to be remembered for, he says.
"Hi-de-ho," he sings. "Hi-de-hi-de-ho."
It's a strange epitaph.
He leans forward suddenly, holding up his hand with his fingers pursed, a pantomime of complete possession.
"You can't sing it unless you're happy, can you? When I do that song, everybody sings along. You can't sing it sad."
He thinks about it.
"Making people happy," he says.
Elegance. Roguishness. Elegance.