The Jazz.com Blog
May 07, 2008 · 4 comments
Jazz plays a peculiar role in the broader culture. Almost no one buys jazz records these days (roughly 2% of CD sales), yet automobile companies find that they sell cars when they put jazz music on their commercials. Walk into a Starbucks, and you will frequently hear jazz playing in the background. Channel surf the movies on cable, and you will find jazz or jazz-derived music time and time again. Wherever you look, the symbolic impact of jazz far outweighs its importance when measured by sales or concert attendance.
Even the name jazz seems to possess some magic. When radio industry folks describe their station's format as “New Adult Contemporary,” no one pays any attention. But when they call it smooth jazz (same stuff, different label), everyone takes notice, perhaps just to gripe. Even things that have little or nothing to do with music – jazzercise or a basketball team in Utah – want to usurp the majesty of the name.
But jazz and cartoons? What could be farther from the spirit of jazz than low-brow animated entertainment for kids. Yet there is a long history of mutual interaction between these two art forms. Raymond Scott’s quirky music served as inspiration both for the soundtracks of countless Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, as well as for serious jazz musicians. Artists as diverse as Don Byron, Bob Moog, the Dave Brubeck Octet and the Kronos Quartet have reveled in its peculiarities.
And Bugs Bunny, don’t forget, was the prototypical hipster back at a time when only Lester Young was doing a better job of defining the cool ethos -- just as Elmer Fudd has long served as the prototype for all "squares," who are sometimes dubbed (in Elmer's honor) as fuddy-duddies. When I write the hidden history of the twentieth century, Bugs and Prez will play leading roles. (Don't laugh, my friends, I'm serious!)
The jazzy theme from The Flintstones was a variant on “I Got Rhythm,” and boasted a swinging chart and perfect blowing changes. Hanna-Barbera musical director Hoyt Curtin contrived this gem of contemporary Americana, a hummable melody that proved to be a major contributor to the success of the TV series. But Curtin topped this effort with his lesser known, but also classic theme for Johnny Quest, which includes some of the best -- and most difficult -- trombone writing of the era. (If you haven’t heard it, check it out here.)
Henry Mancini’s “Theme from the Pink Panther” showed that this successful marriage of a jazz sensibility with animated images was no fluke. Who can imagine the great Peter Sellers’ films without the inspired opening sequences? The animated panther with the brilliant soundtrack became a star in his own right, appearing in 124 shorts, ten television shows and three prime-time television specials.
Despite these precedents, the execs at CBS were unhappy to learn that producer Lee Mendelson planned to use Vince Guaraldi’s piano trio for the soundtrack to the 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Yet the show captured a huge audience – around half of the televisions in America tuned in – and the soundtrack became almost as popular as Charlie Brown himself. Four decades later, the recording of Guaraldi’s soundtrack music remains a perennial holiday season best-seller.
Cartoon Jam Session Runs Afoul of the Law
Top Cat, despite his name, is usually relegated to the bottom of this list. This cooler-than-thou cartoon character briefly starred as leading feline in a major network show – but lasted for only thirty episodes. His brief reign lasted from September 1961 to April 1962, not even as long as the second Elizabeth Taylor - Richard Burton marriage. But Top Cat had a winning attitude . . . and a great soundtrack. Again Hoyt Curtin, the man behind the music at Hanna-Barbera, was the composer. (Jazz trivia: If Curtin was the top cat at HB’s music department he wasn’t the only jazzcat there. Marty Paich and Ralph Carmichael also made contributions to Hanna-Barbera scores.)
Pianist Ted Kooshian has adopted the forgotten Top Cat, and features his jazzy theme song as the opening track of his new CD Ted Kooshian’s Standard Orbit Quartet. Kooshian, whom you may know from his work with Ed Palmero’s Big Band, must be a fan of cartoons and comic books, because his CD also covers themes from Spiderman, Batman and The Simpsons. All in all, this release has the most unconventional line-up of tunes that I have encountered in a long time. The eleven tracks also dip into Led Zeppelin, The Police, Captain Kangaroo, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.