From the 1930's through the 1950s, Big Band jazz was an immensely popular form of American music. Swinging ensembles of horns, drums, strings and keyboards played music that was not only great to dance to. It also worked as the musical accompaniment for most of the animated shorts of the era – a time often described as the Golden Age of American cartoons. But those merry melodies were more than mere kid stuff, as VOA's Adam Phillips reports.
Jeff Sanford looks as normal as anyone can look while playing the clarinet and leading the big-band ensemble he founded – the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra – through a rendition of "Powerhouse." It's a piece by Raymond Scott, one of the cartoon genre's greatest composers.
The Golden Age of cartoons was mostly over when Sanford was a child. But as with almost every baby boomer, the visual and musical world of the cartoon was a familiar alternative reality. "I spent hours Saturday mornings relaxing and watching cartoons," he says. "When we perform this music I do notice that these memories seem to really cut deep into people's memories."
Music in cartoons changes and enhances mood, Sanford says. It can also evoke the atmosphere of actual places.
Just as the sound of twittering flutes calls to mind images of an idyllic, unspoiled countryside, Raymond Scott's "Jungle Jazz" is Manhattan during its bustling hipster heyday in the 1930s.
"[It] has that frantic 'da-da-da-da' and that mood of maybe being in the subway and trying to cross the street without getting hit." Sanford says the tune brings to mind "what's it was like in New York and what it's still like in New York 80 years [later]."
Cartoons often used music to convey ethnic stereotypes of the day – all for laughs – just as vaudeville once did. The beginning of Raymond Scott's "War Dance of the Wooden Indians," for example, had a beat and a melody that was simple Hollywood shorthand for Native Americans – even though actual Native American music was nothing like that. Soon however, the music morphs into an authentic klezmer mode which reflected Scott's actual ethnic heritage as an Eastern European Jew.
Wonderful cartoon music didn't stop with Raymond Scott. Sanford says the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra's most requested song is composer Danny Elfman's theme for the animated TV comedy show, The Simpsons. It's music that Sanford says fits in with our modern era to a tee.
"It fits in because it doesn't fit in. It fits into The Simpsons, because they are dysfunctional family. And you definitely hear that in the music." Sanford describes the music as "circus-like," adding, "it's percussive and it's complicated and fun at the same time."