UPA, bebop, and other degradations

May 31, 2007

Miles Davis (right) with bebop innovator Charlie Parker (left).

I read on Cartoon Brew today that a “debate” of sorts has erupted online about the artistic merits of the animation studio UPA and the studio’s contribution to the art form. Jerry Beck pointed to Michael Sporn’s blog, where many of the comments there reveal a misunderstanding of innovation and tradition in the arts in general. In particular, I was amused by a comment by animation “theorist” Eddie Fitzgerald:

“I blame bebop which exerted a bad influence even on graphic art on and which wasn’t nearly as good as the swing music that preceded it. Early bop was funny but it quickly morphed into something arid and bleak, good music to accompany suicide. For some reason intellectuals latched on to it, maybe because they didn’t dance much.

I’m not here to argue for the validity of bebop, that battle was fought and won 50 years ago. I wish to address Fitzgerald’s value judgement, that “[bebop] wasn’t nearly as good as the swing music that preceded it.” Bebop introduced to jazz a new set of aesthetic goals. If you look to bebop to accomplish the exact same goals as swing music, of course you’re going to be disappointed. But bebop was not born in a vacuum, it borrowed key components of swing music (rhythmic feel, popular song structures, improvisation) and introduced a new harmonic vocabulary. Conceptually, this is not different from what the artists at UPA were doing.

Blaming bebop for the development of graphic art trends in the 40s and 50s is also historically inaccurate. If we’re going to “blame” a movement, it would have to be modern art in general. UPA is widely recognized as the first Hollywood studio to fully integrate modern art aesthetics into its commercial output. In Art in Motion, Maureen Furniss writes, “UPA aligned itself with everything modern – in its art style, in its adaptation of contemporary literature, and its progressive social views.” It was only natural that UPA would also align itself with modern music.

Just as the designers at UPA sought to develop a new visual language, a new musical language was just hitting the west coast. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie gave their first west coast performance in December 1945 at Billy Berg’s Vine Street Club, exposing a whole new audience to the language of be-bop. UPA’s animation shared many conceptual similarities with be-bop. Commenting on Hubley’s character design, Michael Barrier writes in Hollywood Cartoons, “It is ideas alone that are being expressed, and the characters exist only as vehicles for these ideas.” Similarly in be-bop, a song exists chiefly as a vehicle for the expression of the improviser’s musical ideas.

Left: Hubley character studies from “Rooty Toot Toot,” posted at the Cartoon Modern blog.

A number of UPA’s cartoons feature modern jazz in their soundtracks. Hotsy Footsy (1952) and A Wounded Bird (1956) both featuring the music of Shorty Rogers. Chico Hamilton wrote and performed UPA’s theme music. Rather hiring a staff composer, a model established by MGM and Warner Bros., UPA assigned each cartoon to a freelance musician. Hollywood arranger Phil Moore contributed jazz scores to Hubley’s Oscar-nominated Rooty Toot Toot (1952) and a Tang television commercial produced in 1959. I cannot claim to know every instance of jazz in UPA’s library of shorts. A complete inventory of the use of jazz in UPA’s cartoons is virtually impossible, as so few of UPA’s shorts have been released on home video.

Any perception of the UPA design aesthetic as inherently “jazzy” may also be due to the influx of music industry designers who found work in animation during the 50s. Jim Flora’s wildly modernist album artwork for Columbia records in the early forties created a “look” for jazz music in a time where film and television footage of jazz musicians was far and in-between. Flora freelanced as a storyboard artist for UPA’s commercial unit in New York City.

Artist Gene Deitch was also invited to work at UPA based on his jazz-related artwork. The UPA heads saw Deitch’s art in an obscure jazz magazine called The Record Changer. He got a call from the studio, and at age 22 he began an apprenticeship under John Hubley and Bill Hurtz, who had joined UPA as a designer. At the time, Deitch held extremely conservative musical views, and The Record Changer‘s main demographic was traditional “trad” jazz fans. Clearly the UPA leadership, who were reading the magazine, also held respect for the past in the jazz tradition.

The left-leaning artists at UPA were likely attracted to bebop’s socially progressive identity. Many of UPA’s artists were members of or had associated themselves with the Communist Party USA, to the extent that Walt Disney referred to UPA as “the commies down the river.” The Hollywood labor force was undergoing a tumultuous decade, and UPA’s artists may have found inspiration in the African-American expression of freedom in bebop.

So did bebop “cause” the artistic developments at UPA? Of course not. Overtime, UPA has become somewhat synonymous with bebop. I would like to point out that the only founding bebopper who had any kind of professional relationship with a UPA artist was Dizzy Gillespie, and his collaboration with John Hubley occurred after Hubley had left UPA and founded his own production company.

And as for the suggestion that bebop is “arid and bleak,” check out Charlie Parker’s concert at Massey Hall and tell me if it isn’t some of the most joyful music you’ve ever heard.


Harvey R. Cohen (1951-2007)

February 13, 2007

 

A friend recently told me the news that Harvey R. Cohen has died at 55. Harvey was a prolific composer, arranger and orchestrator in film and television. As a jazz writer, he lead his own eighteen piece big band and incorporated jazz into many of his commercial projects.

I became familiar with Harvey’s work when I heard his fantastic score to “A Bullet for Bullock,” a television episode of Batman: The Animated Series that won him an Emmy for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Music Direction and Composition.” In this score, Harvey blended big band textures into the lush orchestral atmosphere of the series, established by composer Shirley Walker. Set against often gritty noir-inspired animation, this was perhaps the most successful pairing of jazz and commercial animation in decades. The combination of original, live-recorded jazz compositions and hand-drawn “cel” animation is unlikely to ever occur again on television, as cels were phased out of television animation in 1999, and as shrinking television budgets and the rise of computer technology have lead to less and less “real” recorded television scores.

I was so enamored with Harvey’s score to “A Bullet for Bullock,” that I got in contact with him and told him, not expecting any sort of reply. Harvey wrote back immediately, and thus began an email correspondence of musical advice and encouragement that I cherish to this day. His kindness and enthusiasm for music was (and still is) hugely inspiring to me. Sadly, I never got to meet him in person.

Here’s a little of what he told me about his score for “A Bullet for Bullock”:

“Shirley Walker, as you know, was the music supervisor/primary composer for ‘B:TAS’ and kind of set the musical tone for the show: lush, dark, similar to the Elfman scores for the first two films (’89 & ’92). With the ‘Bullet’ score, I was told to write a jazz score but not specifically of any time period. The hard-boiled detective ‘film-noir’ style felt right. Also, as luck would have it, I got the assignment 2-3 days after Henry Mancini’s death in July ’94. He and his music were big influences on me, and the score is kind of a tribute to him.”

Here are some sound clips featuring the score from “A Bullet for Bullock.”

Bullock’s Theme

Fight Sequence

Title Card

See the music in context on the B:TAS Volume III DVD, along with several other scores by Harvey Cohen.

Obituary from the Society of Composers and Lyricists


Early Pixar

October 22, 2006

 Last Saturday I caught a presentation by Pixar director Gary Rydstrom at the Chicago Film Festival. Rydstrom was giving the first public screening of his new short Lifted, and he opened the show with 4 early Pixar shorts: Luxo Jr., Red’s Dream, Knick Knack and Tin Toy (all of which were sound designed by Rydstrom). These films were all new to me, and I was surprised to discover that the first two films, Luxo Jr. and Red’s Dream, feature jazz scores. 

Luxo Jr., which is accompanied by a jazz piano trio, looks as great on the big screen today as I imagine it did 20 years ago – in fact, the only thing that might seem dated in the film is the electric bass in the piano trio (but that’s only to my ears). The musicians/composer go uncredited on this film. 

Red’s Dream is scored with a solo saxophone performance, conjuring a noir aesthetic. The music credit goes to Pixar’s current music editor, David Slusser. I’d be curious to know who the saxophonist is.  

The score to Knick Knack isn’t jazz, but it is completely improvised by Bobby McFerrin. According to Gary Rydstrom, McFerrin created vocal loops in the studio while watching the film in real time. During the credits you hear him say “Blah, blah, blah,” because during the recording session the credits on the rough edit literally read “blah, blah, blah.” In a medium where every last visual detail is painstakingly realized through hours of work, the improvised score creates a nice balance in the finished product. 

On an off-topic note, Rydstrom’s new short Lifted is fantastic. Every last visual and sonic detail supports the story in a thoughtful way. The score by Michael Giacchino is an unabashed nod to Speilbergian sci-fi. Rdystrom also showed a large amount of development/production footage, including Jeff Pidgeon’s storyboards, character studies by Bud Luckey, and a clip from Giacchino’s electronic mock-up of the score.


Date With Dizzy (1956)

October 9, 2006

Recently I’ve been immersed in Amid Amidi’s new book Cartoon Modern. One of my favorite treats his book has to offer is the section on Storyboard, the independent animation studio founded by John Hubley in 1953. Hubley’s late, non-commercial work is well documented on DVD (see: Art and Jazz in Animation). However, his commercial work at Storyboard studios is all new to me. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover Hubley’s 1956 film Date With Dizzy, which showcases three of Hubley’s animated commercials in their entirety, as well as a live performance by the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet.

As I’ve learned from Amid’s book, Date with Dizzy was the first of Hubley’s many personal films. When Hubley married Faith Elliot in 1955, they agreed to produce one “serious film” per year in order to balance out Storyboard’s creative output. While Date with Dizzy is hardly a “serious film,” it does provide a coyly subversive commentary on creativity in the commercial marketplace.

The plot of the film involves two advertising executives trying to get Dizzy Gillespie to score a commercial for an “Instant Rope Ladder.” Although Dizzy is unable to provide an adequate score, the joke is ultimately on the two adversisers. The sound of Dizzy’s group simply can’t be comprimised for a silly commerical.

To show Dizzy an example of how jazz can be integrated into marketing, the advertisers present three commercials (actual television spots produced by Hubley’s Storyboard studio). The first spot, “Bop Corn,” is an ad for Ez-Pop popcorn that features a spoken-word narration, syncopated with a walking bass line. Rim-shots are played on the drums as the popcorn pops. It’s astounding to think that for a short instance in American history, “Bop” could be used to sell popcorn. Granted, the soundtrack isn’t really be-bop, but popular perceptions of be-bop culture are invoked between the bass line and the beatnik dialogue.

The third spot, an ad for Speedway 79 gas, is the most visually enthralling of the bunch. The swing soundtrack intersects with abstract, often non-representational backgrounds. The spot even features a 6-bar improvised sax solo. I’m willing to bet that an improvised jazz solo didn’t appear on an American TV commercial for another 50 years, until Wynton Marsalis’s “Sparks” iPod spot in 2006.

These ads show that Hubley believed that jazz, like his modern animation design, was an accessible art form and viable as a part of the cultural mainstream. But when the ads are viewed within the context of Date With Dizzy, Hubley is acknowledging the struggle to reverently integrate modern jazz into popular culture. Are the advertising executives not hip enough to dig Dizzy’s music, or is Dizzy’s music too hip for mass consumption? Hubley leaves the question unanswered.


Michal Levy’s Giant Steps (2001)

August 24, 2006

I think that at one point or another in the past five years, every jazz student has received an email saying, “Check this out!” with a link to Michal Levy’s animated adaptation of Giant Steps. So maybe this will be new to animation folk. If you’ve lived with the original recording and can sing along to the melody, or even a chorus or two of Coltrane’s solo, it’s really something see the music come to life. Levy describes her concept for the animation on her website:

When I listen to music I see colors and shapes and when I watch visual art I hear sounds. I wanted to express my sensing of shapes colors and music in this short movie.

I have chosen a short Jazz piece, which I have known for many years of my playing the saxophone: “Giant Steps” by John Coltraine [sic]. Coltrane made a major break through with his album “Giant Steps” in the year 1959. It was the first time in the history of Jazz music that someone based his music on symmetrical patterns, which stemmed from a mathematical division of the musical scale.

The structural approach of John Coltraine [sic] to music is associated with architectural thinking. The musical theme defines a space and the musical improvisation is like someone drifting in that imaginary space.
For musicians interested in the actual mathmatical architecture of Giant Steps, I highly reccomend checking out Don Adler’s article, The ‘Giant Steps’ Progression and Cycle Diagrams, originally published in Jazz Improv Magazine Volume 3, No. 3. He suggests using shapes as a way of understanding how “Coltrane changes” function.

from “‘Giant Steps’ and Cycle Diagrams” by Dan Adler


Three Little Bops (1957)

August 20, 2006

In honor of Friz Freleng’s 100th Birthday blog-a-thon, I thought I’d weigh on my favorite Freleng cartoon:

Three Little Bops (1957), directed by Freleng, is a retelling of “The Three Little Pigs,” casting the three little pigs as hip be-boppers and the wolf as a jam session reject. In Tunes for ‘Toons, cartoon music historian Daniel Goldmark argues that the pigs are supposed to represent white musicians. I’m not sure I agree with this reading. I think what makes this cartoon special is that story deals with the music, and not the race of the musicians playing it.

Alexander Calder, Sumac II, 1952
sheet metal, wire, and paint
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The opening credits closely resemble the design of a Calder mobile. Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculptures, dubbed “mobiles” by none other than Marcell Duchamp, were inspired by Calder’s visits with Piet Mondrian. In Jazz Modernism, author Alfred Appel Jr. describes Calder as an artist “whose playful forms charm (too easily sometimes?) like idiosyncratic dance routines and children’s art.” He goes on to connect the accessibility of Calder’s artwork to the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, whose music is “the touchstone of accessibility.” Take this idea with a grain of salt, but as we will see – the idea of artistic “accessibility” emerges as the main theme in “Three Little Bops.”

Upon hearing the wolf blow on a chorus of the blues, the pigs are quick to dismiss the wolf as a square. His wobbly tone and wandering improvisation doesn’t blend with the pigs and their “modern sound.”

 

My favorite gag in the cartoon is when the wolf sits in the pigs. He gets out his music and flips to the right page. In any major jazz scene with a high level of musicianship, reading tunes from a “fake book” is taboo, a sign of poor musicianship – especially at a jam session. Of course, the pigs are playing without any written music.

An interesting aspect of the cartoon is that it represents the audience as being “in” on what’s hip. (As opposed to the typical “beboppers vs. the audience” stereotype that was prevalent ever since Variety declared “BOP IS A FLOP, COMMERCIALLY” in 1949).

The audience yells, “Throw that square out!”

The irony here is that the pigs aren’t really playing “bop” at all. Their music (composed and performed by west coast jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers and his band) is more akin to west coast swing and boogie-woogie. What makes the pigs “boppers” is that they subscribe to an elitist hipster culture. Freleng either co-opts the term “bop” to refer to his own idea of modern music, or he purposely uses more “accessible” music in place of actual be-bop to avoid alienating his audience. Regardless, he gets in a few digs at so-called be-bop culture.

The timing in this cartoon is really top notch – virtually every movement onscreen is synced to the music. We’re used to Carl Stalling’s manic tempo changes, written to score the frantic motions onscreen. The score to “Three Little Bops” is different from other Looney Tunes because the musical tempo stays the same for the entirety of the cartoon (with the exception of two gags: the wolf tries to get into the club by playing the ukulele, and later as a one-man-band. The additional music for these gags was likely composed by Stalling). Since the tempo is locked in, the animation timing engages the viewer with the groove. Check out the wolf’s shoulders after he’s thrown out of the jazz club – they keep grooving to the beat as he’s strewn out on the sidewalk.

Three Little Bops has several quirky elements that distinguish it from the usual Warner Bros. short. Firstly, the opening credits appear before the main title, and the typeface on the main title is animated, bouncing to the music. Secondly, the pacing of the story is subordinate to the twelve-bar blues – and it’s fascinating to see how storyman Warren Foster works within the context of a musical form. And rather than ending with “That’s all, folks!” the cartoon concludes with “The End.” That Freleng was willing to break from formula this far into his career is a testament to his creativity as a director. There is nothing radically different about this cartoon. Rather, the subtle differences are what makes this cartoon really stand out in Freleng’s enormous body of work. He experiments a little here and there, but his cartoons remain “the touchstone of accessibility.”

UPDATE (8/22/06)

Two other blogs in the Friz Freleng blog-a-thon explore Three Little Bops: check out the posts at My Five Year Plan and Supernatural…Baloney.


Delmark and the Direct Method

August 19, 2006

This short animation was created to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Chicago-based Delmark Records in 1973. The film was created by Tom Koester, whose brother Bob Koester founded Delmark Records. Tom uses the direct method, drawing the images “directly onto the film stock.” I don’t know if Tom was hip to Norman McLaren’s films, but his short captures the spirit of Norman McLaren’s work. The playful animated text is befitting of the music, provided by “Terry Waldo’s Gutbucket Syncopators.”

Delmark Records is an independent record label that is hugely important to the Chicago jazz scene. I highly reccomend their latest release from the Deep Blue Organ Trio!


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