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

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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.