My Favorite Things: Raymond Scott

This is the first in an occasional series devoted to things in popular culture which have inspired my passion or captured my imagination. Let me be clear: this is not a series of “guilty pleasures,” a term I hate since I don’t think we should feel guilty for taking pleasure in the culture around us. These posts will feature things that I’ve discovered and have an urge to pass along to my readers, figuring that while they may not be to everyone’s taste, there will certainly be people out there who might not encounter these artists and works otherwise.

The other night, my wife and I watched the dvd of a documentary about the composer-performer-inventor-visionary Raymond Scott, Deconstructing Dad, which had been made by his son. Below is the trailer for the documentary, which will give you some sense of who Scott was and why he might rank fairly high on my list of favorite things. While the film is perhaps a bit more invested than I am in dealing with Scott’s multiple marriages and whether or not he was a decent father, the documentary nevertheless is crammed with his remarkable performances and helped me to place Scott’s work in a much broader context.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Scott and his band recorded a series of highly infectous and playful swing songs with titles such as “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” “Bumpy Weather Over Newark,” or “The Girl at the Typewriter.” These whimsical titles barely hint at the playful quality of his music, which managed to be experimental in its style yet accessible in its approach. Here, for example, is Scott and his band performing “Twilight in Turkey” for the Eddie Cantor vehicle, Ali Baba Goes to Town (1938).

And here’s another vintage musical performance of one of my favorites, “War Dance for Wooden Indians.”

If you recognize some of these songs, it is most likely because Carl Stalling was a huge Scott fan and used his music in more than 120 classic Warner Brothers cartoons. I found an interesting fan made video which shows how one of Scott’s best known compositions, “Powerhouse,” surfaced across a surprisingly broad range of cartoons. Scott never wrote music directly for cartoons, but his songs worked so well in this context that they were rediscovered by a whole new generation of animators, starting in the 1990s, who used them for, among other shows, The Simpsons, Duckman, Animaniacs, and most consistently, Ren and Stimpy.

Scott went on to become the bandleader on the classic 1950s era television program, Our Hit Parade, and to become a key experimenter in the early development of electronic music. Deconstructing Dad offers the curious insight that in the 1930s and 1940s, he sought to develop a style of jazz which was highly rehearsed and carefully scored, allowing limited room for improvization, where-as in the 1950s and 1960s, he ceded far more control of his compositions over to his digital tools, foreshadowing John Cage and others in his fascination with chance in composition. Nevertheless, I would argue that you can still hear Scott’s puckish personality at play in at least some of his digital music, especially if you listen to the electronic and jazz stuff side by side.

If you’d like to discover the pleasures of Raymond Scott’s jazz, I’d recommend Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights as a cd which features many of his best-known songs. This was what set the Jenkins family down the path to actively pursuing as much of his work as we can get our hands on.

Comments

  1. Further Fiction says:

    This is just delightful. I first learned of Raymond Scott listening to Soul Coughing who liberally sampled from him. But only when I moved to Rochester NY, a small city with a big taste for radical Jazz, did anyone actually play me any- or clue me in to this fascinating and brilliant guy. For me, his has become as dear, honorable and misunderstood a figure as Sun Ra, John Zorn or Béla Bartók.

  2. Very useful and entertaining videos I found here !

  3. Great post Henry! Another of Scott's achievements is that his 1964 “Soothing Sounds for Baby” 3-volume lullaby album is considered to be a early pioneering example of ambient electronica.
    Zhan

  4. Looks fascinating. I am delighted. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

  5. Video is very nice. You have described it very well. Now a day, I feel that, no need to go out of the internet because Internet itself, showing many different and unknown information to us. Today I have got an useful information from your blog…

  6. Andrew Schrock says:

    Great post and insights. To echo Zhan, soothing sounds for baby 1-3 are fantastic. Manhattan Research (released on Basta) is also a trove of unreleased early electronic music. I think his electronic and tape music are important because it demonstrates how Scott was not just an aggressive stylistic experimenter, but an ambitious technical tinkerer as well, well before the synthesizer became a mass-marketed product.

  7. You know how to make me love your post
    Ten mien

  8. the video is interesting

  9. Misunderstanding will lead us to nothing. That is why we need to make this thing clear so that they dont always make a discussinon that is unnecesarry bout this thing.

  10. wonderful article about raymond scotts fav things , very good insight thanks for the share