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.