Playing the tunes of 'toons
Classic cartoons have given us some of the most hilarious imagery we've ever seen. But close your eyes, and you'll hear some of the most exciting, outrageously fun and deceptively sophisticated music ever devised.
"I grew up listening to Benny Goodman. I was in a household with swing freak parents and an older brother who, besides listening to The Stones, was also into Miles and Chet Baker. So I grew up in a jazz-listening household, a classical-listening household, plenty of Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorak. And I learned the clarinet, starting at 9, playing classical music." But jazz became Sanford's primary passion. During his college years, he hitchhiked to California and ended up sleeping in a friend's yard in San Anselmo. "I remember waking up under a fig tree. It was obvious I was in heaven. And I vowed that I would come back, at some point, to live here." He did end up moving here, took a job as a courier and spent every free hour practicing music. "I started playing jazz in bars for people who didn't want to hear it -- and went from there." Sanford has played an amazing array of gigs, including Gershwin with the San Francisco Symphony, Latin jazz at Yoshi's, circuses and Italian weddings. He has performed with Regina Carter, Stan Getz, Steve Allen, The Ink Spots, Michael Feinstein and Eddie Fisher.
Sanford found Scott's inventive, complex music incredibly appealing. "His parents were Russian Jews, and the whole New York thing is soul music to me. When I hear Eastern European music, somehow, to me, it's just in my DNA. There's a lot of klezmer in it. And it's very classically rooted.
"There's a layering in Scott's pieces. He lays down a theme and has another section of the band laying over another theme. And another. It's very rich and rhythmical. There are key changes, changes in tempo. Raymond didn't really care about the technical difficulties.
"It was that frantic stuff that woke Carl Stalling up to using Raymond Scott's music for cartoons. Raymond Scott never wrote for cartoons, never watched cartoons. Raymond Scott's music was just reflecting New York City life, and the frenetic challenge of crossing the street. But Carl Stalling, who originally worked for Disney and then worked for Warner Brothers, heard in Raymond Scott's music all this visual enrichment that could be had by laying that behind the action of the cartoons."
A friend of Sanford's, upon passing, left the fellow musician a huge collection of charts. Included were several of Scott's works. Sanford began hunting for more. He found a treasure trove amid the massive piles of charts and orchestrations in the archives of Oakland's Paramount Theatre. Eventually, as word of his quest spread, the material began finding him.
Now, half of the Cartoon Jazz Band's repertoire consists of Scott's material. They also play the music of other composers whose work wended its way into cartoons, all the way up to and including Danny Elfman ("The Simpsons"). In addition, the band interprets jazz greats such as Fletcher Henderson and plays originals written for the group by Lenny Carlson.
The band, which had released a couple of live albums previously, recently released a pair of studio albums -- "Cartoon Logic" and "More Cartoon Logic." A successful Kickstarter campaign made that possible.
"Everything about the music biz is shoestring, unless you're in the top, popular creme de la creme," Sanford says. "So, with esoteric work, we just try to do it, but not lose money."
He has played with some members of the band for more than 30 years.
Large bands are difficult to maintain, both fiscally and logistically.
"Fortunately, it's really good music," Sanford says, "and very challenging, the most challenging. And that draws the best musicians -- because we want to be challenged. We haven't been doing this since we were 9 and not take it seriously."
The Cartoon Jazz Band was officially launched at the 2003 Stanford Jazz Festival. After a 2013 Stanford concert, the septet and orchestra were rehearsed and ready to record. They headed to Fantasy Studios. The session was productive, resulting in two albums' worth of tracks.
"People got to the studio early. It was well arranged. We had endless coffee and we got to work and we knocked out about 28 cuts in three days, which is unbelievable. I've never been a part of something like that before. And it really clicked, as you can hear on the CDs. I didn't think we'd have time to put all of that on record. But we had a lot of energy going. I'm really happy with it."
At Half Moon Bay's Bach Dancing and Dynamite on Sunday, Sanford's septet and 16-piece orchestra will get plenty of energy going again.
"I want to present the most interesting, varied, high quality musical program I can, with the best musicians in the Bay Area. And for that, I need miracles in scheduling to happen. I can't have many subs with this music. People have to actually learn the music. They can't just walk in and read it. So I need my regular band. Fortunately, this music has drawn and kept the same great guys and girls to put this out."
Audiences are fortunate, when they get a chance to hear these bands perform. "It's challenging being a musician," Sanford says, "just convincing people to take the buds out of their ears and listen to live music, to have some concentration ability, without having their hand on the remote, ready to switch to the next stimulus. But people who come are blown away. They can't believe that they're hearing this live.
"We're actually playing it. We're not cleaning it up, we're not punching in. We actually rehearsed it. That's why it sounds great. We're actually playing it, like the symphony does. They've been playing since they were 9 also -- or before. That's why the San Francisco Symphony sounds the way it does. They're really good musicians. It's no joke. That's their life. And it's the same with my cats. They're all very creative, totally into it."
At 63, Sanford's musical adventure continues. In addition to his orchestra he regularly performs with his own quartet, the Martini Brothers, the Golden Gate Park Band, Frisky Frolics, and the Joel Abramson Orchestra. He's playing tunes for a friend's forthcoming mockumentary film, and has booked a gig on a clipper ship. He also enjoys teaching a big band class Tuesday nights at Palo Alto's Oshman Family JCC.
"I'm doing what I like -- that's the secret of life. And it's a great life. It's not boring. Every day is different. That's one of the wonderful things about it."
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.