San Jose Mercury News-“Playing the tunes of 'toons" By Paul Freeman For The Daily News



Playing the tunes of 'toons
POSTED:   06/03/2014 07:40:55 PM PDT0 COMMENTS| UPDATED:   8 MONTHS AGO
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Courtesy photo The album cover for "Cartoon Logic," by Jeff Sanford's Cartoon... ( Courtesy photo )

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.

Redwood City-based Jeff Sanford is musical director of the Cartoon Jazz Septet and Orchestra. He also plays clarinets, saxophones and flutes with the groups. They breathe new life into the swinging big band sounds that enlivened the animation of the '30s, '40s and '50s. "I used to get up Saturday morning and watch cartoons in Queens, in New York, especially Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and all that Warner Brothers stuff, as well as Walt Disney," Sanford says. 

"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. 

When Sanford heard Don Byron's 1996 album, "Bug Music," featuring the music of composer Raymond Scott, it hit him like an anvil dropping on Wile E. Coyote's head.
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."

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Alisa Clancey's-KCSM "Morning Cup of Jazz"

Voice Of America- Adam Phillips reports


Orchestra Specializes in Cartoon Jazz

  • Phillips report
    • Listen
    • October 27, 2009 10:32 AM
From the 1930's through the 1950s, Big Band jazz was an immensely popular form of American music.  Swinging ensembles of horns, drums, strings and keyboards played music that was not only great to dance to. It also worked as the musical accompaniment for most of the animated shorts of the era – a time often described as the Golden Age of American cartoons. But those merry melodies were more than mere kid stuff, as VOA's Adam Phillips reports.
Jeff Sanford looks as normal as anyone can look while playing the clarinet and leading the big-band ensemble he founded – the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra– through a rendition of "Powerhouse." It's a piece by Raymond Scott, one of the cartoon genre's greatest composers. 

The Golden Age of cartoons was mostly over when Sanford was a child.  But as with almost every baby boomer, the visual and musical world of the cartoon was a familiar alternative reality.  "I spent hours Saturday mornings relaxing and watching cartoons," he says.  "When we perform this music I do notice that these memories seem to really cut deep into people's memories." 

Music in cartoons changes and enhances mood, Sanford says. It can also evoke the atmosphere of actual places. 

Just as the sound of twittering flutes calls to mind images of an idyllic, unspoiled countryside, Raymond Scott's "Jungle Jazz" is Manhattan during its bustling hipster heyday in the 1930s. 

"[It] has that frantic 'da-da-da-da' and that mood of maybe being in the subway and trying to cross the street without getting hit."  Sanford says the tune brings to mind "what's it was like in New York and what it's still like in New York 80 years [later]."
Cartoons often used music to convey ethnic stereotypes of the day – all for laughs – just as vaudeville once did.  The beginning of Raymond Scott's"War Dance of the Wooden Indians," for example, had a beat and a melody that was simple Hollywood shorthand for Native Americans – even though actual Native American music was nothing like that. Soon however, the music morphs into an authentic klezmer mode which reflected Scott's actual ethnic heritage as an Eastern European Jew.   

Wonderful cartoon music didn't stop with Raymond Scott. Sanford says the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra's most requested song is composer Danny Elfman's theme for the animated TV comedy show, The Simpsons.  It's music that Sanford says fits in with our modern era to a tee. 

"It fits in because it doesn't fit in. It fits into The Simpsons, because they are dysfunctional family. And you definitely hear that in the music."  Sanford describes the music as "circus-like," adding, "it's percussive and it's complicated and fun at the same time." 

That's Not All Folks...


That’s not all, folks!

Bay Area sax player revives the tunes we used to hear with the toons
Tuesday, November 30, 1999 | by dan pine 

Most big bands' set lists include tunes like "Take the 'A' Train" and "Sing, Sing, Sing." Jeff Sanford's jazz band does the Flintstones theme and "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."

That's because Sanford prefers toon tunes. The Redwood City resident is the founder of Cartoon Jazz Orchestra, a Bay Area ensemble that performs the merry melodies heard in America's animated classics, from Bugs to Bart.

The Jewish saxophonist put together his 13-piece orchestra back in 2005. They've played all over the region and recorded a CD. The song titles -- "Huckleberry Duck," "Twilight in Turkey," "Powerhouse" -- may not sound familiar, but the motifs sure will.

Sanford and his orchestra mainly play the music of Raymond Scott, the man responsible for many famous music cues heard in cartoons from the 1930s on. Born Harry Warnow (Jewish, of course), Scott forever influenced the frenetic hyper-percussive style so typical of cartoon music.

"Raymond Scott would not watch cartoons," says Sanford of the Julliard-trained composer-turned-jazz musician, who sold the rights to his melodies to Warner Bros. and other animators of the last century. Scott died in 1994, but his music lives on.

Growing up in Queens, N.Y., Sanford remembers loving Scott's music and cartoons. "I always related it to fun and being a kid," he says. It wasn't long before he began taking clarinet lessons, eventually adding saxophone and other woodwinds. He became an accomplished jazz musician while still in his teens. By 20, he had come to California to pursue music professionally.

Though proudly Jewish, Sanford says he got scant Jewish education as a kid. He remembers his father making him an offer: Young Jeff could have a bar mitzvah or he could go to Puerto Rico.

But one Jewish cultural artifact that stuck was the music.

"Eastern European music is soul music to me," he says. "I once saw Michael Tilson-Thomas talk about his background. He explained how the blues scale and the Jewish music scale have the same intervals, the same notes. Gershwin was all over that."

He rediscovered the music of Scott a few years ago after hearing "Bug Music," a jazz CD that pays homage to the master composer. "I heard that and was inspired to put my own band together."

From there, he went on a scavenger hunt, seeking out Scott's music. He found copies of original charts and orchestrations in the dusty archives of Oakland's Paramount Theater. From there, he called on the expertise of the region's best jazz players (several of them Jewish).

"The showmanship comes down to the doubling," he says, referring to how he and his players sub out various instruments, even during a single song. "It's almost acrobatic. The physical execution of the tunes is a big deal. You have to be healthy."

In addition to his Cartoon Orchestra, Sanford also plays with numerous local bands, including Joel Abramson's popular wedding and bar mitzvah band, klezmer ensembles and the Martini Brothers, a cool jazz combo that performs regularly at Le Colonial restaurant in S.F. 

But of all the projects in his multipart musical life, the Cartoon Orchestra is Sanford's pet project. Still, he is quick to add, it is also "the losing-money part."



A Jazz Band Inspired By Looney Tunes