‘That’s not all, folks’: Queen’s Cartoonists animate jazz for classic film comedies
Like most children, Joel Pierson grew up watching cartoons. From the wacky antics of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd to the seductive exploits of flapper Betty Boop, he noticed that the cartoons’ accompanying music soundtrack drew heavily from the jazz canon.
Pierson leads The Queen’s Cartoonists, a classically-trained sextet whose unique performances include jazz compositions synchronized to video projections of the original classic cartoons on a screen behind the band.
In The Queen’s Cartoonists’ 7:30 p.m. Nov. 22 concert at Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown, the energetic group will lead the audience through a world of virtuosic musicianship, multi-instrumental mayhem and comedy.
“At the heart of it all, we are a jazz band that plays music from cartoons,” says Pierson in a phone interview. He founded the group in 2015.
Pierson, who studied classical and jazz piano and received a doctorate in composition, says he was looking to come up with “something unusual” for a performance concept when he hit upon the jazz-cartoon connection.
“I love cartoons,” Pierson says. “I was very familiar with Raymond Scott, who was a jazz musician whose catalog was bought by Warner Brothers to use for cartoons.”
Scott was known for penning novelty-jazz instrumentals with cartoon-evoking titles such as “The Penguin,” “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” “War Dance for Wooden Indians,” “Egyptian Barn Dance” and “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals.”
Warner Brothers’ Carl Stalling adapted Scott’s music for more than 120 Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and other cartoons.
Scott’s influence continued to modern-era cartoons. His composition “Powerhouse” was featured on Cartoon Network from 1998 to 2002.
Pierson says his idea was to combine the “Golden Age of Jazz” with the “Golden Age of Animation.”
The Golden Age of Jazz was the 1930s and 1940s when jazz music and dance styles rapidly gained nationwide popularity. The Golden Age of Animation began with the advent of sound cartoons in 1928 and continued with theatrical animated short films like “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” through the 1960s.
Pierson, who says his motivation is entertainment as well as education, wanted to reach people who say they don’t like jazz.
Pierson spent nearly a year transcribing the music and rehearsing to synchronize the music with the cartoon clips before debuting The Queen’s Cartoonists.
He is joined by Drew Pitcher, clarinet; Mark Phillips, tenor saxophone; Greg Hammontree, trumpet; Matt Jung, bass, and Rossen Nedelchev, drummer.
All six musicians live in Queens, a borough of New York City, N.Y., prompting Pierson to come up with the group’s name, even though it’s stated in the singular.
“We’re all Queens proud, he says.
The Queen’s Cartoonists has played at performing arts centers in more than 20 states, have opened for the New York Philharmonic, and been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Mashable, and on NPR.
Pierson says that, despite the cartoon focus, a Queen’s Cartoonists’ concert is truly for everybody.
“It’s not for kids, but kids will like it,” he says. “The music is crazy at times and we do some circus-type things on stage.”
The band focuses on music from classic cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s from Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, smaller animation houses, including those that featured Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor Man, Felix the Cat, and some cult cartoons and modern animation.
“We show a whole variety of cartoons,” he says.
Tying it all together are comedic anecdotes involving the cartoons and composers and onstage antics
“The guys have to be careful what say or do around me,” Pierson says. “One day Mark [Phillips] was talking about how he likes to solve Rubik’s Cube so now he is on stage playing sax and solving Rubik’s Cube really fast.”
Pierson says that another band member mentioned he likes riding his bicycle and now he rides a tiny clown bicycle on stage to the strains of the “William Tell Overture” while someone shoots “arrows” at him.
“It’s so silly,” admits Pierson. “But a lot of time, jazz can seem pretentious and we want to show jazz can be fun. It didn’t start out pretentious. It was originally dance music.”
In addition to being a pianist, Pierson is a composer. He was signed to Warner Bros. Records. His compositions have been performed by major symphony orchestras including Atlanta, Houston, Toronto, Cleveland, and The Philly Pops.
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; millersymphonyhall.org; 610-432-6715