Jazz musicians taught me how to produce funny cartoons. Seriously.
There are a lot of parallels between cartoons and jazz. They’re both distinctively American art forms, incubated towards the beginning of the 20th century, hitting their first artistic and popular peaks towards the end of the 1930s. And they’re both a lot of fun.
For me, it’s is a lot more personal. My life in jazz uniquely prepared me for the thrills of being involved in cartoons.
My producing career began by making jazz records –it was supposed to be a stepping stone to pop music– which usually prompts quizzical stares from the folks who know I’m now in cartoons. But, spending every weekend of the last three years watching my older son play his clarinet and tenor in the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra (my longest extended live jazz exposure in 35 years) I’ve had a lot of time to consider why these two experiences have been hand in glove for me.
It probably comes down to my ignorance and fandom. As an 18 year old in New York, I recorded my first jazz session after six years listening and playing pop music of the 60s and (barely) six weeks of jazz listening. The first release from one of my recordings was made six months later. It’s fair to say that for the next decade, every record I participated in was done with world class musicians at least 10 (sometimes 20 or 30) years older than me and who had forgotten more than I would ever know. I mean, what could a white suburban kid in his mid-20’s going to tell world class musicians about making their music? Ultimately, it became my job to figure out who I wanted to lead a session, who would record it, and get the f*** out of the way. When I was wrong, the records were just OK (when one is working with the world class, it never was less than OK). But when the magic was there…
More than two decades on, cartoons (and California) beckoned, and a similar dynamic played itself out. A huge fan as a kid (who wasn’t?) all I had to go on were the emotions the best films had stirred in me. There were no skills or talents in me to speak of. 15 years in television had me making hundreds, thousands, of commercials –many animated– but it wasn’t like I could draw or write (still can’t), I’d no idea how to put together a schedule or budget, no real ability to “produce” fiction films. I fell back on something Rudy Van Gelder, the world’s most important jazz recording engineer, had taught me at our first session in 1976. “Your job is to figure out what you want to hear, and find the people who are good enough to accomplish it.” To the point, I wanted to make cartoons, as opposed to animation, let’s make people laugh. If you want to too, let’s try it together.
So, instead of trying to learn skills I would never master, my concentration immediately turned to “Who wants to make cartoons?” In retrospect, my role is exactly the same as with the jazz musicians. Identify world class talent, new and veterans alike, and once again, get the f*** out of the way. If the creator needs help, give it him/her. If he/she needs “protection” from useless, uneducated, executive opinions, give it. (And if the creator is ignoring good advice from the network –hey, it happens– try and help there too.)
Jazz or cartoons, for me it comes down to the same stuff. Find talented people who are worth supporting, and get the f*** out of the way.