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Jazz music in children's television

August 23, 2017

Jazz music in children's television sends out contradictory messages about childhood. This may explain why producers and writers (especially in the UK) have to a large extent favoured folk music (think rural innocence, domestic animals, the healthy outdoors) and Music Hall (lots of jokes, slapstick, clever wordplay, big sing-along choruses) when it comes to sound tracking children's television. 

 

On one level jazz (I'm thinking of modernist styles such as bebop here) implies hipness, exclusivity, and autonomous detachment. In this context, cool kids don't need square adults. They are 'too cool for school', hip to their own hipness, secure in their self-imposed separation from adults.

 

Listen to Vince Guaraldi's jazz tunes that accompanied the Peanuts cartoons. Charlie Brown's world was one in which the adults were only shown from the knee down and couldn't speak.

These kind of jazz kids are cool and self-contained, like the jazz-lovin' Top Cat, Bugs Bunny and the Pink Panther.

Yet jazz also implies lived experienced, hard living and an adult sexuality. The moaning sound of the saxophone hitting some blue notes is an aural signifier of all that is 'grown up'. Cartoon representations of tramps, down-and-outs, gangsters, hustlers and voluptuous women often get a jazzy leitmotiv. Think of Bleeding Gums Murphy from The Simpsons, 'Hes's a tramp' from Disney's Lady and the Tramp, King Louis from The Jungle Book, Betty Boop and Jessica Rabbit (films rather than TV shows but stick with it). 

 

 

In this context, the adults who include and compose jazz music for children's TV (and film) are offering them a glimpse of the 'grown up' world outside of the mythologised walled garden of childhood.

 

Jazz lifts the lid on the 'secrets' of adulthood and allows children to start to learn something of the ambiguous, sexualised world that they will soon inhabit. What children make of the violence (Elmer Fudd shooting Daffy Duck's head off), deception (who was the bad guy, again?) and expressions of power (race, gender, parents vs children) in their media depends very much on where they are in terms of their educational, experiential and psychological development. Literature scholars call this 'reader competence' and its a useful concept when considering the connotations of jazz music in a children's TV context.

I'll finish by mentioning jazz on the original Muppet Show. Firstly, there were many high-profile jazz singers and musicians as guest stars (Dizzy Gillespie, Cleo Lane, Lou Rawls, Buddy Rich, Pearl Bailey, etc.). Secondly, the jazz songs they performed on the show were unadulterated versions of the originals. They weren't written for children or adapted for a family audience. Hence, they are full of the broken relationships ('my baby done left this town', Dizzy Gillespie, Episode 413), courtship rituals ('I'll be his tootsy wootsy in the summertime', Pearl Bailey, Ep. 315), and untrammeled violence (Animal wants to 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' Dudley Moore in ep. 407 and Buddy Rich in ep. 522).

 

In contrast, Sesame Street generally uses jazz to teach children about counting, the alphabet and pro-social values. Ray Charles' 1996 appearance featured him singing Joe Raposo's 'Believe in yourself' and 'The alphabet song', for example. Didactic or not, 1970s episodes of Sesame Street contained some of the funkiest, baddest, wailin-est, hardest-bopping, most out-there jazz heard anywhere on children's television. Check out Grace Slick from the Jefferson Airplane scat-singing 'Jazzy numbers' in 1969 (try and count the timing, music buffs) and Donald Byrd and the Blackbirds performing 'Jazzy alphabet' in 1974. 

 

So long, hep cats. It's time for me to shake the lead out of my shorts. Be pure!

 

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