Jazz music in (children's) animation

This piece was initially included in a longer essay about jazz music on children's television. As most of what is included here is about jazz music in films that were created for cinema, it didn't sit well with other material. Most of it covers the films made by Fleischer Studios, Warner Brothers and Disney. It features many well-known characters such as Betty Boop, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, Dumbo and more. Many of these animated films and 'theatrical shorts' transferred to TV (including the kids' ghetto of Saturday mornings) in the 1950s and onwards, and are now available on YouTube, but as I mention, most were not made for children as a primary audience, but for 'families' (a loaded term if ever there was one). Some of these animations were clearly for adults' eyes and ears only.

Hollywood Cartoons

Initially produced for audiences of cinema goers in the 1930s and 1940s, the Hollywood cartoons [1] produced by Warner Brothers, Fleischer Studios Inc., Disney and others emerged in the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 1930s. Their use of contemporary jazz, surreal site gags, tropes of race, sexuality and the emancipated cultural expression of women contributed greatly to the visual language of the cartoons that became staples of children’s Saturday morning television in the 1940s and 1950s, cementing a link between jazz, animation and children that endured until the late 1960s.

The success of The Jazz Singer in 1927 helped to establish the synchronization of scored music, singing and dialogue in moving pictures. This fast-evolving sound-to-picture technology coupled with the commercial possibilities of jazz ‘talkies’ in the ‘roaring’ twenties laid the foundations for the emergence of jazz-based animated films. The first cartoon to use a score of any musical genre was 1928’s Dinner Time (TerryToons) in which the antics of birds, cats, dogs and other animals [2] are sound tracked by jaunty orchestrated New Orleans jazz. Disney’s first scored animation Steamboat Willie followed the same year also using the ‘concert’ or ‘symphonic’ jazz that constituted much contemporary popular music at the time (Care 2002: 25).

Dinner Time 1928

Whilst TerryToons and Disney were pioneering the use of scored jazz in animation, Fleischer Studios employed the services of some of jazz’s biggest stars, filming performances by Louis Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway and others in their ‘Screen Song’ series. Performers and dancers were ‘rotoscoped’ into cartoon form, thus capturing the performance and dance styles. The resulting animations were aimed squarely at adult cinema goers. Films such as Minnie the Moocher (1932), I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you (1932) and Old Man of the mountain (1933) blended live footage of the jazz stars with animated representations of drugs, alcohol, lusty old men, phallic symbols, ghosts, skeletons, and stereotypes of black people influenced by the then-popular minstrel performers [3] (Austin 2002: 62-6).

Minnie the Moocher 1932

In these pioneering musical animations, the characters (Betty Boop, Bimbo, Popeye and Koko the Clown) literally bounce to the rhythms set up by the jazz musicians and to the synchronization points set to the 24 frames per second used in the animation process. Tying the bar lines to sync points in this way produces constraints that cartoon composers have argued makes the music difficult to swing (Hoyt Curtin in Strauss 2002: 8-9).

Betty Boop was modeled on the Flapper girls of the Jazz Age, [4] her initial popularity in the early ‘30s waning as big band and swing became popular. Later sanitized versions of the Betty Boop cartoons secured her transition to television in the mid 1950s whilst two television specials in the 1980s set Betty back in late 1930s New York with soundtracks that blended various styles of jazz popular from the first four decades of the 20th century.

Fleischer Studios’ other big ‘jazz star’ was Popeye who would scat and jive talk his way through theatrical cartoons beginning in 1933 and made-for-television cartoons from 1960. Interestingly, his love interest Olive Oyl is also depicted as a Flapper girl. Her appearance in newspaper comic strips from 1919 predates commercial jazz recordings by three years and Popeye’s arrival by ten.

Let's sing with Popeye 1934

In the same way that Fleischer’s ‘Screen Songs’ served as promotional films for jazz musicians, Warner Brothers’ ‘Looney Tunes’ (from 1930) and ‘Merry Melodies’ (from 1931) series were initially conceived as showcases for the studio’s newly-acquired song catalogue. The animations, which went on to feature well-known characters such as Porky Pig (from 1935), Daffy Duck (from 1937) and Bugs Bunny (from 1938) were initially obliged to mention song titles and contain refrains.

Daffy Duck 1937

Early cartoons in the series such as ‘Congo Jazz’ (1930), ‘Lady play your mandolin’, ‘One more time’ and ‘Smile, Darn Ya, smile!’ (all from 1931) feature the visual aesthetics of jazz common to the Fleischer and Disney animations of the time. Originating in the mid 1930s, the theme tunes of Looney Tunes (‘The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down’) and Merrie Melodies (‘Merrily we roll along’) were up-beat, brassy and fast paced, drawing on the swing jazz style that was popular at the time. Much of the music at Warner Brothers was written by Raymond Scott and performed by his jazz ‘Quintette’ although the cartoon scores were done by Carl Stalling.

By the late 1930s, the formula of using popular songs and stars of the day developed into fully-scored character-based animations. Jazz bands were replaced by orchestras, elevating the role of the composer in the process. There was much crossover of personnel between the big animation houses at the time meaning that the visual and aural tropes of jazz became almost ubiquitous.

Composer Stalling had previously worked at Disney in the late 1920s before his twenty-two years and over 600 cartoon scores for Warner Brothers (Strauss 2002: 8). Stalling’s task was to create ear-catching music to compliment the fast-paced visuals by creating a score that helped tell the story, boost the affective impact of the action and ‘exaggerate the difference between real life and cartoon life’ (Goldmark and Taylor 2002: xiv).

Scott Bradley performed a similar role at MGM from the 1930s onwards. Bradley had also previously worked at Disney, but is best known for his scores for Tom and Jerry beginning in 1940. With the support of producer Fred Quimby, Bradley developed his own style of composition using complex, rapid and unconventional melodies, chromatic scales, and tightly-clustered ‘shock chords’ to compliment the wild and violent antics of the titular cat and mouse (Bradley 2002: 116). His compositional developments in the use of atonality, discord and avant-garde techniques such as Serialism chimed with the progressive bebop jazz that developed in the early 1940s. Following bebop’s modernist philosophy, Bradley talks about his wish to avoid cliché and to make his music ‘funny’ by warping familiar melodies and disobeying traditional musical rules: ‘We must always progress, and never be satisfied to use the same formula over and over’ (Bradley 2002: 118). His desire to maintain a constant melody throughout the 500-plus fast-paced bars of the average Tom and Jerry cartoon (Bradley 2002: 118) echoes the pursuit of modernist jazz soloists at the time.

Bradley was also adept at weaving intertextual references into his scores. Generally, the ‘borrowed’ songs would appear for just a few seconds to accompany a related site gag or visual reference (such as ‘The King’s Horses’ for chase sequences). For example, in the 1942 episode ‘Puss ‘n’ Toots’ in which Tom and then Jerry (!) make amorous advances on a female cat, Bradley includes snippets of familiar jazz tunes ‘Sweet and lovely’, ‘Darktown Strutters' Ball’, ‘The King’s horses’, ‘Boola Boola’ and ‘Tiger Rag’. Musical material was often recycled; ‘Darktown Strutters' Ball’, ‘Here comes the sun’ and ‘Sing before breakfast’were all used in more than four episodes from the original Hanna-Barbera era from 1940-58 (Tom and Jerry Online: The music listing 2018). Such repetition further embeds jazz as an aural signifier of youthful energy, untrammeled lust and forbidden pleasures. On a functional level, Bradley’s musical quotations of often just a few notes in length reflected the widespread popularity of jazz in America in the 1940s whilst rewarding ‘competent’ listeners of any age with extra semiotic signifiers.

Puss ‘n’ Toots 1942


Disney was also keen to document the big band jazz stars of the day. Conceived as a follow up to Fantasia, Make Mine Music (1946) captured performances by Dinah Shaw, Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman, Nelson Eddy [5] and others, setting them to animations. The section for ‘After you’ve gone’ by the Benny Goodman Quartet uses representational visuals of clarinets, drums, pianos and a double bass cascading through a minimalist and modernist graphic landscape, the instruments’ movements perfectly synchronized to the fast swung rhythms. Nicolson suggests that the dynamic and novel animation sequences of Make Mine Music helped to spread the popularity of jazz beyond its previous representations on film and television (2002: 132).

Make Mine Music 1946

The film also helped to establish a more radical visual treatment of jazz music that Dyer notes in the use of ‘non-representational signs - colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, camerawork’ in Hollywood musicals (2002: 20-21) and that Pillai terms ‘visual dissonance’ when referring to the BBC’s visualization of jazz in the mid 1960s (2017: 103-115). The sections of Make Mine Music were separated and reconfigured appearing in Music Land (1955) and subsequent Saturday morning television.

It would be a full decade before Warner Brothers released Three Little Bops (1957) about a jazz trio of little pigs joined on trumpet by the Big Bad Wolf. Whilst containing the odd lyrical reference to hipster jazz slang, the song and visualization is parodic; despite bebop being established since the early 1940s, the singer intones that the band are ‘playing music with the modern sound’. Equally, whilst the music by Shorty Rogers’ band is a dynamic and heavily swung twelve-bar dance number, vocalist Stan Freberg who specialized in musical parody and comedy has poor timing diminishing the impact of Three Little Bops as a convincing jazz animation.

Three Little Bops 1957

Disney visualized jazz in a number of films since the 1940s, the musical sequences often appearing as stand-alone animations on U.K. children’s television programmes such as the BBC’s Disney Time (1961 to 1994) or ATV’s Disney Wonderland (from 1967). ‘When I see an elephant fly’ from Dumbo (1941) performed by Cliff Edwards and the Hall Johnson Choir is a spirited mid-tempo swing featuring Mills Brothers-style hand trumpets, scat singing and punchy brass. Yet, like the Fleischer jazz animations and other attempts to visualize jazz, the characters are represented as black stereotypes (in this case crows), slouching, smoking and using illiterate street slang (‘I be done seen about everything’).

'When I see an elephant fly' (Dumbo 1941)

In Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) jazz is used to underline the down-and-out nature of ‘the tramp’ as the male love interest. In ‘He’s a tramp’, jazz vocalist and song writer Peggy Lee [6] emphasizes the unfaithful, untrustworthy and delinquent nature of the titular mongrel (‘he gives you plenty of trouble … he’s a rover’). The laid back swing of the music fits with the nocturnal setting and the amorous tone of the lyrics.

Two jazz songs are included in Disney’s 1967 film The Jungle Book. Jazz band-leader and vocalist Phil Harris (singing as Baloo the bear) extols the virtues of escaping the rush of daily life through being street smart in ‘The Bare Necessities’. The song features occasional hipster slang (‘Yeah! Man!’) whilst Baloo’s relaxed demeanor suggests he may be ‘full of reefers’. The Dixieland-style arrangements are well observed with muted trumpets, banjos, authentic chord progressions and turn-arounds. The film also features ‘I wan’na be like you (The Monkey Song)’, a duet between Harris and Louis Prima as King Louis. Mouth trumpets, scat singing and jazz vernacular (‘clue me what you do … take me home, daddy’) are all present and correct. King Louis’ quest for equality with humans (‘give me the power of man’s red flower’) may be read as a political allegory for the black struggle in America.[7] However, the visualization of scheming, slouching monkeys, bananas, coconuts and grass skirts with a by-then nostalgic reference to Dixieland jazz repeats the lazy racial stereotypes seen in the Betty Boop and Disney cartoons of 35 to 40 years previous. The ‘jungle rhythms’ serve to hypnotize Baloo (‘I’m gone man. Solid gone’); such tropes perpetuate earlier critiques of jazz and black-derived popular music by Theodor Adorno in the 1930s (1936).

‘I wan’na be like you (The Monkey Song)’ (The Jungle Book 1967)

Harris appears as another jazz-loving animal in Disney’s The Aristocats (1970). In the ‘Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat’, Harris’ character Thomas O’Malley duets with Scat Cat voiced by Scatman Crothers.[8] Visual symbols of traditional (depicted as old-fashioned) jazz in the sequence include a broken banjo, a straw boater and cane, a washboard, double bass, piano and trumpet whilst the lyrics (‘a cat's the only cat who knows where its at … a square with a hornmakes you wish you weren't born’) reinforce jazz as an exclusive outsider culture.The song is unusual in the context of children’s music due to its minor key which tends to connote melancholy in Western diatonic music. Equally, its low tempo of around 60 beats per minute signifies sadness for young children who associate tempo rather than tonality with mood (Mote 2011). The song’s upbeat double-time section is accompanied by a near-psychedelic lightshow that evokes the neon lights of Bourbon Street, whilst the explosive end section replicates the change in mood associated with a New Orleans jazz funeral.

‘Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat’ (The Aristocats 1970)

Harris also appeared as Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973). His use of jazz slang (‘Chow’, ‘mooning’, laid back, ‘that’s a gas’) reinforces the genre’s association with outlaws and self-imposed autonomy.

Despite Disney’s often-clumsy use of jazz to accompany thinly-veiled racial stereotypes, many of the songs have become staples of jazz ensembles the world over. Musical tributes have been paid in the form of two Jazz loves Disney albums (2016 and 2017) in which jazz artists perform versions of ‘I wan’na be like you’, ‘Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat’, ‘He’s a tramp’ and other songs.


[1] Some Hollywood cartoon companies such as Fleischer Studios were based in New York whilst the filming, rotoscoping and animations were conducted in Los Angeles, primarily at Paramount Studios.

[2] Almost all of the anthropomorphosized animals in 1928's Dinner Time are black in colour.

[3] The Jazz Singer depicted minstrel performer Al Jolson and was a major influence on the early incarnations of Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Bimbo and other characters.

[4] Despite her best known incarnation as a Flapper girl, Betty Boop was depicted as a dog from her first appearance in 'Dizzy Dishes' (August 1930) until the end of 1931.

[5] The recordings in 1946's Make Mine Music date back to 1944 (Nicholson 2002: 132)

[6] Peggy Lee wrote six songs for Lady and the Tramp.

[7 ]The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were still very much in the public conscience.

[8] The character of Scat Cat was modelled on Louis Armstrong. Crothers was a last minute replacement and was under instructions to imitate Armstrong’s vocals (Hill 2001). Crothers later provided the voice for Hanna-Barbera’s Hong Kong Phooey (1974).


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Bradley, Scott. 2002. ‘Music in cartoons’. In The cartoon music book.Daniel Goldmark and Yuval Taylor, eds. 115-120. Chicago: A Cappella Books.

Care, Ross. 2002. ‘Make Walt’s Music: Music for Disney Animation 1928-1967’. In The cartoon music book.Daniel Goldmark and Yuval Taylor, eds. 21-36. Chicago: A Cappella Books.

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“Tom and Jerry Online: The music listing”. 2018. http://www.tomandjerryonline.com/musiclistings.cfm