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Swinging Symphonies

"As I watched The Queen’s Cartoonists slip and slide through decades of cartoon music in a matter of minutes, with the animations projected on a large screen behind them, I followed a captivated crowd of young and old consciously connect what they were watching with what they were hearing. The pleasure of the perfect synchrony of sound and pictures was instantly recognizable." The day Joel Pierson, also known as the ‘piano doctor,’ moved to New York in 2014 was the day his wife told him she was pregnant (Yipe!). Pierson, a jazz musician, who was out of work and out of the music scene, resorted to a list of “harebrained ideas” he had been carefully compiling, for a fresh musical start. It was that or a different career altogether. “As I was running through the list, I was like, ‘a jazz band playing cartoon music, who’s done that,’” Pierson told me as we sat around a secluded (vewy, vewy quiet) table at the New York Hilton Midtown, where his band, The Queen’s Cartoonists, were about to showcase some of their repertoire – ranging from renditions of early Popeye and Looney Tunes to cult classics like Bambi Meets Godzilla – at an Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference. “Part of the point was to get people to go out and see jazz,” Pierson says. But it’s also about showing the profound impact cartoon music has had on everything from film scores to modern animations. Everything, from SpongeBob SquarePants to Bojack Horseman, has roots that go back to the golden age of animation. So Pierson and his band travel the United States dressed like John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, brewing up forgotten traditions with a mixture of merry melodies and prolific performances. They are on a mission to retrieve something from the past that seems to have been lost in our present – a sense of direction (should've turned left at Albuquerque!). There’s Rossen Nedelchev, the drummer in the band. He was the person that introduced me to the music of The Queen’s Cartoonists, transporting me back to the late 20th century in Bulgaria when Duck Dodgers in the 241⁄2th Century zipped into my living room for the first time. Then there’s Larry Cook (bass), Drew Pitcher (tenor saxophone and flute), Mark Phillips (clarinet and a very old and rare curved soprano saxophone), Greg Hammontree (trumpet and foley magic), and, of course, Pierson (piano), the band leader, arranger, and composer. “At the start, we just performed this cool swing music used in cartoons,” Pierson says. “Now the emphasis has changed to, ‘look at this cartoon and we’ll play the soundtrack.’ It’s become more visual.” While the projections are the most important aesthetic aspect of the show, Pierson admits they really try to put the looney in their tunes with each band member performing pretty complex circus numbers and tricks. You’ve got Nedelchev’s lightsaber-inspired drum solo and Phillips’ "Sabre Dance", where he impossibly plays a sax and a clarinet simultaneously. Pierson tends to make a cocktail ("shaken, not stirred") while he plays the piano. Perhaps most impressively looney is Hammontree’s performance of the "William Tell Overture" which Pierson describes him doing while “balancing an apple on his head as he rides a clown bicycle and an audience member shoots nerf darts at him.” A Corny Concerto The real alchemy of what The Queen’s Cartoonists do is that they entertain kids and adults by playing music and cartoons very few of us still appreciate today. Let’s be honest – jazz, just like classical music, is possibly not the most prevalent genre on our subway, road-trip, workout, and birthday playlists. Jazz, particularly contemporary jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation, is not exactly accessible to people of all ages. But older, stricter jazz, like Duke Ellington, breaks through and gets stuck in your head. That’s what Pierson wants to get out of every The Queen’s Cartoonists show – a connection with the audience, no matter where they are or how old they may be. “Even the best jazz musicians today, I'd go to a show and I’m like, ‘I’m a professional jazz musician, I’ve no idea what that was,’” says Pierson. But match the music with the cartoons – it just clicks. Literally – the 'click track' was developed during the earliest attempts to sync sound and pictures. The click track is a series of metronome beats, linked directly to the rhythm of the action onscreen, that the musicians follow to stay in sync You can draw an even straighter line between contemporary cartoons and animated movies and the classic Warner Bros. productions. “The giants, like Pixar composer Michael Giacchino (Coco, Inside Out, The Incredibles), were all raised on those cartoons,” Goldmark says. Everything from Bojack Horseman to The Simpsons, which are basically animated sitcoms, have roots in the Silly Symphonies, Merrie Melodies, Looney Tunes, and Happy Harmonies cartoons – yes, those guys back then really had a thing for alliteration and one-upping one another. What the first cartoons introduced and current animations continue to experiment with is ways in which you can emote through sound. These are stories that are heartfelt, as in the case of Pixar, or satirical, as in the case of Bojack, that just happen to be animated. “They don’t hire cartoon composers – they hire really, really solid composers,” Goldmark says. For Pierson, this is another sign that we’re coming back full circle. But the audience is only slowly warming up to the genius that cartoon music carries – “it’s music for something that’s animated, it doesn’t have to be a second or third-class citizen in the composing world,” Goldmark says. Carl Stalling, the Original Earworm Maker It all comes back to one of the great Hollywood composers – Carl Stalling. Having worked with Disney at the start of his career in the 1920s, Stalling created the music for some of the most timeless and influential cartoons ever. Including The Skeleton Dance – the very first mini-musical, where the cartoon was animated according to the music score. At Disney, Stalling helped established the sound for what would come to be known as cartoon music. At Warner Bros., where as musical director he scored more than 600 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, Stalling brought about a new form of music altogether, using a treasure trove of songs, past and present, to add layers of context, humor, and direction to the action on the screen. You can thank Stalling for composing music that was to become – for those of us that grew up watching cartoons – the first soundtrack of our lives. Because what else would explain the bizarre phenomenon of a Bulgarian kid growing up in the 1990s whistling Rossini’s "The Barber of Seville" in one breath and then "Oh! Susanna" in another? And it’s not just me – it’s what got Goldmark interested in the history of cartoon music in the first place. “It all started when I was five and I wanted to learn to play piano so I can perform this particular piece of music,” Goldmark says. “In college, I found out that I learned that piece from cartoon music. When I realized that, I had an epiphany that it wasn’t just that piece, but lots of classical, pop, folk songs – you name it.” Stalling’s musical genius stemmed from his ability to find songs in the vast music library belonging to Warner Bros., match them to the storyline, and compose them according to the action. The music was not intended as a background – it is a primary and bold narrator, of sorts, in every cartoon. Like in the 1949 Road Runner classic, Fast and Furryous, where a high-speed chase around a cloverleaf interchange is timed perfectly to the song "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" – an intentional musical pun for those with a keen ear. It’s reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino movie, where music is quintessential to the story, framing, and aesthetic. In a 2016 Variety interview, his music supervisor, Mary Ramos said, “what makes Quentin standout is his bold use of music. Often times it is a main character in his movies.” In films like Kill Bill: Vol. 1., that means a very Stalling-esque approach in terms of leaning on archival music. But, whereas Stalling relied on the vast Warner Bros. archive, allowing him to manipulate the melody from the published music to match his compositions, the contemporary world faces all kinds of copyright hurdles when it comes to music clearance. And Stalling could juggle dozens of melodies with different pace, genre, and origin to orchestrate the narrative of a six-minute cartoon. Let’s compare that to the six-minute opening of Baby Driver, which is synced perfectly to the song "Bellbottoms" by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It’s a finished product adapted to match the onscreen action. But in Stalling’s time, you only had the ingredients because there were no recordings (remember, it’s the 1930s and 1940s) of the music he would use. “So, for example, Stalling would take a Raymond Scott song and mold it to any beat,” Goldmark says. “He could manipulate it to make it sound sad, happy, upbeat, downbeat, whatever he wanted – that’s the beauty of it.” Stalling would then record the music that Warner Bros. had the rights to with their 60-piece orchestra, scoring the cartoon out of order and in as many takes as it took to perfectly match it to the action. Then the composers and editors put the puzzle together. Not The Queen’s Cartoonists though – six musicians performing these complex, interchanging compositions in real time, as the cartoons play above their heads. And that’s just the performance. Pierson says he’s spent hundreds of hours in YouTube wormholes, public domain record vortices, speaking with musicologists (including Goldmark) to try and find cartoons and music that are not copyrighted and can be performed live. Pierson then works on the music – “that could mean directly transcribing it or finding another piece that could fit,” he says – and then arranging it. That’s how Pierson worked out the Popeye and Bugs Bunny cartoons I saw performed. Popeye the Sailor meets Sinbad the Sailor and A Corny Concerto are both listed as public domain works, allowing The Queen’s Cartoonists to put their own spin on them. Pierson is particularly proud of their Popeye composition. “It’s mainly brand new arrangement,” he says. “Only 20% I recycled from an old Popeye chart, the rest I pulled from a new cartoon, and edited it all together." My Moon, Music, and Medleys That’s the beauty of The Queen’s Cartoonists’ approach to cartoons and music – they are able to add yet another layer to the treasure trove that is cartoon music and make it work in the contemporary world. It’s also what distinguishes Pierson’s approach to the musical arrangement from earlier attempts to popularize Stalling’s work – like Bugs Bunny on Broadway and its sequel Bugs Bunny at the Symphony – which combine a live orchestra performing parts of the classical music score with large projections of Warner Bros. cartoons. The shortcoming? It’s lower hanging fruit because it just regurgitates famous classical compositions used in cartoons. “It’s Rossini, it’s Wagner, it’s Brahms,” says Goldmark. “The orchestras know how to play that stuff.” The Queen’s Cartoonists take it a step further – and, as the band evolves, they are beginning to experiment with incorporating international and contemporary cartoons. My Moon (see below for trailer) is the first time The Queen’s Cartoonists are premiering animated film – “which is super exciting,” Pierson says. My Moon is a beautifully animated eight-minute digital film, “a very colorful experience about the relationship between the Earth, Moon, and Sun,” Pierson explains. “We adapted the original score written by a German composer and the guys who did the film are super excited about us performing it live.” With the addition of this contemporary animation, The Queen’s Cartoonists create an impressive audio and visual genealogy of cartoon music, linking the first experimentations nearly a century ago – when the ingenious art of timing cartoons according to a bar sheet of music was developed – to modern animation timings where synchronicity is a software issue. That’s All, Folk, Jazz, Classic, Pop When I was in New York to interview The Queen’s Cartoonists, it seemed like I was bombarded by music everywhere I went – a swing band at the JFK AirTrain exit; soul on McDougal Street; gospel on a street corner; Frank Sinatra in a restaurant. Even the sound of the subway has a certain jazzy rhythm to its predetermined chaos. “Jazz is America’s great contribution to the arts,” Pierson says. “We just want to make people aware that it’s all around them – from cartoon music to the sound swings of everyday life.” The problem for Pierson today is that music is not composed – it’s produced. Especially cartoon music – looking at you, ‘Baby Shark’ people. Back in the day, Warner Bros. could hire a 60-string band to score a Bogart picture and ask some of the musicians to then stay back and score a Bugs Bunny cartoon. “You can’t expect Netflix to be hiring orchestras to record things,” Pierson says. “Even Game of Thrones, big shows like that – it’s just a guy behind a computer.” Does it frustrate him? Pierson shakes his head to say, “no,” but Nedelchev chimes in to say, “of course it does!” It’s because people can’t tell the difference between what's real and what's artificial nowadays – “when we play kids something from the 60s, they love it,” Nedelchev says. “The sound isn’t perfect, the pitch isn’t perfect, it’s messy – but it’s real. They hear it organically.” And that’s what makes The Queen’s Cartoonists special – especially if you get to see them live. By going back to basics with cartoon music, they are bringing back an entire era from the depths of the dusty and forgotten. And they do it with a certain theatrical pizzazz that gets kids and adults totally hooked. “What’s next?” I asked Pierson. “Carnegie Hall, here we come!” So, as it stands, that’s not all, folks because The Queen’s Cartoonists are just getting started.


The Queen’s Cartoonists play
cartoon music from ‘20s to today

"If you watch — and only watch — cartoons, you're missing something." The Queen's Cartoonists will prove that when they perform cartoon music from the 1920s to the present day, on Saturday, Oct. 22 at the Prairie Center for the Arts in Schaumburg. Pianist and leader Joel Pierson formed the jazz band after he moved to New York about two years ago. "I was looking for a way to get plugged into the music scene and thought maybe I should just come up with some sort of harebrained idea that would maybe draw some attention to itself," Pierson said. "I thought of a bunch of different wacky ideas and this was the one I chose to work on.” Turns out, it wasn't such a wacky idea after all because within a week or so, he had assembled a group of professional musicians who were eager to join the enterprise. The group consists of Rossen Nedelchev (drums), Ian Hutchinson (bass), Drew Pitcher (saxophone), Mark Phillips (woodwinds) and Greg Hammontree (trumpet). "There's so much famous classical music that's been used in cartoons," Pierson noted. "You have this really, really difficult music that's been used in cartoons for almost a hundred years.” Preparing the band's repertoire has been a tedious task for Pierson. He began by listing famous cartoons, watching them and transcribing the music. "It's easy if you're doing a Bugs Bunny cartoon that has Wagner. You go find the score," Pierson said. "It's not easy but you have a leg up. But sometimes I would go to a recording and transcribe it note for note, and arrange it for the band.” So far, Pierson has created 50 or 60 arrangements for his group. "They tend to be short and fast. All the arrangements tend to be 2-1/2 to 3 minutes long," he reported. "So I've spent a lot of time in the last six months flushing out the arrangements so we're not up there playing 40 different charts in two hours." In addition to cartoon music, the group also plays similar music from films, the Muppets and other sources. The show includes more than just music, though. "I talk about the cartoons — when did it come out, what's it about," Pierson said. Those talk interludes not only inform the audience, they also give the musicians much needed rest periods. "The music is so hard for the horn players, they need 30 seconds or a minute between every one or they burn out," Pierson said. There is also some singing in the show, as well as projections of some of the cartoons. In addition to performing concerts, the band does educational outreach programs at schools, senior centers and other venues but Pierson said, " I feel like the show overall is hopefully a little bit of an education in music. We're talking about classical music and the great composers. I feel like it's my job to kind of connect all the dots."


The Queen’s Cartoonists Can Make
A Jazz Lover Out Of Anyone

"The result is an interactive, multi-generational concert that, at most, may convert young people into jazz fans and, at least, will keep them engaged for a night." Hey, kids! Do you like jazz music? As Joel Pierson can attest, most young people would say they do not like jazz or classical music — genres that seem inaccessible, out-of-date or stuffy. That’s why he formed The Queen’s Cartoonists, a live band that plays music synchronized to classic and contemporary animation. “There’s a lot of stigma against jazz and classical music,” he says. “There’s this sense of ‘Oh, that’s not for me’ or ‘it’s too complicated’ and I don’t think that’s true. I think we just need the right kind of exposure. You know, cartoons were created introducing classical music to people — everyone learned some Wagner and Rossini from Bugs Bunny and that kind of stuff. So I thought maybe I could do that with musicians and a band.” So in 2015, while living in New York, Pierson created The Queen’s Cartoonists with the goal of educating and preserving the art of jazz. To make these concerts more accessible, cartoons are screened at each Queen’s Cartoonists show, and the musicians synchronize their performances to the films. Sometimes, like in the case of vintage Betty Boop, the soundtrack is recreated note for note. If the band’s working with contemporary animation, Pierson will write completely new music to fit the mood. The result is an interactive, multi-generational concert that, at most, may convert young people into jazz fans and, at least, will keep them engaged for a night. Plus, he points out, younger audiences bring a different energy to a theater that older audiences don’t often experience. “One of our missions as a band is to actually try to get young people into the concert hall and into theaters,” Pierson says. “If you ever go to these types of concerts, there tends to be an older crowd. That’s because older people have the time and the money, and the programming sort of skews older as well. So you have this cycle of arts organizations having a hard time getting younger people in. Our concert that we’re presenting is not at all geared toward children or high schoolers, but they’ll enjoy it just as much as the adults because of the video component, and there’s humor and comedy that we do. And so it’s just very important that we’re always trying to appeal to everybody at once.” The band’s mission to expose new audiences to jazz extends beyond live performances. In San Diego, the musicians have paired with La Jolla Music Society as education ambassadors, participating in community outreach activities. The Queen’s Cartoonists will have a master class for Mission Bay High School’s Preservationists jazz ensemble and invite the students on stage during the 3 p.m. show. The Queen’s Cartoonists will also perform La Jolla Music Society’s first student matinee, which will be live streamed for other schools to watch for free. Making the band When it came to his own introduction to jazz and classical music, Pierson did it the old-fashioned way: piano lessons. The more he learned music, the more Pierson noticed it everywhere — especially in cartoons from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. But putting together a program around cartoons wasn’t as easy as he imagined. Pierson, who has a doctorate in music composition, had to transcribe cartoon soundtracks by ear because there wasn’t a lot of pre-existing sheet music. He also had to arrange the compositions for a band and then rehearse. Also, everything the band plays is memorized so that the performances can have a more theatrical feel. “You wouldn’t go see a musical and have the actors reading from a script,” Pierson says. “I like to feature musicians in a way that they normally wouldn’t. For example, I have a clarinet player — I would bet that most people have never seen a clarinet player live, ever, unless it’s their kids elementary school band or something. “But it didn’t used to be that way, right? Benny Goodman and these guys were really famous clarinet players 60 years ago. So I want my guys to not feel they have to wear all black and hide in a pit like they do for a lot of gigs. They can be out front and showcase their skills and a lot of people will respond to it — partially because it’s mixed with the films, so you’re not just watching a clarinet player for two hours. But there’s moments that really highlight the musicians. So hopefully after the concert someone will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I like the clarinet so much.’” It took about a year of rehearsals before The Queen’s Cartoonists had all the pieces together for its first public performance. At first the group performed in clubs around New York City, but soon shifted to music halls and theaters to give the music a grander feeling. Now the band performs throughout the country and even internationally in Germany and Austria. Saturday’s La Jolla Music Society concert is actually a special performance featuring holiday-themed cartoons and music. And along with regular band members — Rossen Nedelchev, Drew Pitcher, Greg Hammontree, Mark Phillips and Malik McLaurine — Pierson’s wife Tara Khaler will be singing. But whether it’s Bugs Bunny or Frosty the Snowman, Pierson just hopes audiences leave with a new outlook and appreciation of jazz. “Jazz music used to be very popular and now it’s very unpopular,” he says. “But I still think that it’s part of the American identity and part of our culture. And I do think that people enjoy it, they just need the right kind of exposure. We’re not going to play really wild jazz that’s going to isolate the audience ... we want to make it palatable. I just want to bring the music to as many people as we can.”

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A royally entertaining celebration of animation music

If the names Carl Stalling, Raymond Scott and Milt Franklyn mean anything to you, then you no doubt would love the Queen’s Cartoonists, a circus of top-flight musicians who keep alive the art of background music heard in classic animated cartoons from the 1920s to the present. Named not for its association with any monarch but for the New York borough where the group’s members got their start, the Queen’s Cartoonists performed at the Scherr Forum in Thousand Oaks on March 22 in a concert that featured the musicians playing along to a variety of short-subject films being projected on a screen behind them. The program would have been fine if it were only a trip down Merrie Melody Lane, as evidenced by the Cartoonists’ use of classic Warner Bros.cartoons, but more contemporary short films from Canada, Argentina, Ukraine and South Korea were also showcased. Thanks to CGI and other digital modules, animation is not only alive but thriving, and the Cartoonists have become valuable to animators around the world, offering to screen new works in exchange for permission to compose new scores to accompany the films. Pianist/composer Joel Pierson is the onstage spokesman for the group, providing breezy, irreverent commentary prior to each film clip. The rest of the group consists of a cornucopia of five permanent members and a rotating cast of three bass players. The members of the stalwart quintet are skilled, versatile musicians in the mold of the vaunted Raymond Scott Quintette of the 1940s, whose colorfully titled works, including “Powerhouse,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” and “Reckless Night On Board an Ocean Liner,” were used by Warner Bros. music director Carl Stalling in a multitude of Looney Tunes cartoons. In addition to Pierson, Bulgaria native Rossen Nedelchev plays drums, while woodwind players Drew Pitcher and Mark Phillips and brass expert Greg Hammontree juggle more than 20 instruments, often holding one while playing another. The pace in animated music is often frenetic and the versatility of the three hornists is astonishing when watching them in person. In addition to playing standard instruments like clarinets, flutes, saxophones, trumpets and trombones, Pitcher, Phillips and Hammontree are prepared to play anything to get the proper effect, including kazoos, slide whistles and recorders (the latter instrument played through the nose). In addition to wildly popular Looney Tunes shorts starring the likes of Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, the Cartoonists accompanied a variety of other animated shorts. One well-known example was “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” a celebrated 1969 black-and-white short student film created entirely by animator Marv Newland. The title pretty much predicts the two-minute short’s premise and outcome. In the hand-drawn “Runaway” (2009), produced by Canadian animator Cordell Barker, an out-of-control train becomes a hilarious metaphor for life’s journey, as the train’s cowcatcher lives up to its name by ensnaring an unsuspecting cow that was ambling along the tracks at the wrong time. In the stop-motion short “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (2012), directed by Carlo Vogele, a fish sings its own requiem in the voice of vaunted tenor Enrico Caruso as it journeys from its sale at a fish market to its demise in a frying pan. As a tribute to the innovative 1940s jazz combo led by bassist John Kirby, Pierson introduced the members of the orchestra, who performed wildly inventive versions of classical favorites, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Strauss’ “Blue Danube,” Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” and Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Anarchy peaked, Spike Jonesstyle, as Pitcher rode a scooter around the stage while Phillips fired arrows at him to the tune of the “William Tell Overture.” In the show’s finale, the Queen’s Cartoonists showed how it has raised musical slapstick to a high art, accompanying the Warner Bros. short “A Corny Concerto,” in which Elmer Fudd presides, Deems Taylor-style, over a “Corny-gie Hall” concert.

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Cracking Tunes, Gromit

"A show with universal appeal for audiences of all ages, genders and cultures, so expect consummate musicianship with multi-instrumental mayhem and loads of cartoon fun." NO, nothing to do with Jubilees... making their UK debut at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Queen’s Cartoonists are a group of six seasoned jazz musicians hailing from Queens, New York, who wanted to introduce jazz to a younger, family audience and hit on the idea of performing live jazz soundtracks to classic cartoons. For Edinburgh Fringe they’ve joined forces with animation studio Aardman, to provide accompanying music for Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, a rich vein of humour runs through the performance, with light-hearted stories about the cartoons and their composers, off-the-wall jokes and feats of physical comedy not usually seen in concert halls! A show with universal appeal for audiences of all ages, genders and cultures, so expect consummate musicianship with multi-instrumental mayhem and loads of cartoon fun. It’s a grand evening out!


Off-Beat Options for Theater’s Changing Audience

Who needs another string quartet, dance troupe or touring Broadway show when you can hire a jazz combo playing music from Bugs Bunny cartoons?

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The Queen's Cartoonists

"The Queen's Cartoonists are somehow able to locate oodles of fresh humor and energy and grandeur in tunes you've heard countless times from modest TV speakers." The six talented and witty musicians that make up The Queen's Cartoonists are extraordinarily well-versed in the ins and outs of cartoon music-from the zany swing of classic Saturday morning cartoon anarchy (Bugs Bunny and his Warner Bros. cohort, especially) to the sweep of bygone Disney to contemporary small-screen favorites like The Simpsons. Gleefully zipping through works by Raymond Scott, Carl Stalling, Danny Elfman, Alf Clausen, John Williams, and more, The Queen's Cartoonists are somehow able to locate oodles of fresh humor and energy and grandeur in tunes you've heard countless times from modest TV speakers. Add in some off-beat selections (Bambi Meets Godzilla, anyone?), and you have something really special.


The Queen’s Cartoonists

The Queen’s Cartoonists’ music-playing was perfect, and its enthusiastic renditions were so infectious that they brought instant smiles on the faces of the listeners. I was in such rapture listening to them that I had tears of joy.

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The Queen’s Cartoonists bring swing-era music, written for classic cartoons, to listeners

"A fresh, yet vintage, sound to the ears of audiences throughout the city." A new band made up of Astoria and Jackson Heights residents is bringing a fresh, yet vintage, sound to the ears of audiences throughout the city. The Queen’s Cartoonists, made up of six Queens musicians, was formed when pianist Joel Pierson made the move from Washington, D.C., to Jackson Heights after getting married to a Queens resident. Pierson, who has been playing the piano for over 20 years and has performed on all seven continents, was looking for a job and said he wanted to do something innovative that would attract audiences — which is how the idea of the band came about. “I was trying to think of something that would have the band stand out in New York, that would be interesting to people,” Pierson said. “I saw it as a different twist of what people are doing up here.” The group performs music they call the “zaniest and most creative” out of the swing era and many of which was written and adapted for classic cartoons from Warner Bros. and Disney, such as the Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. The band is made up of Pierson and Astoria residents Mark Phillips on clarinet and soprano sax; Drew Pitcher on tenor sax; Greg Hammontree on trumpet; Rossen Nedelchev on percussion; and Ian Hutchison on bass. “We’re all very Queens-centric people. We all just really like Queens. Everybody is rubbing elbows from all over the world,” Pierson said. “We all live here for a reason.” The name of the band, which was created before there was a group and Pierson believes helped attract the members, has been written in many ways – some including the apostrophe, others placing it after the S — however Pierson said it all goes back to highlighting their home borough. “[Queens] feels like a really authentic place to live and so many jazz people have lived here,” Pierson said. “It fits with the kind of music we want to play.” What differs The Queen’s Cartoonists from all other jazz musicians and groups in the city, Pierson said, is that the group does not perform out of spontaneity. Due to the classic music’s short and fast performances, it is crucial that the members spend extensive time practicing every tune and be organized when performing. Each song can go about 2 to 3 minutes long and performances tend to last about 20 to 25 minutes. “Everything has to be really set up ahead of time because if we’re not on it 100 percent then it can be really hard for us,” Pierson said. Although the band performs what Pierson calls “cartoony and silly” music, he adds that he still wants to maintain a formal feel in the performances — much like how it was down back in the 1930s and ’40s. “We want people to experience a formal experience even if the music is cartoony and silly,” Pierson said. “We want it to be a concert in a way because it is hard to play and we want to give some credibility to this music.”

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Queen's Cartoonists swing
through tunes and cartoons 

"Audience members chuckled and danced in their chairs to more than 80 years worth of melodies." All the way from the lights and sounds of New York City, The Queen’s Cartoonists brought their swing era cartoon inspired show to the George Daily Auditorium in Oskaloosa on Thursday, Nov. 10. The sextet, formed by pianist/composer Joel Pierson, drew their inspiration from a deep catalogue of fast paced, comical music commonly known from Looney Tunes cartoons stuck in TV viewer’s heads since the dawn of cartoon animations in the late 1920s. Audience members both young and aged tapped their toes along to instantly recognizable tunes, some of which were played along with cartoon clips projected on the auditorium’s big screen. All six of the musicians, each with a rich musical background in genres including swing and classical, were given a chance to shine as individuals and mainly as a tight group. “I formed this group because I was looking for a way to meet musicians in New York, where I had just moved a couple of years ago,” Pierson said. “I had a number of hair-brained ideas, and this was the one I thought would get the most attention. Within a couple weeks, I had a whole band together.” Since its inception, The Queen’s Cartoonists has performed coast to coast, keeping the swing compositions of Carl Stalling for Warner Bros alive in much the same way cartoons still do today. The group also performed pieces to original animation created by Oskaloosa grade students, bringing to life paper, shadow and claymation like on the silver screen. “We have performed with music students many times in the past, but this is the first time we performed with art students,” Pierson said. “It was great and incorporates so well into our show.” Outside of the classic, wacky compositions, The Queen’s Cartoonists took on modern tunes from Stars Wars and Frozen, even dressing as characters from the latter. All the while, audience members chuckled and danced in their chairs to more than 80 years worth of melodies featured in Bugs Bunny clips and for many other unforgettable cartoon creations. “I keep my ears open to quirky music all the time,” Pierson said. “Whatever we can pull together, that’s pretty much what we play.”

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Swinging To A Cartoon Beat

"Traditional boundaries of what we know as a “concert” are redefined."

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The Queen’s Cartoonists Bring
Cartoon Music To Jazzy Life

"It’ll be an animated performance — in more ways than one…" It’ll be an animated performance — in more ways than one — when The Queen’s Cartoonists roll into Wilmington for a concert at Thalian Hall on March 7. “We’re trying to take two iconic forms of American art, jazz and cartoons, and breathe new life into them,” said band leader and pianist Joel Pierson, who formed the Queens-based sextet four years ago and has been on the road with them for the past two. Pierson acknowledges that kids today don’t experience cartoons in the same way as their parents, who in many cases were exposed to famous arias or such composers as Beethoven for the first time while watching the antics of their favorite animated characters. When it comes to such genres as classical and jazz, “Kids are not getting that from contemporary cartoons,” Pierson said. At the same time, he added, “Your 7-year-old will enjoy the show.” Like cartoons themselves, the band’s performance is meant to bridge the generation gap. The Queen’s Cartoonists play music from what Pierson called “the heyday of music animation,” mostly jazz and classical. There’s a comedic flair to the show, with custom projections that are “very in sync with what we’re playing,” Pierson said. “We design the arrangements and edit the cartoons to make the best live performance version we can.” There’s an educational aspect to the show as well. These days, music is often the last piece of the animation puzzle. With Looney Tunes, music was an equal player and even came first. Pierson points out that the Looney Tunes brand took its name from the animation being built around the “Tunes.” “Warner Bros. had a huge recording library,” he said. “It was very hard to make recordings back then, and they wanted to monetize that.” That said, The Queen’s Cartoonists isn’t just two hours of Looney Tunes music. Music from the “Tom & Jerry” cartoons shows up as well, as does Dovorak’s Symphony No. 9 (on kazoos), which was set to animation at Carnegie Hall back in 2001, and the compositions of Danny Elfman, who wrote the theme song to “The Simpsons” and did the soundtrack to “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “We want to highlight the seriousness of the music,” Pierson said. “On the other hand, it is cartoons.”

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Travel Back to the ‘Golden Age’ of Cartoons with The Queen’s Cartoonists

"These timeless tunes run the gamut from lightning fast swing arrangements to sync’d video projections, vocal numbers and comedy acts." Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are alive and well. Just ask The Queen’s Cartoonists – the latest act in the Cultural Event Series sponsored by Monday Musical Club of Tillamook. On Sunday, Jan. 21, audience members will be treated to the sounds, sights and haptics of their favorite cartoons performed by a professional jazz band based out of Queens, New York. These timeless tunes run the gamut from lightning fast swing arrangements to sync’d video projections, vocal numbers and comedy acts. It’s entertaining, to say the least. 
“They are an incredible band with very tight precision,” said Adam Schwend, the Director of Cultural Events for Monday Musical Club of Tillamook. “A lot of us were first introduced to orchestral music and classical music through cartoons; music plays a huge part in cartoons and films and without musical scores it would be a totally different and lesser experience.” The Queen’s Cartoonist is comprised of six talented jazz musicians who, for the last four years, have been performing musical scores from cartoons that range from the 1920s to present day. Their act touches on tunes from classic Warner Brothers cartoons, early Disney films, cult-classics like The Simpsons and Star Wars, and even modern animation. “Whether you’re 15 or 85, they are playing music from cartoons that we all remember growing up watching,” Schwend said. “It’s going to bring back a lot of really great memories for anyone who attends.” The Queen’s Cartoonist was the brainchild of pianist and composer Joel “Slim Pickins” Pierson, who was looking for a way to stand out from the crowd. 
“I’m a person that has off-the-wall ideas and always write them down and a lot of them were bad but this one always kind of stuck with me,” he said. Pierson quickly found other musicians who were excited about the idea and they’ve been wowing audiences ever since with a trip down memory lane. “The golden age for music in cartoons was definitely late 20s through 50s,” noted Pierson. “That’s when all the Warners Brothers Cartoons were made, and the old Disney films put a lot of effort into the musical scores. It’s all very memorable – everyone knows ‘Kill the Wabbit’ – and we want to bring back those memories.” It’s something that makes their performances different than a normal jazz concert, Pierson said.
“Music can be very hard to relate too,” he said. “You can see some incredible jazz artists and still walk away and not really be sure of what you just saw. I wanted to created a concert that appeals to everybody and that the audience, no matter who they are, could connect with.” Each show is also an opportunity to educate their audience members on the musical scores they are about to hear. Woven between the musical acts (which can last anywhere from two and a half to three minutes) are stories and anecdotes involving the cartoons and the composers that helped bring them to life. These breaks are really a necessity, said Pierson. “The music is very fast and very difficult to play,” he said. “Unlike typical jazz concert where one person might solo a for a few minutes, my horn players are playing the whole time and they need little breaks.” Pierson likes to fill these needed breaks by talking about the musical scores and the cartoons they belong to. “I try to keep it interesting and fresh for audience so they feel engaged,” he said. 
“This educational component was one of the things that excited us most,” Schwend added. “It’s something we try to do with all our shoes is include either students, locals or some sort of educational opportunity for attendees, so the folks that are apart of our shows are not only giving a great performance but an aspect of music education as well. They are, through their performance, showing us how important music is to our cultural experience and our childhood.”

TV & Radio

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All Things Considered - The Queen's Cartoonists
00:00 / 03:50
The Queen's Cartoonists Live on BBC Radio 3
00:00 / 09:04


HOLIDAY HURRAH at Smothers Theatre

The Queen’s Cartoonists execute jazz with exquisite polish, verve, cheeky humor, and manic energy. The music is utterly dazzling, the cartoons are delightful, and the light-hearted silliness and mumblecore, deadpan humor of the pianist and band leader Dr. Joel Pierson are absolute treasures. But the unique possibility posed by The Queen’s Cartoonists is that their irreverent pop and verve, their showmanship and their embrace of old cartoons, will delight audience members who perhaps not been able to savor the great pleasures of jazz before.

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Excellent Show

"The appeal is universal and ageless, and the work has special meaning to an older generation that grew on the classic cartoon characters." Animated films can be quite fun to watch. The classic ones have the chase scenes between characters, stunts, laugh-out-loud humor, sometimes touching moments, but always are entertaining. But what is often taken for granted or overlooked is the importance of the musical score to enhance the mood of the visuals, advance the story, and further accelerate the action. The Queen’s Cartoonists, under the extremely capable baton of pianist Dr. Joel Pierson, are committed to remedying that situation, bringing some focus of the movies back to the intricate and lush scores. The title of the show and group can be a bit confusing in the uK; no, they are not part of the Royal Family but they are from Queens, a borough in New York City. These highly accomplished jazz musicians have set out to introduce their genre of music to a younger crowd through the animated pieces. However, the appeal is universal and ageless, and the work has special meaning to an older generation that grew on the classic cartoon characters. The films are presented with the original sound effects and dialogue, but minus the music. The original scores were composed by jazz greats Carl Stalling, Raymond Scott, and Duke Ellington, as well as classical giants Mozart, Rossini, and Richard Strauss. In most cases, the original movie score has been carefully replicated, note for note, by the live band. The precision with which they synchronize to the actions in the films is dazzling and very impressive. Not only are the musicians playing the scores, they are also adding sound effects from a kazoo, train whistle, whistling, and more. There are some original compositions for the newer films. Pierson has joined forces with award-winning animation studio Aardman to provide accompanying music for Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep cartoons. Other cartoons feature classic characters that are highly recognizable, but this reviewer won’t spoil the surprises by listing them. The group goes beyond the music by telling interesting and insightful stories about the films, supplying background tidbits and anecdotes about the composers of the scores. There are many funny moments, not only in the comedic films but also from the narrator, who is highly adept at engaging his audience. There is even audience participation in the program and some physical comedy, which keeps the program light-hearted and moving quickly. The whole show is a treat for the eyes and ears. It is a thoroughly entertaining hour that leaves the audience, from kids to seniors, wanting more. The virtuosic multi-instrumentalists are very impressive: Pierson, Musical Director and piano; Rossen Nedelchev, drums; Drew Pitcher, flute, tenor saxophone; Mark Phillips, clarinet, soprano saxophone; Greg Hammontree , trumpet, trombone; and Mario Caribé, bass. Not only are they masters of their instruments, they are fun to watch and are clearly enjoying the experience. Band members started careers in international centres including Australia, Bulgaria, and Washington, D.C., but since forming this show in 2015, all moved to Queens. They are now a part of the vibrant New York jazz scene. The band has brought this unique concert experience to performing arts centers, clubs, and festivals all across the United States and Europe and will soon be touring in Canada in collaboration with Canada’s National Film Board. This is their first Edinburgh Fringe run.

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Fringe Review

"For an animation and/or jazz fan, this show is a must." Six players. A menagerie of instruments. And one massive projector set up, jam-packed with cartoons. This is the set-up of The Queen’s Cartoonists Fringe debut at the prestigious Assembly Roxy. A musical cavalcade of animated shorts and scenes to live jazz music. For an animation and/or jazz fan, this show is a must. A collection of iconic characters from Popeye to Wallace and Gromit and Porky Pig to Shaun the Sheep grace the screen of the Central Hall of the Roxy, their voices and (some) sound effects remaining the same but their old and sometimes iconic scores birthed anew by smooth, quick, toe-tapping jazz. Especially with the additions of more contemporary animation put to their own compositions, these moments were really special. Additionally, with their partnership with Aardman Animation, the masters of stop-motion animations, there are more characters with are perhaps more familiar to the UK audience. Overall, especially for a debut, this is a good one. It’s entertainingly good fun.

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Edinburgh Fringe Festival Audience Reviews

“Brilliant show… Amazing & entertaining live music with a charismatic lead. I loved the contemporary cartoons and the way the music lifted & created the atmosphere. I’m certain this will be a sell out!” “This was such an enjoyable, energetic, and uplifting show. The band are really talented, and the music synchronized with the cartoons perfectly. It’s a must for fans of Wallace and Gromit / Aardman Animation as they have collaborated on quite a few excerpts, but even if you just like the sound of cartoons accompanied by live music then I would definitely recommend checking this show out.” “Saw this show with my husband and two children. We all loved it. The musicians are incredibly talented against a brilliant backdrop of wonderfully varied cartoons. A really different type of show which was really excellent. 5 stars!” “Fabulous! Great music and great fun! So unusual, I’m really pleased I chose this show.” “Wonderfully talented musicians, providing good and varied entertainment for all ages, including original material, and showing how essential music is to cartoons.”` “A superb, fun show for both kids and adults alike! You get the best of both worlds—seeing one hilarious cartoons and hearing some first-class jazz to accompany some classic favorites.” “Amazing jazz musicians accompanying wonderful, well-loved (and some unexpected) cartoons. Watch out for the guy playing trumpet with his mouth and recorder through his nose at the same time, and the bass player frantically playing more notes than I’ve ever seen a bass play before! I love it when the band are obviously having so much fun. The challenge for the audience is do you watch the cartoons or watch the musicians?”

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Fringe Review

"As an introduction to jazz for young people it’s a rollicking success, and judging from the many older in the audience, one that worked on its own terms for the adults as well." The Queen’s Cartoonists are six jazz musicians currently part of the New York City jazz scene (the eponymous Queens being the location over there, rather than the person over here). Their show aims to make jazz music more accessible by performing a live soundtrack (which sometimes involve Foley, too) to classic and contemporary animation, synchronized with the projected films. With a seemingly extensive repertoire of music and shorts, their Fringe show feature prominently Classic Warner Bros cartoons, accompanied by some (probably less well known here) shorts from Russia and Korea. For their British audience they have also teamed up with Aardman Animation to include four of their pieces starring their three most famous characters, a no doubt canny move judging by the awed murmur which greeted the first mention of Shaun the Sheep. Unsurprisingly there is nothing but the cheekiest mention of the House of the Mouse due to the purposefully prohibitive cost that would entail, which is a shame for Disney, considering this has some of the same goals and techniques as their own Fantasia (or rather Disney’s less well-known equivalents for more modern music, Melody Time and Make Mine Music). Not that the show is lacking for this omission, with the mixture representing a lovely mix of the familiar and less so, and the shorts, along with the introductions by the bandleader, entertaining the adults and children alike. As an introduction to jazz for young people it’s a rollicking success, and judging from the many older in the audience, one that worked on its own terms for the adults as well. A fun way to experience live music and some classic family entertainment, The Queen’s Cartoonists entertained and amused their audiences of all ages not only with their music but also their choice of cartoons.

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Fringe Review

"From classic toons to original shorts, it’s fun, fresh, and captivating." New Yorkers & top-class musicians, The Queen’s Cartoonists perform perfectly-synced soundtracks to famous cartoons in a crowd-pleasing concert that fuses live jazz, film projections, and a witty MC. From classic toons to original shorts, it’s fun, fresh, and captivating.

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Infectiously Foot Happy Jazz—With Bonus Cartoons On The Side

"Whether you have kids in tow, love jazz or just fancy something a little out of the ordinary, this is a delightful show." The Queen’s Cartoonists are a jazz band. They hail from Queens in New York City. And silent movie style, they play jazz to form a live soundtrack to cartoons, hence the name. They’re a six piece band. Joel Pierson is on the keyboard and keeps the rest of the band in order. Then we have a double bass, drums and an array of brass and percussion instruments: the sax, trumpet, trombone, clarinet and piccolo all make appearances. Cartoons aside, these guys are clearly cracking musicians. Their musical style ranges from classic jazz to klezmer to parodies of theme tunes and their heartland seems to lie somewhere in between. Most of what they play is their original composition though these are varyingly informed by the cartoon they’re playing alongside. Clearly, Popeye needs his theme tune. The band is slick, sparky, infectiously energetic and inventive – this is an exercise in on the hoof live foley design. The cartoons and animations are an added treat. We have Loony Tunes characters, Bambi with a twist, Betty Boop, the aforementioned strong man through to Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit, courtesy of Aardman. The band also love to support new animators. Eusong Lee’s beautiful My Moon, with an original soundtrack composed by Pierson, is a particular treat. Whether you have kids in tow, love jazz or just fancy something a little out of the ordinary, this is a delightful show from The Queen’s Cartoonists. You’re very likely to find your foot tapping away before the band have got very far into their set – and you’ll leave with a wee extra spring in your step.

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The Queen’s Cartoonists Re-Energize Animation At The High Point Theatre

"With each scene, the band perfectly synchronized emotions…" A black and white, line-drawn Bambi peacefully eats flowers in a field as musicians on stage play the first notes from Art Graceful tones from the saxophone lead the tune as Bambi lifts his head before continuing to graze. Suddenly a giant, dinosaur stomping poor Bambi into the ground. The end. “Bambi Meets Godzilla” by Marv Newland was just one of several cartoons shown at the Queen’s Cartoonists show at High Point Theatre. The six-piece band — made up of a pianist, three brass musicians, an upright bass player and a drummer — captured the classical music set to screenings of old and contemporary animation. “It’s a jazz concert, but it’s a fun concert,” joked Joel Pierson, the band’s pianist, conductor and main on-stage spokesperson. Soon, other childhood classics like Popeye and Bugs Bunny graced the screen. With each scene, the band perfectly synchronized emotions, the sax or piano leading the melody while the drums and piccolo plucked out intense chase numbers. While most audience members grew up with the animations in the ’50s and ’60s, there were a few kids in attendance too. Brother and sister Henry and Charlotte Howes bounced excitedly in their chairs as they watched the band and the animations. “It’s kinda funny,” said Charlotte, who wore a gray sweatshirt with unicorns on it. “It never gets old,” said their mom, Nadine. She grew up watching Popeye and other cartoons as a kid. That love for ani she says. Both Henry and Charlotte’s favorite cartoons are still the classics — Looney Tunes. Right before the intermission, the band demonstrated its full prowess during an accompaniment of the Van Beuren Studio classic, “The Haunted Ship”. In it, a black-and-white dog and cat — drawn in the style of Steamboat Willie, cross the ocean and find their way onto a haunted ship where they encounter a cast of zany characters. The band utilized a full range of quirky instruments including a slide whistle, recorder, bells and even provided goofy vocals. An airplane’s pipes become a xylophone, brought to life by the plucky sounds of the piano, while a string of bells imitate eels, rays and even dancing skeletons. Towards the end of the piece, a lobster dances by clacking its claws, sounded by castanets. The whole picture lasts about energized by the band’s produced sounds. In between the animations, the band introduced themselves in bizarre and humorous ways like playing music on a bicycle. At one point, the upright bassist danced with his instrument in an awkward, waltzy march. By taking jazz and classical music and applying it to animated pieces, the Queen’s Cartoonists seamlessly married their prowess. “Jazz doesn’t always have to be serious,” Nadine said. “You can be trained classically but apply it to a variety of stuff.”

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