Tooning into Jazz: Jeff Sanford’s Cartoon Jazz Orchestra Swings into Playland at the Beach

Article Contributed by Dennis McNally | Published on Monday, November 13, 2023

Cartoons are a joyful, essential part of the American experience. From the beloved Saturday morning antics of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in the ‘40s and ‘50s to today’s inspired anime, they express wild swings of energy and emotion, explosive triumphs, and deserved defeats. One element of the cartoons that we’ve recently recognized is the genius of the music that underscores them, a mash-up of classical, jazz, pop, folk, and everything in between.

This highly adventurous music has found a contemporary home in Jeff Sanford’s Cartoon Jazz Orchestra, a group of gifted, serious musicians who will celebrate their new Little Village album, Playland at the Beach, with two shows, one on November 8th at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, and again on November 15th at the French Club in San Francisco. Their music is rich and complex, zany and funny, supremely well played – and it swings like crazy.

A New York City native, CJO founder and leader Sanford began on clarinet at age 9, and plays all the saxophones and flutes as well. His hero was Benny Goodman and he absorbed the “Great American Songbook” after hearing the classic Ella (Fitzgerald) Sings Cole Porter. He listened to the Beatles and other influential rock groups of the ‘60s. After backing up oldies groups like the Platters and the Crests, he joined a show band, Rainy Days, playing up and down the East Coast.

Jeff Sanford’s Cartoon Jazz Orchestra - photo credit: Janet Roltz

Jeff arrived in San Francisco in 1976 and traveled the hard road of the working musician, playing everything from Top 40 to waltzes for dances to gigs with Clark Terry and Regina Carter. When he landed a gig with the Musician’s Union rehearsal band, he met many of the best musicians in the Bay Area.

When musician Tony Parinella passed on, he left Jeff 16 file cabinets of big band sheet music, including compositions by the brilliant, eccentric Raymond Scott. Warner Brothers Musical Director Carl Stalling adopted Scott’s strange, hyperactive compositions as scores for more than 120 Looney Tunes cartoons. The music is highly entertaining but very challenging to perform. When Jeff heard Don Byron’s album Bug Music, featuring works by Scott, the inspiration for his Cartoon Jazz Orchestra was born. The CJO premiered at the 2003 Stanford Jazz Festival.

The key players in the ensemble include Mark Rosengarden (Bette Midler, Herbie Mann, Darlene Love), Eric Wayne (Digital Victrola owner/producer, KALW announcer/operator ), Simon Planting (John Jorgenson Quintet, artistic director for two Djangofests), Hal Richards (Carol Channing, Terry Gibbs, Lenny Niehaus), Andy Ostwald (author of the book series ”Play Jazz, Blues, Rock Piano By Ear,” Mel Bay pub).

Lenny Carlson, the CJO in-house composer of original music since 2009, has brought the wild and woolly spirit of Raymond Scott into the 21st century. Lenny, a jazz guitarist, recording artist, and composer whose mother was a classical violinist and father was a composer who studied with Arnold Schoenberg, gives new meaning to the word “eclectic.”

Jeff Sanford’s Cartoon Jazz Orchestra

There’s plenty of humor in this music, some of it political, such as “The Commander of Cheese,” honoring a malapropism by Kellyanne Conway. The great Carl Johnson, chosen by Warner Bros. to compose for their Looney Tunes Revival, adapts Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” into a loonier “Spring Thing.”  Carlson’s “Playland at the Beach” is a slightly scary roller coaster ride in the dark. Scott’s “Snake Woman”…you get the idea.

Where I come from, “weird” can be a big compliment. This is weird music at its finest.

Little Village is a nonprofit record company dedicated to presenting a wide variety of music that contributes to a more diverse and inclusive world.