Saturday, December 4, 2010

John Kirby in 'Shakespearian Spinach'?

Well, the video is still out so this week so I thought I might offer up what is still available to me: audio - and a mystery musical passage from the 1940 Max Fleischer Cartoon: "Shakespearean Spinach".

The cartoon, 'Shakespearean Spinach', was released in January 1940: well into Fleischer Studios' Miami stay. From what I have read the move was advantageous in some ways more than others. While the lush climate must have been overwhelming for bunch of urbanites outside of New York for the first time there still was the matter of how the heck to conduct business when so far away from it. It must have been a crazy amount of telegrams securing long distance all the various services required for a cartoon film studio to operate - especially in the wild and wooly 30's! As I understand it, one of these problems was music. You weren't likely to find the top musical talent as simply in Miami as you would have in New York in the 30's. This is why, as I understand it, the music (or parts of it) were farmed out to New York and Los Angeles. This long distance approach could have meant the increased likelihood of being short on music when production of a cartoon was finishing. Was this going to stop production? Heck no!

Four years prior to the Fleischer move there began a new strip of nightclubs located on NY's 52nd street. Among them were: Leon & Eddie's, The Famous Door, Kelly's Stables & others. The idea was to have a street of clubs which offered different varieties of jazz music: from dixieland to swing and, ultimately, bebop. It was an area where musicians as different in style as Art Tatum and Eddie Condon could be heard directly across the street from each other. It was at 52nd Street's Onyx Club that John Kirby and his 'Orchestra' (actually a sextet) made it's home. The Kirby band (at the time known under the monicker "Biggest Little Band In The World") forged it's way in the jazz world with light, but incredibly tight, ensemble swing arrangements of popular classical melodies. The practice of 'swingin' the classics' was generally despised by serious music critics but the public ate it up. Besides there was no royalty to pay to record such tunes! Soon everything was getting the swing treatment: from Bizet's Carmen to Dvorak's Humoresque to Flotow's Martha.

Which brings us back to the mysterious music heard in the 'third act' of Shakesperean Spinach. Oddly enough it was around 1941 that ASCAP pulled all the songs it owned from the radio necessitating the use of such royalty free songs. Whether this impacted Fleischer Studios (or if the exact chronology lines up) I don't know. What I do know is that at every time I watch 'Shakespearean Spinach' I am quite certain I am hearing Martha as performed by The John Kirby Orchestra. Or rather a 78 of the John Kirby Orchestra as a distinct change in the compression of the soundtrack is clearly audible. The practice of using 78 rpm records to 'sweeten' or otherwise fill out soundtracks certainly wasn't new to animation. At least one of Iwerks' Willie Whopper cartoons made use of 78 records by Jelly Roll Morton but it was unusual by 1940 standards. Back in New York the Fleischers could have hired John Kirby for a soundtrack (as they had with Cab Calloway & Louis Armstrong years earlier) but once in Miami, virtually Siberia as far as the Music Industry was concerned, were they backed into using a record? I can find no recording of Martha by John Kirby in my collection so I can't be sure. I think I have all the commercial records through 1941 ... but they also recorded for Radio. For those interested here is the link to 'Shakespearean Spinach".

The passage I'm referring to occurs roughly between the following points (below). You will have to let it completely load before you can scroll to the correct point.



Is it John Kirby?

Charlie Shavers & John Kirby pose before the Onyx 'O'.

I can't give definitive proof but here is John Kirby performing 'Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy' and, again, at the end of this link performing a movement from Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Take a listen and maybe you can solve a mystery.


Andymatic said...

Your ears are better than mine. I can't tell any difference in compression between the two segments. The tonality and volume levels of the instrumentation seem consistent too. Great song though!! Way better than that god awful Hooked on Classics album.

J Lee said...

I noticed the change to, though I couldn't place where that passage came from. But as far as the rest of the music in the cartoon, "Shakespearean Spinach" apparently was the last Popeye cartoon to use Miami-based musicians, which might explain why they opted to use a pre-recorded piece for the action scene between Popeye and Bluto.

The Fleischers and Paramount already had gone to the West Coast to record the music tracks for "Gulliver's Travels", and starting with "Women Are Fickle", the music audio tracks would be handled in New York, while the voices and effects were still done in Miami (which also appeared to create some sound mixing problems at first in a few of the cartoons done this way, since the audio sounded as if the microphones were covered with blankets).

By the time the Fleischers got to the Superman series, they had not only the music but some of the voice artists being recorded in New York, while the animation and other voices (Jack Mercer's mainly) were still being handled in Miami. Had to be a logistical nightmare, especially after the outbreak of World War II.

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

Thanks, I didn't know that about the music in 'Shakespearean Spinach'. I agree, I'd say this section was a 78 record purchase of Lou's (?) but was it Kirby?

Godfrey Daniels said...

As a jazz fan knowledgeable about Kirby's band, and as a professional trumpet player for many years, my opinion is the same musicians throughout the whole soundtrack. It certainly would be very easy for the musical arranger to write a section "in the style" of John Kirby's band. I definitely hear the same trumpet player in the section under question playing the rest of the soundtrack. I think it's wishful thinking to assign the credit to Kirby. I think Charlie Shavers was a much better and smoother trumpet player than they person here.

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

Hi Godfrey-thanks for chiming in on this one. In fact I was hoping for a musician with the ear and training (I have none of the above) to tell me what's going on in the soundtrack. Your perspective is most welcome!