Jeremy Cohen was hooked, the minute he heard the music of the 20th-century American composer and band leader Raymond Scott. It's energetic and jazzy, full of complex rhythms and riffs, yet all with a wink of humor.Violinist
It's also the inspiration for an album just released called Raymond Scott Reimagined, a collaboration between Jeremy's Quartet San Francisco, Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band and Take Six a cappella group. Here is a little sample from the album, called "Powerhouse" (wicked-fun violin solo by Jeremy at 3:05) - listen while you read!
If you recognize this music, you may have heard it in cartoons of old - Merrie Melodies, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd...
I was curious about this composer whose music sounded so familiar, yet I didn't immediately know by name. I also wanted to know how a classically-trained violinist became so versed in and devoted to the language of jazz. As always, it was a pleasure to talk with violinist Jeremy Cohen, who has dedicated two years to bringing this project to life and about 50 years to immersing himself in the music and history of Raymond Scott.
Laurie: You started out in classical music and continue to play it as well as jazz, tango and other styles. How did you grow such eclectic tastes and skills into your playing?
Jeremy: I was born and raised in Oakland, California, my parents were transplanted musical New Yorkers - both singers - who never looked back to their east coast roots. Raised in a tradition of mostly classical music, my father, a Cantor in Oakland, always made a point about mentioning the four great B's: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Brubeck.
Jazz always had a place in our musical landscape growing up, but the lessons and most of the music was classical. It was in junior high and high school that I began to take interest in the jazz bands my pals were playing in.
When sent to the back of the violin section for sitting with my legs crossed and forced to audition my way back to the first desk of second violins, I decided the orchestra was not my most favorite place to be - although I still enjoyed playing the music.
The big band players enjoyed a much more relaxed environment while still having a high set of expectations placed upon them by the music teacher. So I left the orchestra and joined the jazz band (stage band) and learned to play trombone and string bass. While never advancing too far on those instruments, I learned the basics of the jazz language and rhythms, which I eventually took back to my violin and developed later on in my violin-playing life.
My teacher in the last year of high school and first two years of college, Anne Crowden, insisted that I show up prepared to play my scales and etudes, and she would wreak havoc upon me if I didn't. I love and miss her to this very day!
I existed in a siloed playing reality, where I developed my various genre skills playing in multiple bands and simultaneously pursued my classical pathway, eventually finding my way into Itzhak Perlman's class at Brooklyn College, before he got his teaching job at Juilliard.
Laurie: What would you advise for the classical musician, wishing to branch out into various styles?
Jeremy: Listen, learn, digest, replicate, rinse, repeat.
Jazzers gain their skills using repetitions - similar but different from classical string players. The difference is that they learn key-based pattern playing. Where string players will play a specific scale and arpeggio, jazzers learn multiple patterns in specific keys and learn to replicate them in all keys throughout their instrument.
Also, it's important to learn navigation on your particular string instrument - that is, multiple left arm positions. Shifting and gaining comfort in every position across all strings is critical to gaining fluidity between our inner voice (audiation) and getting that voice to speak clearly and instantaneously through the instrument without delay.
Laurie: How did Quartet San Francisco get its start?
Jeremy: QSF was born out of two things really. In 1995- 1997, I was the lead violinist in Forever Tango, a touring musical that tells the story of birth of tango in 19th century Argentina. The cast and orchestra were almost entirely Argentine. I learned so much playing with these musicians, it's difficult to explain in this interview how impactful this learning experience was for me. When the show finally left San Francisco in 1997, I had young children and didn't want to leave home for an extended amount of time. So there I was, in the San Francisco Bay area with all this tango material and experience swimming around in my head and hands, and nobody to play it with.
And, thanks to Anne Crowden and my years of study with her, I had a deep experience and training in chamber music. So I started arranging a lot of material for string quartet.
Around the same time, I was playing as a substitute player and working with the San Francisco Symphony Education Department's Adventures in Music program. We put on hundreds of quartet performances throughout the San Francisco public schools - more deep repetitions! Classical, tango, jazz, Mexican, African, Chinese, rock, jazz, blues, swing were all fascinating to me. I created the arrangements to play for the group to perform since I couldn't find any satisfactory published music in these genres at that time. It eventually led me to starting my own publishing company, Violinjazz Publishing.
Laurie: For those who don't know the artist, who was Raymond Scott? When did he live? Have I heard his music, without knowing it?
Jeremy:; Most of us who ever experienced the Merrie Melodies cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and all of the Warner Bros. cartoons growing up, are familiar with the music of Raymond Scott. His music was embedded in the soundtracks of those cartoons and were part of the fabric of our childhoods. Although Raymond Scott never intentionally wrote a note specifically for cartoons, his music was adopted by Carl Stalling and the music staff at Warner Brothers, and it found its way into more than 100 Warner Brothers cartoons.
Raymond Scott was born Harry Warnow (1908-1994) in Brooklyn NY and graduated from what is now known as the Juilliard School in 1931. He was a bandleader, composer and also an early experimentalist in electronics (www.raymondscott.net). He had some commercial songwriting success in the CBS Radio Orchestra and developed his own ensembles as well.
One very interesting thing about one of his ensembles in particular, the Raymond Scott Quintette, is that the drummer in that band's name was Johnny Williams...who turns out to be the father of one of our great American composers, John Williams. Fun fact: on this CD we have an audio track of John Williams talking about Raymond Scott, and in addition we have Don Williams (John's brother) playing timpani and tom-toms on the piece "Twilight in Turkey." We were also able to access and use Johnny Williams' very own cowbell, the very same cowbell used in the original Raymond Scott recordings. I am so excited about this...it's a lineage connects directly to the Raymond Scott Quintette!
Laurie: What makes him an important musician of the 20th century?
Jeremy: Raymond Scott, as well as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, were all first generation children, born of European immigrants to the United States, who were writing what was to become known as quintessentially American music. Also importantly, Raymond Scott was among the first commercially successful musicians who insisted that CBS expand their hiring practices to include African American musicians in their ensembles in order to simply gain access to the most talented musicians in the country.
Laurie: And a different but related question: what made Raymond Scott important and appealing to you personally? What was your inspiration for this project?
Jeremy: First off, I should say that I learned early on in my career that I have always wanted to retain the joy and excitement of opening my violin case and be filled with great anticipation for the music I am about to play, practice or perform.
Raymond Scott's music is a part of my life experience, I understand it, it resonates within me, and I have a sense of ownership that I don't necessarily feel with the classical music that I still love hearing and enjoy playing. Scott's music is a part of the fabric of my lifetime experience. This is the place where Quartet San Francisco lives and performs. The music of our collective (musicians' and audiences') lifetimes. After more than 23 years, QSF continues to navigate exclusively in this area.
Laurie: How did you meet up with your other collaborators on this album?
Jeremy: In Los Angeles in the mid 1980s, I was hired to contract a string section and play concertmaster on a recording session for a younger composer named Gordon Goodwin - this is how I met Gordon. He had written a song for his wedding and so we met at that recording session.
Fast forward about 20 years, we met again when we were both nominated for Grammys. We reconnected at that time, and I loved his composition craft and skills so much that I eventually asked him to compose a piece for QSF for our Pacific Premieres CD. He wrote "California Pictures" for us as well as a second piece we put on that CD. Gordon was also nominated for a Grammy on that album as well.
On Raymond Scott Reimagined, Gordon had the inspiration to include Take Six vocals, which he thought would sound fantastic with QSF, so he invited them to take part in this project. They did, and we are so pleased with their fine performances and Gordon's excellent arrangements of "In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room" and "Serenade" on the Scott CD.
Laurie: Do you have anything else to add?
Jeremy: Yes - in the 1980s, Raymond Scott was visiting with his granddaughter Kathy in Los Angeles. She was a violist and was studying at the Interlochen Academy in Michigan. They sat down in the living room and began a sketch of a song called "Cutey and the Dragon."
The sketch found its way into a box, and was never fully developed until 2021, when it was given to me by Raymond Scott's daughter Carrie Makeover (Kathy's mother). She asked me if there was any way to do something with the song. I thought about it for less than five seconds, and then I shared it with Gordon Goodwin. I asked the Raymond Scott family if they would be willing to let Gordon bring the sketch to a fully completed composition. They agreed, and what we now have is a world premiere of a newly discovered Raymond Scott composition entitled "Cutey and the Dragon." Gordon pulled out all the stops on this one! It's a brilliant new composition for string quartet and big band.
BELOW: "Cutie and the Dragon" from Raymond Scott Reimagined:
This album has been the culmination of a 50-plus-year fascination with a uniquely gifted and unknown - yet fully known - American composer, and a love affair and lifelong fascination with his music. There has been no better place to channel creative passion and purpose, especially during the Covid times, where finding passion and purpose has been particularly difficult for those of us in the performing arts. I turned all my creative and administrative skills to completing this project, and believe me, it has and continues to take a village to bring it to as many ears (and eyes in this case) as possible.
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Click here to listen to all of "Raymond Scott Reimagined" or purchase a physical CD.
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