Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Today marks the Raymond Scott centennial. Our guy was born Harry Warnow on Sept. 10, 1908, in Brooklyn. We celebrate and pay tribute—but twenty years ago, such an anniversary observance was unlikely.
I've been a free-form DJ at WFMU radio since 1975. We're allowed to spin anything, without regard to genre. In the mid-1980s, I began airing a mix cassette of 78 rpm disc transfers of the Raymond Scott Quintette. The group's idiosyncratic titles (e.g., "War Dance for Wooden Indians," "New Year's Eve in a Haunted House," "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals") were composed by the band's namesake leader. I didn't know anything about Mr. Scott, but soon discovered he was an intriguing figure of once-gargantuan stature whose name had slipped into the dustbin of music history, his accomplishments forgotten or unrecognized, a prime "Where Are They Now?" candidate. Only later did I learn that Scott, besides composing nutty titles, was a quasi-jazz pianist, orchestra leader, pioneering audio engineer, inventor of electronic music machines, and all-around eccentric control freak.
The cassette was compiled around 1985 by a friend in L.A., artist Byron Werner. Byron is a vinyl obsessive who coined the phrase "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" to describe a broad genre of pleasant, sophisticated instrumental pop of the 1950s and '60s (e.g., Esquivel, Martin Denny, The Three Suns). By the 1980s, these relics were long out of vogue and reviled by hipsters. It was music for geeks. Like me. Raymond Scott was not part of this genre. He was something else. When Werner gave me the cassette, he explained, "You might recognize this music from Bugs Bunny cartoons." Though I had never heard these recordings and recognized neither the titles nor the composer, there was something curiously familiar about the music. It sounded like quintessential cartoon soundtrack fodder of the 1930s: frantic, wacky, edgy, and …. well, animated, with a layer of surface noise and compressed fidelity that affirmed its vintage.
I began airing tracks from the tape—and invariably the phones lit up, especially when I played a wild recording called "Powerhouse." Listeners wanted to know the title because they'd heard it before but didn't know where. I said it was from cartoons, which usually elicited the reply, "Where can I get it?" Since the recording was out of print, I dubbed copies of the cassette for dozens of listeners, friends, and fellow staffers. I attempted some research — pre-www: in libraries — about this Scott character but turned up little. He was an occasional footnote in jazz chronicles, and what few encyclopedic thumbnails I discovered mentioned nothing about cartoons.
In 1988 Steve Schneider published That's All Folks!—the first major monograph about classic Warner animation. The book included a full page about WB music director Carl Stalling's penchant for the "merry melodies" of Scott, who was, it turned out, in no way connected with cartoons. He didn't even watch them. Stalling, through a publisher's license, had adapted a dozen Scott titles in hundreds of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons in the 1940s and '50s. Scott's music thus became genetically encoded in every young earthling—few of whom knew the source.
My passion for Scott's music, fueled by the injustice that such a major figure could or should be overlooked, eventually led me to Scott himself. Once again Byron Werner was the conduit. He found Scott in, of all places, the Los Angeles telephone directory, living in Van Nuys. He called and talked to Scott's wife Mitzi, who explained that Raymond, his speech impaired by a 1987 stroke, could not carry on a conversation. She explained that Scott could no longer work and that their finances were desperate.
Werner passed along Scott's number, and after making initial contact with Mitzi in January 1991, I agreed to officially represent her husband's music and revive his deserving legacy. Ironically, this was the second catalytic instance of Scott's name being plucked out of a phonebook. Around 1934, Harry Warnow sought a musical nom-de-plume to differentiate himself from his then-famous older brother, orchestra conductor Mark Warnow. Harry told interviewers he selected the name "Raymond Scott" out of the Manhattan phone directory. He thought the moniker had "good rhythm."
Harry, Raymond, Mr. Scott—whatever. Happy one hundredth birthday. Let's get going on the next hundred years.