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Cartoon Music, Yiddish-Jazz Style

Cartoon Music, Yiddish-Jazz Style

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

She was a devilishly curvy flapper who favored low-cut dresses with short skirts, and hot jazz tunes. He was an old salt with massive tattooed forearms, a taste for greens and a penchant for over-the-top violence. But they seldom met, until now.

It took guitar wizard Gary Lucas to reunite Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man, as incarnated in the groundbreaking cartoons of Max and Dave Fleischer.

“I knew I would do this someday,” Lucas said with a satisfied chuckle. “I knew it when I was growing up in Syracuse.”

His dream project “Fleischerei,” a concert of music drawn from the cartoons or inspired by them, will have its premiere Saturday, Nov. 15 at BAM (BAMCafé, Peter Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Ave., bam/org). But its roots in classic cinema go back to Lucas’ undergraduate days at Yale and even earlier.

Speaking by telephone from Mexico City where he was preparing for a couple of concerts last week, Lucas explained, “When I was at Yale I ran a horror film series and we used to show the Boop cartoons [before the features]. The early ones are super trippy and surrealist, but with a very gritty New York Jewish urban sensibility. They used lot of jazz, played by New York jazz musicians, plus they had access to Paramount recording artists like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.”

When you add the fact that the Fleischer brothers were hard-nosed Jewish kids who had their roots in Krakow (where Max, the second oldest of six kids was born) and the Vienna of their father’s youth, and their formative years here, you end up with had a uniquely Yiddish-mit-jazz sensibility.

“That’s my sensibility,” Lucas said proudly. “Their cartoons influenced people like [acclaimed cartoonist/musician] R. Crumb.”

Max and Dave, who ran the Fleischer Brothers studio, were second only to Walt Disney in the aristocracy of film animation, offering a sophisticated, urbane and earthy alternative to the Midwestern, middle-class conformism preached by Mickey Mouse, et al. But for the penny-pinching interference of Paramount executives, whose studio linked up with the brothers in the early ’30s, the Fleischers would very likely have become as powerful a force in animated film as their rival.

As it is, Max’s technical genius kept them a step ahead of Disney for a while, regardless of the disparity in funds. Max’s background in engineering, combined with his abilities as a cartoonist, enabled him to produce numerous patents, most prominently for the Rotoscope in 1915, a device that simplified the process of animating motion by tracing frames of filmed live action. Although many people mistakenly identify Disney’s 1928 “Steamboat Willie” as the first sound cartoon, Fleischer created a series of sing-a-long cartoons a year earlier, working with sound film pioneer Dr. Lee DeForest.

“I did a lot of research to find out as much as I could about the Fleischers and their studio,” Lucas said. “In their heyday, they were located at 1600 Broadway and they were a lively Manhattan-based business.”

Lucas happily immersed himself in the cartoons, looking for music and inspiration that he could put before a six-person band composed of seasoned New York jazz players and singer Sarah Stiles, a Broadway performer and Off-Broadway musical comedy star.

“I’m just so fond of this music,” Lucas said. “I was looking for material that was tuneful and engaging, with the most interesting structures and chord changes. It was labor-intensive but it was a labor of love.”

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