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ScottWorks: The Raymond Scott Festival


Jim Merlis
Big Hassle

Cory Councill
Big Hassle


Composer, bandleader, and inventor Raymond Scott (1908-1994) was once among the unheralded pioneers of contemporary experimental music, a figure whose genius and influence have seeped almost subliminally into the mass cultural consciousness. As a visionary whose name is largely unknown but whose music is immediately recognizable, Scott’s was a career stuffed with contradictions: though his early work anticipated the breathless invention of bebop, his obsession with perfectionism and memorization was the very antithesis of jazz’s improvisational ethos; though his best-known compositions remain at large thanks to their endless recycling as soundtracks for cartoons, he never once wrote a note expressly for animated use; and though his later experiments with electronic music pioneered the ambient aesthetic, the ambient concept itself was not introduced until a decade after the release of his original recordings.

Born Harry Warnow in Brooklyn on September 10, 1908, he was a musical prodigy, playing piano by the age of two. Following high school, he planned to study engineering, but his older brother Mark — himself a successful violinist and conductor — had other ideas, buying his sibling a Steinway Grand and persuading him to attend the Institute of Musical Art (a.k.a. the Juilliard School). After graduating in 1931, Scott — the pseudonym reportedly picked at random out of the Manhattan phone directory — signed on as a staff pianist with the CBS radio network house band conducted by his brother; finding the repertoire dull and uninspired, he began presenting his own compositions to his bandmates, and soon bizarre Scott originals like “Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs Upon Meeting with a Fare” began creeping into broadcasts.

Scott remained a member of the CBS band until 1936, at which time he convinced producer Herb Rosenthal to allow him to form his own group. He assembled a line-up comprised of fellow network veterans Lou Shoobe on bass, Dave Harris on tenor sax, Pete Pumiglio on clarinet, Johnny Williams on drums and the famed Bunny Berigan on trumpet, dubbing the group the Raymond Scott Quintette. They debuted on the Saturday Night Swing Session in late 1936 with the Scott tune “The Toy Trumpet.” The RSQ was an immediate hit with listeners, and Scott was offered a recording contract with the Master label. Dissent quickly broke out in the group’s ranks, however, as Scott’s obsessive practice schedule began to wear out his bandmates. Berigan soon quit, frustrated because the airtight compositions — never written down, taught and developed one oddball phrase at a time — allowed no room for improvisation. (He was replaced by Dave Wade.)

For all of Scott’s eccentricities, his records flew off the shelves, their dadaist titles (“Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Reckless Night on Board an Oceanliner” and “Boy Scout in Switzerland”), juxtaposed melodies, odd time signatures and quirky arrangements somehow connecting with mainstream American audiences. Hollywood soon came calling, with the Quintette performing music for (and sometimes appearing in) features such as Nothing Sacred (with Carole Lombard), Ali Baba Goes to Town (with Eddie Cantor) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (with Shirley Temple). Upon returning to New York, in 1938 Scott was tapped to become the CBS radio music director. Around the same time he expanded the Quintette to a big band, and by 1940 quit his network position to lead his ensemble on tour. He was invited to resume as Music Director at CBS in 1942, but balked at the network’s refusal to let him hire musicians regardless of race. Scott prevailed and hired the first racially-mixed studio orchestra in broadcast history.

In 1943, Warner Bros. bought the rights to Scott’s publishing, and cartoon music director Carl Stalling began quoting Scott’s melodies in his groundbreaking cut-and-paste cartoon soundtracks. RSQ favorites like the rollicking “Powerhouse” soon became recognizable for their regular appearances in classic Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig clips, the same music supporting the crazed antics of Ren & Stimpy and others half a century later. Indeed, generations upon generations of young viewers have received an unwitting introduction to avant-garde concepts through their repeated exposure to Scott and Stalling’s music, although none of the former’s compositions were written with cartoons in mind. By the time Warner Bros. began using Scott’s music on a regular basis in 1943, Scott had moved on to new projects, including a lucrative career authoring commercial jingles.

In 1945, Scott wrote incidental music for the Broadway production, Beggars Are Coming To Town; the year following, he teamed with lyricist Bernard Hanighen on the Broadway musical Lute Song (starring Mary Martin and Yul Brynner), which yielded another of his best known songs, “Mountain High, Valley Low.” Also in 1946, Scott founded Manhattan Research, the world’s first electronic music studio. Housing equipment including a Martenot, an Ondioline and a specially-modified Hammond organ, it was advertised as “the world’s most extensive facility for the creation of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete.” After his brother Mark’s 1949 death, Scott took over his duties as the bandleader on the syndicated radio favorite Your Hit Parade, with his second wife Dorothy Collins soon assuming the position as the program’s featured vocalist; that same year, he also scored theatrical productions of Peep Show and Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Of all of Scott’s accomplishments of 1949, however, none was more important than the Electronium, one of the first synthesizers ever created. An “instantaneous composing machine,” the Electronium generated original music via random sequences of tones, rhythms, and timbres; Scott himself denied it was a prototype synthesizer — it had no keyboard — but as one of the first machines to create music by means of artificial intelligence, its importance in pointing the way towards the electonic compositions of the future is undeniable. His other inventions included the “Karloff,” an early sampler capable of recreating sounds ranging from sizzling steaks to jungle drums; the Clavivox, a keyboard synthesizer complete with an electronic sub-assembly designed by a then 23-year-old Bob Moog; and the Videola, which fused together a keyboard and a TV screen to aid in composing music for films and other moving images.

In addition to hosting Your Hit Parade, Scott continued recording throughout the 1950s, issuing LPs including This Time with Strings, At Home with Dorothy and Raymond and Rock and Roll Symphony. Additionally, he cranked out advertising jingles at an astonishing rate, scored countless film and television projects and even founded a pair of record labels, Audivox and Master, while serving as A&R director for Everest Records. During the mid-’50s, Scott assembled a new Quintette; the 1962 edition of the group was its last. The year following, he began work on the three-volume LP set Soothing Sounds for Baby, an “aural toy” designed to create a comforting yet stimulating environment for infants. As electronic music produced to inspire and relax, the records fit snugly into the definition of ambient suggested by Brian Eno a decade later, their minimalist dreamscapes also predating Philip Glass and Terry Riley.

By the middle of the 1950s, Scott began turning increasingly away from recording and performing to focus on writing and inventing, with his remaining years spent solely on electronic composition. Among his innovations was an early programmable polyphonic sequencer, which along with the Electronium later caught the attention of Motown chief Berry Gordy Jr., who in 1971 tapped Scott to head the label’s electronic music research and development team. After retiring six years later, he continued writing — his last known piece, 1986’s “Beautiful Little Butterfly,” was created on MIDI technology. By 1992, Scott’s music was finally rediscovered by contemporary audiences, with the Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights compilation appearing to great acclaim; he died on February 8, 1994 at the age of 85.
– Jason Ankeny,

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