Most big bands’ set lists include tunes like “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Jeff Sanford’s jazz band does the Flintstones theme and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”
That’s because Sanford prefers toon tunes. The Redwood City resident is the founder of Cartoon Jazz Orchestra, a Bay Area ensemble that performs the merry melodies heard in America’s animated classics, from Bugs to Bart.
The Jewish saxophonist put together his 13-piece orchestra back in 2005. They’ve played all over the region and recorded a CD. The song titles — “Huckleberry Duck,” “Twilight in Turkey,” “Powerhouse” — may not sound familiar, but the motifs sure will.
Sanford and his orchestra mainly play the music of Raymond Scott, the man responsible for many famous music cues heard in cartoons from the 1930s on. Born Harry Warnow (Jewish, of course), Scott forever influenced the frenetic hyper-percussive style so typical of cartoon music.
“Raymond Scott would not watch cartoons,” says Sanford of the Julliard-trained composer-turned-jazz musician, who sold the rights to his melodies to Warner Bros. and other animators of the last century. Scott died in 1994, but his music lives on.
Growing up in Queens, N.Y., Sanford remembers loving Scott’s music and cartoons. “I always related it to fun and being a kid,” he says. It wasn’t long before he began taking clarinet lessons, eventually adding saxophone and other woodwinds. He became an accomplished jazz musician while still in his teens. By 20, he had come to California to pursue music professionally.
Though proudly Jewish, Sanford says he got scant Jewish education as a kid. He remembers his father making him an offer: Young Jeff could have a bar mitzvah or he could go to Puerto Rico.
But one Jewish cultural artifact that stuck was the music.
“Eastern European music is soul music to me,” he says. “I once saw Michael Tilson-Thomas talk about his background. He explained how the blues scale and the Jewish music scale have the same intervals, the same notes. Gershwin was all over that.”
He rediscovered the music of Scott a few years ago after hearing “Bug Music,” a jazz CD that pays homage to the master composer. “I heard that and was inspired to put my own band together.”
From there, he went on a scavenger hunt, seeking out Scott’s music. He found copies of original charts and orchestrations in the dusty archives of Oakland’s Paramount Theater. From there, he called on the expertise of the region’s best jazz players (several of them Jewish).
“The showmanship comes down to the doubling,” he says, referring to how he and his players sub out various instruments, even during a single song. “It’s almost acrobatic. The physical execution of the tunes is a big deal. You have to be healthy.”
In addition to his Cartoon Orchestra, Sanford also plays with numerous local bands, including Joel Abramson’s popular wedding and bar mitzvah band, klezmer ensembles and the Martini Brothers, a cool jazz combo that performs regularly at Le Colonial restaurant in S.F.
But of all the projects in his multipart musical life, the Cartoon Orchestra is Sanford’s pet project. Still, he is quick to add, it is also “the losing-money part.”
“Jeff Sanford’s Cartoon Jazz Orchestra: Live at Pearl’s” is available on Amazon.com or at www.sanfordjazz.com.