Disney and Jazz: A Celebration

 (A version of this article previously appeared on the Celebrations Magazine Blog)

The great Wynton Marsalis once said, “Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.” 

In a way, the quote reminds me of Walt Disney’s speech on the opening of Disneyland. He said, “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America…with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” While he was describing his theme park, he could have been discussing jazz, an art born of joy and suffering, struggle and passion, a marriage of ideals that recognize that we haven’t reached the promised land yet, but we can see it in the distance and will continue striving toward it. 

The world of Disney has been blessed by the sound of jazz, from it’s earliest cartoons to films like Pixar’s Soul. To celebrate the relationship, let’s take a look at a few of the best examples of times that Disney and Jazz intersected.

Soul exhibit in Epcot

Pixar’s Soul

In 2020, Disney and Pixar released the animated film Soul, directed by Peter Docter and starring Jamie Foxx. The movie, which would go on to win two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, tells the story of jazz pianist Joe Gardner. 

While the story is a work of fiction, Gardner was inspired by a real-life music teacher from Queens named Dr. Peter Archer. 

The score was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with original jazz numbers contributed by Jon Batiste – a Grammy award-winning pianist and the bandleader on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. 

To ensure accuracy the film team consulted with legendary musicians like Herbie Hancock and even studied Batiste’s hands while playing piano as a reference for animating the sequences of Gardner performing. 

Following the release of the film, an exhibit titled “The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure” was opened in Epcot, providing Guests a view of jazz history, along with artifacts such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Charlie Parker’s saxophone, and Gene Krupa’s drum sticks.

Disney Songs the Satchmo Way

Disney Songs the Satchmo Way

From 1960 to 1970, Disneyland held an event known as ‘Dixieland at Disneyland.’ It featured live music and a Mardi Gras parade. The great Louis Armstrong performed at the event, and also appeared in the 1962 World of Color Episode “Disneyland After Dark.” You can still find recordings of it online, and it’s a treat to see Armstrong performing aboard the Mark Twain riverboat alongside singer Monette Moore.

In 1968, Armstrong released the album “Disney Songs the Satchmo Way”. In a 2021 article by Indiana Public Media, it was noted that this album was personally commissioned by Walt Disney. The record included performances of songs like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “The Bare Necessities.” 

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins

In the history of jazz, there are few figures who can stand side by side with a performer like Louis Armstrong. The great Duke Ellington is among their number, a true titan who revolutionized music, and whose influence can still be felt nearly half a century after his passing. 

The composer of such standards as “Take the A Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Ellington released “Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins” in 1964, featuring arrangements of the classic Sherman Brothers compositions. 

A review in the Jazz Times raves, “Any Ellington fan is justifiably excited by the maestro’s own writing, but it would be a crime to neglect his gift for making other composers’ work his own.”

Saludos Amigos

The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos

The “Soul of Jazz” exhibit in Epcot featured information on several key cities in the evolution of jazz, including New York City, New Orleans, and San Juan in Puerto Rico. In an article about the display, Disney Public Relations Manager Sarah Domenech wrote, “Another pivotal city in the development of jazz, New Orleans, was heavily influenced by its Latin neighbors to the south, including Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. From this cross-cultural exchange emerged a colorful style of jazz music, with distinctly Latin rhythms. In the jazz world, this sound is lovingly known as ‘the Spanish Tinge.’ ”

Disney gave the world a joyous celebration of this musical tradition in their films The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. The song “Baia” (originally titled Na Baixa do Sapatiero), a samba number, was performed in The Three Caballeros and “Aquerelo do Brasil” appeared in Saludos Amigos. The latter would become a smash hit, performed by musicians like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Django Reinhardt. The Mexican bolero “Solamente Una Vez” also appeared in The Three Caballeros and would go on to become a success in English as “You Belong to My Heart,” performed by artists like Nat King Cole. 

Lady and the Tramp

He’s A Tramp

For over seven decades, Peggy Lee entertained audiences as a jazz vocalist and songwriter. She sang with Benny Goodman’s big band and had hits with songs like “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “Fever.” Over the course of her career, she recorded over 1,000 songs and composed over 270.

For Disney fans, she is best known as the singer and co-writer of the song “He’s a Tramp,” the slinky jazz number performed by the dog Peg in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp. Lee also co-wrote the other originals songs featured in the movie, such as “Bella Notte.” 

Firehouse Five Plus Two

The Firehouse Five Plus Two

Dixieland jazz began in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, blending ragtime and Sicilian influences into a toe-tapping explosion of musical joy.

The Firehouse Five Plus Two was a Dixieland band composed of Disney animators Ward Kimball, Harper Goff, Frank Thomas, and others. It seems that Kimball came up with the idea while chatting with other members of the animation department about their shared love of jazz. 

Over the years, they recorded numerous albums and appeared in Disney television specials like “One Hour in Wonderland.” Animated versions of the band can even be spotted in the 1953 Goofy cartoon How to Dance. 

Walt himself was a fan of the group and had them perform regularly at company events and at Disneyland.

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog

Set in the birthplace and cradle of jazz, The Princess and the Frog is a gorgeous celebration of the Big Easy, music, good food, and the gumbo melting pot that is Louisiana culture. The film’s opening number, “Down In New Orleans,” was performed by legendary pianist and New Orleans native Dr. John. The character of Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator, sings about his love of musicians like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bichet, dreaming of the day he can play in a band like the “big boys.” 

The movie also pays tribute to other musical forms, such as zydeco (in the song “Gonna Take You There”) and gospel (“Dig a Little Deeper”), which have influenced and been influenced by jazz music. 

There are numerous other examples of how Disney has helped celebrate the wonder that is jazz, from the hip, swinging music of The Aristocats, to the elegance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue featured in Fantasia 2000. It can even be found in Disney’s earliest days, through animated shorts like 1929’s Mickey Mouse short The Jazz Fool. It’s a rich relationship that is a gift to fans of music, animation, and the Disney parks.   

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