Swinging the clouds away: ‘Sesame Street’ and all that jazz

Before he became the first musical director of “Sesame Street,” Joe Raposo used to make ends meet by performing at jazz venues around Boston, accompanying on piano such legends as Ella Fitzgerald. When the children’s show went on the air in 1969, Raposo made sure the show offered a diverse mix of musical genres, reflecting the show’s overall theme of encouraging diversity. And the show enriched children’s lives with music they might not have heard anywhere else.

Raposo had a special proclivity for jazz—and that was apparent when he composed the instrumental version of the show’s theme song, “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?,” used for the closing credits.

The harmonica player below is the Belgian jazz legend Toots Thielemans, who was the first to use the mouth harp to play complex bebop lines. Thielemans performed and recorded with jazz stars, such as Bennie Goodman and Charlie Parker, and led his own band. 

Here’s Toots briefly performing the “Sesame Street” theme at the start of a guest appearance on saxophonist David Sanborn’s TV show “Night Music” in 1990.

And when he formed the show’s house band, Raposo called on jazz bassist Bob Cranshaw, whose other main longtime gig was with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ quartet. “We had a ball,” Cranshaw was quoted as saying in a eulogy posted after his death in 2016, on Allegro, the website of the New York chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. “Over the years at ‘Sesame Street,’ when Joe would write a lead sheet, he never wrote a bass part. He knew I could hear the bass parts on my own.” 

Here’s the “Sesame Street” house band, with Cranshaw on electric bass and Raposo on keyboards, accompanying bluesman B.B. King as he sings the alphabet and counts to 10 in his own style in a 1984 episode.

And the show introduced its young viewers to some jazz legends. They included pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (1975), who engaged some kids in scat singing, and drummer Max Roach (2000), a seminal figure in the bebop movement, who counted off drum beats with The Count. If only there were quality videos of these appearances.

Bandleader and singer Cab Calloway, who was known for his trademark “hi-de-hi-de-hi” scat chorus, had performed everywhere from Betty Boop cartoons in the 1930s to the 1980 comedy film classic “The Blues Brothers.”

In 1981, he strutted his way through “The Hi-De-Ho Man,” engaging in call-and-response with some Muppets. Singer Norah Jones, who at the time was only two years old, recalled to The New York Times that this was “definitely the first time I saw any jazz musicians.”

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, one of the founding fathers of bebop, performed his 1957 tune “Birks Works” to an admiring audience of children and cast members in 1984.                        .

In 1983, cast member Maria brought the “Sesame Street” kids to Herbie Hancock’s studio, where the keyboard player showed just what kind of sounds he could get out of his Fairlight CMI synthesizer,  sampling the voice of a little girl. The girl’s name should be familiar—Tatyana Ali, who would later go on to star with Will Smith on the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” After his guests left, Hancock performed his own version of the “Sesame Street Theme” on the synthesizer.

In a more traditional vein, pop-jazz vocalist Tony Bennett sang a parody of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon” called “Slimey to the Moon” as part of a 1998 story arc about Oscar the Grouch’s pet worm making a trip to the moon.

And Latin Jazz was not overlooked, either. Percussionist Ray Barretto, a legend in Latin Jazz and salsa music, presented a demonstration in 1977 of sounds from the bongos, timbales, and conga drums.

Bandleader Tito Puente, known for his blending of jazz and Latin sounds, even got Oscar the Grouch dancing when he played timbales on his mambo song “Ran-Kan-Kan” in a 1993 episode.

But “Sesame Street” really got swinging with the arrival in 1985 of Hoots the Owl, its resident jazz-musician Muppet, who played the sax and did some jive talking in a gravelly voice. Hoots led his own Muppet jazz band and taught Ernie what he needed to do if he wanted to play the saxophone in this 1986 episode.

In another 1986 episode, Hoots thought he could teach Wynton Marsalis a thing or two about jazz, but the owl was outmatched in their musician’s duel until he did something the trumpeter couldn’t do. He flapped his wings and flew away while playing the saxophone. “They never taught us that in music school,” Marsalis quipped.

And in 1987, when Hoots opened Birdland, the world’s only jazz club that welcomed kids and Muppets, jazz stars flocked to perform there. Birdland bore the name of an actual famed New York jazz club where Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Miles Davis, Count Basie, and other jazz greats performed from 1949 through 1965.

Appropriately, the first guest at the “Sesame Street” club was Joe Williams, who performed at the original Birdland when he was the male vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra during the 1950s. Williams performed “Birdland Jump,” a “Sesame Street” song composed by Christopher Cerf.

And then in 1991, Birdland offered a double-bill of Wynton Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin. The trumpeter played an oft-performed “Sesame Street” standard “No Matter What Your Language,” written by Jeff Moss, in 1972. McFerrin did a wordless call-and-response scat song with the audience.

And Wynton’s brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, also had a date in 1991 at Birdland where he traded riffs in a duet with Hoots on “Listen and Bounce It Back,” a “Sesame Street” song composed by Stephen Lawrence.

Hoots was retired as a character in the late 2000s, but the owl came back in a big way in October 2019, when Wynton Marsalis invited the “Sesame Street” Muppets and Muppeteers to his “House of Swing” at Jazz at Lincoln Center for a “Swingin’ Sesame Street Celebration” of the show’s 50th anniversary.

The concert featured brand-new arrangements of classic “Sesame Street” songs, written by members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, including trumpeter Kenny Rampton, also a member of the TV show’s house band. And, of course, it began with a New Orleans-style version of the “Sesame Street Theme,” with a tuba doubling on the bass line. 

And on “Elmo’s Song,” the lovable red monster added a new verse dedicated to Marsalis.

The concert ended with all the Muppets and Muppeteers on stage with the orchestra to perform Raposo’s best-known song, “Sing,” closing with the Muppets parading down the aisles as the audience sang along.  

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