The Queen’s Cartoonists can make a jazz lover out of anyone

Musicians on an ornate stage, gathered around a small Christmas tree
The Queen’s Cartoonists perform a holiday show at La Jolla Music Society.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Music Society / photo by Lauren Desberg)

New York-based Queen’s Cartoonists’ mission is to get young people to appreciate and enjoy jazz music


Hey, kids! Do you like jazz music?

As Joel Pierson can attest, most young people would say they do not like jazz or classical music — genres that seem inaccessible, out-of-date or stuffy. That’s why he formed The Queen’s Cartoonists, a live band that plays music synchronized to classic and contemporary animation.

“There’s a lot of stigma against jazz and classical music,” he says. “There’s this sense of ‘Oh, that’s not for me’ or ‘it’s too complicated’ and I don’t think that’s true. I think we just need the right kind of exposure. You know, cartoons were created introducing classical music to people — everyone learned some Wagner and Rossini from Bugs Bunny and that kind of stuff. So I thought maybe I could do that with musicians and a band.”

So in 2015, while living in New York, Pierson created The Queen’s Cartoonists with the goal of educating and preserving the art of jazz.

To make these concerts more accessible, cartoons are screened at each Queen’s Cartoonists show, and the musicians synchronize their performances to the films. Sometimes, like in the case of vintage Betty Boop, the soundtrack is recreated note for note. If the band’s working with contemporary animation, Pierson will write completely new music to fit the mood.

The result is an interactive, multi-generational concert that, at most, may convert young people into jazz fans and, at least, will keep them engaged for a night. Plus, he points out, younger audiences bring a different energy to a theater that older audiences don’t often experience.

“One of our missions as a band is to actually try to get young people into the concert hall and into theaters,” Pierson says. “If you ever go to these types of concerts, there tends to be an older crowd. That’s because older people have the time and the money, and the programming sort of skews older as well. So you have this cycle of arts organizations having a hard time getting younger people in.

Our concert that we’re presenting is not at all geared toward children or high schoolers, but they’ll enjoy it just as much as the adults because of the video component, and there’s humor and comedy that we do. And so it’s just very important that we’re always trying to appeal to everybody at once.”

The band’s mission to expose new audiences to jazz extends beyond live performances.

In San Diego, the musicians have paired with La Jolla Music Society as education ambassadors, participating in community outreach activities.

The Queen’s Cartoonists will have a master class for Mission Bay High School’s Preservationists jazz ensemble and invite the students on stage during the 3 p.m. show. The Queen’s Cartoonists will also perform La Jolla Music Society’s first student matinee, which will be live streamed for other schools to watch for free.

Making the band

When it came to his own introduction to jazz and classical music, Pierson did it the old-fashioned way: piano lessons. The more he learned music, the more Pierson noticed it everywhere — especially in cartoons from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

But putting together a program around cartoons wasn’t as easy as he imagined.

Pierson, who has a doctorate in music composition, had to transcribe cartoon soundtracks by ear because there wasn’t a lot of pre-existing sheet music. He also had to arrange the compositions for a band and then rehearse. Also, everything the band plays is memorized so that the performances can have a more theatrical feel.

“You wouldn’t go see a musical and have the actors reading from a script,” Pierson says. “I like to feature musicians in a way that they normally wouldn’t. For example, I have a clarinet player — I would bet that most people have never seen a clarinet player live, ever, unless it’s their kids elementary school band or something.

“But it didn’t used to be that way, right? Benny Goodman and these guys were really famous clarinet players 60 years ago. So I want my guys to not feel they have to wear all black and hide in a pit like they do for a lot of gigs. They can be out front and showcase their skills and a lot of people will respond to it — partially because it’s mixed with the films, so you’re not just watching a clarinet player for two hours. But there’s moments that really highlight the musicians. So hopefully after the concert someone will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I like the clarinet so much.’”

It took about a year of rehearsals before The Queen’s Cartoonists had all the pieces together for its first public performance. At first the group performed in clubs around New York City, but soon shifted to music halls and theaters to give the music a grander feeling.

Now the band performs throughout the country and even internationally in Germany and Austria.

Saturday’s La Jolla Music Society concert is actually a special performance featuring holiday-themed cartoons and music. And along with regular band members — Rossen Nedelchev, Drew Pitcher, Greg Hammontree, Mark Phillips and Malik McLaurine — Pierson’s wife Tara Khaler will be singing.

But whether it’s Bugs Bunny or Frosty the Snowman, Pierson just hopes audiences leave with a new outlook and appreciation of jazz.

“Jazz music used to be very popular and now it’s very unpopular,” he says. “But I still think that it’s part of the American identity and part of our culture. And I do think that people enjoy it, they just need the right kind of exposure. We’re not going to play really wild jazz that’s going to isolate the audience ... we want to make it palatable. I just want to bring the music to as many people as we can.”

La Jolla Music Socity presents The Queen’s Cartoonists

When: 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: $31 to $75

Phone: (858) 459-3728