This Cat Could Groove…But for Real
Though he could not play a note, Gene Deitch Composed Pure Jazz Art.
by Alan Jacobson
As I sit here, whacking away at the keys, something just feels wrong. See, I just got through Gene Deitch’s The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove. You know, the swanky, new collection of Gene’s art for the first major jazz record concern, The Record Changer.
Wasn’t it any good? Well, it was excellent…great portrait of the times, the music, and the cat himself. Then why the wigged vibes, dad? Well, I think Mr. Deitch puts it well in his relatively new cartoon where our hero, the Cat, is staring at a monitor and raving about cross-referencing 21,000 trumpet breaks with an attempt at the same fervor of rants past about his indexed Hot Fives sides. See, things which are ironic are often funny. But in this case, the irony just seems to underscore how much soul the jazz collector has lost.
The music which the Cat gushed over for the five years directly following WWII was all about human expression (cat, after all, deriving from the West African word "Katta," meaning human); you see, it’s that feeling…all about heart and art. This is why I feel ridiculous tapping away at this sterile keyboard; yet much like the Cat attempting to cope with Bop and modems, we must soldier on.
Record collection was once a passion that arose from necessity. Means of reproduction were not yet in the hands of the consumer so the collector had to be meticulous. Needles had to be replaced after each play, or these precious shellac (a pre-vinyl composite made from beetles, among other materials) rarities would most certainly be savaged with little hope of ever hearing the tune, much less finding and cataloging it again.
The Record Changer developed as a direct response to this singularly eerie Zeitgeist jazz inspired. From its beginnings in the middle of 1941, as a stapled and Xeroxed newsletter featuring reviews and columns by noted future Jazz afficianados and label-starters, Orrin Keepnews (Riverside) and Nesuhi Ertegun (Atlantic) to its demise in 1956 (due to poor business decisions), the Changer evolved to a level of respect beyond reproach of even that rare bird, the jazz fanatic (to get an idea of this type, just imagine Maynard G. Krebs on a wicked caffeine high chasing you around your apartment while shattering all of your Glenn Miller records on your head).
Gene Deitch’s magnificently expressive covers and cartoons featuring the (just barely semi) autobiographical “Cat” helped The Changer reach its lofty status among budding jazz scholars and afficianados. An avid N’Orlean’s-style jazz collector himself, “it was a fanatic’s world, and I was one of the fanatics,” Deitch began the cartooning side of his illustrious career at the tender age of twenty as “the art department” of what was essentially the first Jazz review publication.
His career as an animator and scenarist would eventually contribute to his departure from the magazine. Mr. Deitch was a busy man. There was the concurrent work at Hollywood’s cutting-edge animation studio, UPA (Mr. Magoo). His celebrated animation for Captain Kangaroo and Tom & Jerry followed. Then there was the Oscar Deitch earned for his animated adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s remarkable Monroe strip, which led directly to a horde of accomplishments and a new home in Prague. But that’s another story, one told, in a sense, by his son Kim in 2000’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Gene Deitch’s The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove is as celebratory of the music as it is critical of the collector. This is what keeps the cartoons from becoming tired or de-rigueur. There is a lot of love here. For every cartoon that features The Cat admiring a groove while ignoring his curvaceous company, there is generous compensation in not only his other drawings, but even within the critical strips themselves. Note the style of August 1949’s cover, which lowers the color scheme to “orange” to focus our attention on a wooden level of abstraction as two bikinied women attempt to draw The Cat out of his Jazz-art-inspired stupor. The women look a bit confused, albeit marvelously rendered. But the bliss in simple posture, expression, and what we actually see steaming off of The Cat in a variety of “plewds” and “briffits” (I’ll explain later) come close to describing the much-described feeling of jazz (an Ellington song, by the way).
And, indeed, Deitch’s cartoons work both as abstract, (verging on) absurdist, expression and social comment. On the most obvious level, he’s talking about the music and how it affects a fan. But on a more subtle level, we see Deitch digging into how this revolution at 78 RPM affects others. Check out the briffits launching out of his son’s (now blown) mind as The Cat regales him with a bedtime story from the Louis Armstrong tribute issue of July-August 1950. Or on a heavier level of social commentary, let’s take a look at September 1947’s cover, where the stage and area behind the fence do equal work to imprison a few black people. Swarming freely about the rest of the page are whites, dancing and living the high life. Or bring it down a notch, to where The Cat, on the couch for his record affliction (May, 1949) sees indeed, the face of Mr. Gillespie, on his therapist. Gene Deitch’s book works on so many levels. The art is fantastic, the humor wry, the jazz is actively beloved, but there’s an awful lot to chew on in every piece of work here.
Now I had settled in with this splendid keepsake (nice merge of form and content, that!) with Cannonball Adderly’s Somethin’ Else (featuring what must be the most lovely trumpet solo ever recorded by Miles Davis--in a rare appearance as sideman) on the stereo, a cup of joe providing the rarified misty atmosphere, and the feeling that I was in for something both relaxing and stimulating—like good jazz. As I reposed, soaking in on the je-ne-sais-quois-de-jazz, it occurred to me why those in the Jazz field dug (to use the vernacular) Abstract Expressionistic art. The art is like the jazz, an expression of what is inside, yet not particularly easy to put into words…so you blow, man, blow! You have the frame, being the beginning and end of the song, and inside, at its most abstract, anything goes—see Eric Dolphy’s truly "Out to Lunch" for the paradigm. Also, take Dave Brubeck’s Time Out with its abstract expressionistic cover painting signifying the adventurous innards of that particular sleeve.
There is a confrontationally otherworldly quality to this art style, almost maddening (it is strangely fitting that abstract art was hung in prisoners’ cells as a form of torture at one point in history). Although Gene Deitch’s The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove was inspired more by Dippermouth Blues than the new sounds of Davis and his contemporaries, it still possesses a lot of the feel of the new in its inspired abstraction and hyper-artistic expression. This is evident from Deitch’s very first cover for The Record Changer with its wild James Flora (cover artist for Columbia at the time, and friend of Deitch’s) inspired cubism and use of “plewds and briffits,” the Flora-inspired flowers, stars, and jacks we see spilling from the enthused, nay possessed, man-machine of record changer personified.
See, no record collector in his right mind would use an actual record changer for the risk of potential damage to his records; sure you could hear the generous 30 minutes of ten songs in a row instead of one at three minutes (no more, and often fading right as the platter ran out of space due to size restrictions on length—this is why pop songs are the length they are), but was it worth it? Of course not. This was the assumption inherent and esprit-de-corps in the rag which began the published jazz review and provided a space and launching-pad for one of the finest animators…and as this exquisite volume shows, for just a short time, one of our preeminent and most unique cartoonists as well.
Recontextualized for the present in a truly loving volume, I now feel that the Cat may have been dead-on in that cartoon with the trumpet break database since, like it must have been at the advent of Bop (another subtle meaning added to the aforementioned Gillespie cartoon), we must acclimatize in order to continue to experience art to the fullest without going crazy in the process. Learning to live with and appreciate the latest is what it is all about; now, aren’t you glad you know what plewds and briffits are? Accept and adapt without trepidation, or else everyone around you will begin to look just like Maynard G. Krebs.