“Simpsons” creator Matt Groening on his Qwest TV jazz video playlist

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“Can we go deep into the dark, or do we have to stay mainstream? “

When Matt Groening asks this question, the invitation is tantalizing to consider. In this case, Groening is talking about jazz, and more specifically his new partnership with Quincy Jones’ music video hub, Qwest TV. His mission for Qwest was an organized video playlist revealing jazz influences crucial for Groening – personally, professionally and for “The Simpsons,” most famous in saxophone characters such as Bleeding Gums Murphy and Homer’s precocious daughter Lisa Simpson.

Jones’ streaming channel features a plethora of rarely seen music-related concerts, documentaries, interviews and archive films. Groening’s playlist ranges from “mainstream” names such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus to the “avant-garde” tastes of saxophonists Moondog and Archie Shepp and pianist Carla Bley.

“When I was asked to do it, the first thing I did was make half of my list obscure and the other half of artists that most people had heard of,” says Groening, the beloved animator / creator of the “Life in Hell” comic. strip, the decades-long Fox series “The Simpsons” and “Disenchantment” for adults on Netflix.

Its organized film festival is available exclusively on Qwest TV from October 27. In keeping with Qwest TV’s mantra, Groening’s curated film list shines a light on a genre-less future where the world’s best music is on a stage. Called the “Netflix of jazz” by BBC Radio 3, Qwest TV, which opened in December 2017, is a subscription video-on-demand platform dedicated to curious music far beyond jazz, as it touches on world, R&B and more.

Groening spoke to Variety while finishing an episode of “Disenchantment” for its next season.

Variety: When it comes to you and jazz, one can’t help but look at your saxophone creations Lisa Simpson and Bleeding Gums Murphy. You were quoted in an Entertainment Weekly interview in 1991 as saying that you gave a sensitive Lisa a sax to resolve her anxiety and channel her emotions. But in 1996, in the New York Times, you said it was just fun to give an eight-year-old a sax.

Groening: A baritone saxophone to play. I love jazz and thought it would be humorous, in a lively performance, to give a young girl the talent to play the horn Gerry Mulligan style. A big saxophone that honks. I also thought it would be cool to have a different sax solo during the end credits. It was vetoed, but we have something at the top, a little bit of solo, played by the “studio musician available that day”. Mark Mothersbaugh does a theme song which is an Eastern European marching band klezmer with accordions and tubas, and we have these different types of open and close solos that I always wanted for “The Simpsons”.

What about Murphy’s bleeding gums? Legend based it on Sonny Rollins, but I’ve always found it closer to Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Murphy is a combination of all the blues guys with a funny name. I am also a big fan of Kirk. When I was a teenager I went to a second hand bookstore and found a copy of his “Rip, Rig and Panic”. I bought it because the cover art looked cool, but the music blew me away. From there, I took avant-garde jazz to the max – at least to the level of a Portland teenager.

You moved away from more mainstream jazz at that time.

I did. From there it was Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman… all weirdos. I did find, however, that you didn’t have to punish yourself every step of the way, and I also found some sympathetic horn players like Mulligan. I discovered swing players, trumpeters like Miles Davis and Roy Eldridge, and even their elders like Bix Beiderbecke, and 1920s jazz – cartoon music.

If you’re talking about cartoon jazz, you’re probably also a fan of Carl Stalling from Looney Tunes and John Zorn’s curation of that music.

I was so in Carl Stalling that I recorded his soundtracks while they were on television. There’s nothing quite like driving in Los Angeles, with the top down, and playing that music loudly while being stuck at an intersection. People are watching. Zorn made several compilations of this music and even created several pieces with string quartets that used the musical language of Stalling. I played a lot of weird music for my kids, but the only thing they ever asked me to take off was Zorn’s Stalling-inspired music (“The String Quartets” from Zorn’s Tzadik label, 1999). I contacted Zorn for “The Simpsons” to see if he would be a part of the soundtrack. He sent me a tape of his cartoon music. I played it for my collaborators, and they… balked. I realized then that most people don’t like skronky and crazy music. They want a melody and a nice tone… That said, I get current pop songs for scenes from “The Simpsons” all the time, and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Loving jazz, loud and not loud, is not like listening to loud rock or rap when you were a child. Were your parents cool with this? Could you share some jazz with your weirdest young friends?

In high school, my best buddy, Richard Gehr, the musical author, and I got to share our love of avant-garde jazz, Zappa and Captain Beefheart around school – the darker the better. My dad loved 1920s jazz, Paul Whiteman, real cornball stuff and really cheesy 1940s Hawaiian music. I grew up with a lot of 78 year olds.

Was your Zappa and Beefheart fandom the gateway to avant-garde jazz, or vice versa?

I would say simultaneously. I also discovered Stravinsky around the same time – a two-handed piano version of “The Rite of Spring”. This completely changed my life. I realized that there was more to do with the music beyond the melody and the arrangements. You can also organize it by rhythm. That was the appeal of Zappa and Beefheart: their use of unconventional rhythms. By extension, I got into jazz.

The concert at Qwest TV: how does the conversation start?

I stumbled across Qwest TV on my own and was very excited by the idea, the wide range of music they had. Then I was called out of the blue and asked to make my own video playlist. Completely unexpected. And I’m proud to be the only non-musician among all their curators. There is hip-hop, bebop and African music. They have two videos of the Meridian Brothers from Bogota, which I now have on my list. It turns out the Brothers are just one guy, someone who makes classical electronic music and applies it to Colombian cumbia. It’s incredible.

Knowing your passion for the avant-garde, did you feel compelled to include more conventional artists like Ray Charles on your video list? It’s prime stuff, like you include Ray at Antibes Jazz Fest in 1961 with the Count Basie Orchestra, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

My goal is not to scare people. I didn’t want everything to be mysterious and intimidating. Listen, every time I do an interview around my musical tastes, I tell them “Trout Mask Replica” by Beefheart, Romanian marching band music and the Beatles, and the author only mentions the Beatles in the story. This Qwest TV list of mine is my complete mix – so much of what I love, music and videos that have personal meaning to me. Like, I saw Clark Terry in college, and I always admired him. It’s more traditional than most of my choices. Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin is here, and he has made the best instrumental reggae music ever. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross? I love their album “Sing a Song of Basie” and had never seen them play before.

Which is exactly one of the most important things about Qwest TV’s existence. Most of the players are gone. Many of the old masters of jazz and the avant-garde have rarely been seen, so these videos are a testament to their genius.

Qwest TV draws the curtain. Many of these older representations are, at least in the United States, extremely rare. If you see them, it’s fleetingly via brief YouTube clips, rather than these sold-out concerts. You can see how well the musicians have done this.

Has there ever been a thought on the topicality of social problems or causes? You include a somewhat recent saxophonist concert Archie Shepp made “Attica Blues”, which – when it was first released in 1972 – was one of the first musical expressions of protest against prison reform.

Many of the issues surrounding systemic racism that we are aware of now, at least in recent years, were raised by many avant-garde musicians some time ago, Shepp in particular. “Attica Blues” is a landmark.

What connects the dots on your Qwest TV list, and what does that list say about you that your vision of “The Simpsons” or “Disenchantment” cannot?

So many of these artists represent a lack of compromise and dedication to a vision without softening the edges. I also have a predilection for melodic invention combined with various deviations. A lot of artists are also a little crazy: whatever they hear in their head, they have to do it. I still think of myself as a commercial artist working in the television industry, which must be very uninhibiting. So it’s fun for me to listen to adventurous, uncompromising artists and musicians doing whatever they want to do – and I can share this Love here.


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