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Gene Deitch: The Pen Behind 'The Cat'

By Published: October 1, 2003

I recognized in myself, and the other hard-core traditional jazz/blues/folk record collectors around me, a lot of potential fun.

You'll usually find one unsung person, or more, standing behind a legendary 'jazz cat.' In the case of 'the Cat,' the subject of witty comic illustrations that enlivened the classic jazz aficionados' and collectors' magazine the Record Changer published from 1941 until 1957, that person standing behind 'the Cat' is artist Gene Deitch.

Gene Deitch claims a body of work that anchors a significant cornerstone for modern illustration and animation. His animated films for children have earned more than 150 awards, including the Best Cartoon Short Academy Award for his 1960 adaptation of Jules Feiffer's story Munro. TV commercials featuring Deitch's animation were the first ever shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Deitch also worked as assistant production designer on the first Mister Magoo cartoons for Columbia studios, and created Tom Terrific, the first animated serial for network television.

Deitch was, is, and most likely will always be, a serious jazz head too. In 1945, at the age of twenty and deeply devoted to the classic New Orleans jazz sound of Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and Sidney Bechet, he sent some drawings to the Record Changer, a publication with sale/swap listings and articles for 78 RPM jazz record collectors. Deitch the illustrator quickly blossomed in this and other jazz niche publications. His work for the Record Changer (every cover he drew for the monthly publication from 1945 ' '51 and all of his magazine interior cartoons) plus his work for Storyville (the British equivalent of the Changer ), Tailgate Ramblings magazine, and one of his two covers for The Index to Jazz, are now all compiled in a bright, oversized anthology called Cat on a Hot Thin Groove.

In his 'Notes From the Author' preface to Cat', Deitch explains his trademark character's genesis and revelation: 'If you listen to early Louis Armstrong records, he frequently refers to his musicians and listeners as 'cats.' A white guy earned the title 'CAT' either by playing or listening to righteous jazz, and that's exactly my 'CAT'!'

As the 1950s turned into the '60s, Deitch struck a deal with Rembrandt Films producer William L. Snyder: Snyder would finance Deitch's treatment of 'Munro' if Deitch agreed to do the work at Snyder's production facility. This site turned out to be in Prague, the capital of communist Czechoslovakia. Before beginning work, Deitch insisted that both parties agree to a contract guaranteeing that Deitch would not have to stay in Prague longer than ten days. Forty-two years later, Deitch is still in Prague, with his wife and colleague of four decades, Zdenka, an animation producer he met at this studio.

A typical Deitch Record Changer cartoon from December 1945 displays one record collector complaining to another, 'Here I had a complete collection and then what happens ' they have to go an' discover Bunk Johnson!' If this is your idea of humor, you'll discover a fun read in Cat on a Hot Thin Groove.

AAJ: What inspired you to create the character the Cat?
GD: I recognized in myself, and the other hard-core traditional jazz/blues/folk record collectors around me, a lot of potential fun. I was just starting to have to wear glasses, and wore the heavy dark plastic frames of the time, so I soon had a trademark visual idea for the character.

AAJ: How did the Cat best capture the spirit of jazz of its time?
GD: We're talking of traditional jazz record COLLECTORS, and we lived in a world of our own, not necessarily reflecting the jazz of the time, which was mainly big-band swing. We were trying to hold back the changing of jazz. We wanted to set jazz clock back to the mid 1920s! That was the only 'pure' and righteous jazz as far as we were concerned!

AAJ: Did you have any formal art training prior to joining the Record Changer ?
GD: Not really. I always drew. I majored in art in high school, and did some weekend life drawing at the Choinard Art Institute in LA, and also took a short course in mechanical drawing at Frank Wiggins Industrial Arts school. That was about it.

AAJ: How did you first become associated with the Record Changer ?
GD: I picked up a copy at the Jazz Man Record Shop, which was within walking distance of my house in West Hollywood. The magazine was smaller, and was mainly full of listings of 78RPM shellac jazz records wanted, or for sale or trade. There were a few articles and some photos, and some interesting cover drawings. I quickly got the idea that it needed a cartoon character to satirize the intrepid collectors, and I sent a couple of sample cartoons to the editor. He was a very bright and funny guy named Gordon Gullickson. I lived in Hollywood, and Gullickson lived across the country in Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington DC. We never met personally. Amazingly, he printed my cartoons, and asked me to send more. When I did, he named my character, 'The CAT.' A 'Cat' was a jazz musician or a jazz lover. The name had nothing to do with felines. I later learned that the term 'cat' was derived from the West African word 'katta,' which simply meant, a person. Today, a musician would say to someone he admires, 'You da Man! You da Man!' It means the same thing. A 'Cat' was 'the Man!'

AAJ: Who were other noteworthy contributors to the Record Changer?
GD: William Russel, Orrin Keepnews, George Avakian, Charles Edward Smith, Rudi Blesh were among the writers of articles. Bill Gottlieb wrote and did great photographs of jazz musicians. There were other artists too, who did excellent cover drawings. I never met any of them, and don't recall their names.

AAJ: Describe your relationship with Orrin Keepnews?
GD: He was one of the main writers, and eventually an editor of the magazine, but I never met him at the time. Finally, we met in San Francisco, just a year ago. He has had a great role in the proliferation and recording of jazz music.

AAJ: What caused the Record Changer to close down?
GD: For me it began when Gordon Gullickson sold the magazine to Bill Grauer, Jr., for whom it was only a business. When other businesses became more important to him, he sold the Changer to Richard Hadlock, a musician but NOT a businessman. He apparently couldn't keep it going. As time went by, and as jazz records were finally being issued by the major companies, collecting was less of an issue. Apparently the reason for the magazine's existence, the scarceness of jazz recordings, was no longer important enough to support such a publication.

AAJ: Let's talk about music and records: How many records are in your Collection and are you still collecting today?
GD: By the time I left the states to live in Europe, I had a collection of over 10,000 78RPM records, each having of course just two sides and two tunes. LPs came and went, and now my collection consists of just a few hundred CDs, but containing more than 20,000 tunes!

AAJ: What are the top five possessions in your record collection?
GD: I don't have anything 'rare' anymore, because virtually everything is now available for anyone to buy. My tastes have broadened to include Ellington and classical music. My favorite jazz records still include many by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson, and Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band.

AAJ: Who are your three favorite musicians?
GD: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Wolfie Mozart ' but I have about three hundred other favorites, all interchangeable.

AAJ: What is your favorite piece of album cover artwork?
GD: Any by James Flora. (Editor's Note: Flora's artwork was featured on late-1940s to mid-1950s recordings by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, Kid Ory, Gene Krupa, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Dorsey (for Columbia Records), and by Benny Goodman, Charlie Ventura, Charlie Barnet, Andre Previn, Shorty Rogers, and the Boston Pops Orchestra with Arthur Fiedler (for RCA Victor).)

AAJ: Do you prefer the sound of music on vinyl or on CD?
GD: Now you've asked the bullshit question! I have no time for the maniacs who swear that LPs 'sound better!' There are many factors that contribute to excellent recorded sound reproduction, but LP vinylite discs are basically a negative factor in the preservation and playing of music. (Incidentally, those who now use the term 'vinyl' have almost forgotten that the actual name of the material is 'vinylite.')

During the final days of 78RPM records many of them were being pressed on vinylite, because the worst thing about 78RPM records was their brittle breakability. Vinylite was advertised as 'unbreakable.' That was not strictly true, but relatively true. But vinylite introduced a new negative factor: static electricity. The vinyls worked up static electricity from the friction of the needle and from handling, and they attracted dust that was hard to get rid of, giving birth to a whole industry producing so-called anti-static devices. Few, if any, actually worked.

78RPM records had easily visible grooves, the vibrations of which were easily seen by the naked eye, and were relatively easy to keep clean. The Records turned fast enough so that the vibrations were wide enough to handle a great dynamic range. Their disadvantage was that a ten-inch 78RPM record with a normal groove pitch could only hold about three minutes of music. LPs were sold to the public on the basis that they were 'Long Playing,' hence LP. To achieve this, the revolving speed was reduced from 78RPM to 33.3RPM, and also the groove pitch was greatly reduced and named 'microgrooves.' The combined result of this meant that the grooves and vibrations were too fine to see, and that as the record turned at a constant speed, the vibrations of the grooves became progressively mashed together toward the center of the discs, just when music was usually reaching its dynamic climax. Distortion was the inevitable result. It would have been far better if LPs had been introduced as playing from the inside outward. As it was, a race was on to develop finer and finer styli, lighter and lighter pickups with complicated little balancing weights, plus more and more sophisticated amplifiers, all attempting to compensate for the basic flaws of the LP records. No matter what you did, you found that no LP record ever played perfectly or noiselessly after ten times. Did you know that?

CD records have none of these flaws, nor the time limits and fragility of 78s. They do track from the inside out. They continuously reduce their speed as they play in order to have the digital impulses that carry the sound go by the laser pickup at the same speed from beginning to end. Nothing actually touches the CD records, so they virtually never wear out and could play almost forever at no reduction in quality. Poorly made ones do oxidize. Nothing really lasts forever. It's still a partially mechanical system, and only solid-state music carriers have the potential for perfection.

But with good speakers, good amplifiers, proper room acoustics, the CDs have the dynamic range, clarity, and absence of surface noise that simply blows LPs out the window. Those whose sense of nostalgia and love of impressive looking turntables and pickup arms have led them to a fantasy belief in the superiority of LPs are just kidding themselves. I remember that many of us mourned the passing of the 78s for similar romantic and nonsensical reasons.

AAJ: How is your music collection organized ' alphabetically or..?
GD: OK, the disadvantage of CDs ' and also LPs for that matter ' is that there are now collections of diverse bands and players on individual discs, making them almost impossible to file logically. When I can, I file my jazz CDs alphabetically by artist, and my classical CDs by composer. That seems to be the traditional way, but I welcome suggestions. If one is devoted enough, and has the time and a computer, it would be possible to make a cross referencing index, and be able to find individual tunes by title, by composer, by players, dates, locations, categories, etc.

AAJ: How do you describe what you do to people you happen to meet?
GD: I just do the best I can in this world. I am a professional animation filmmaker, but I don't wish to be limited to any slot. I can or could do a lot of things. I just wish I had the time to follow up on all the things that interest me.

AAJ: How do you describe your style as an artist?
GD: I have to admit that all of the graphic styles I have worked in are highly derivative. I enjoy trying different ways. I rejoice in the notion that if anyone would see a review of many of my films, they would not recognize that they were all directed by the same person. If I hadn't signed the Record Changer magazine covers, few people could have told that they were all drawn by the same person. I get a satisfaction out of that, and I would describe my style as no specific style!

AAJ: What do you miss the most about your days at the Record Changer ?
GD: I have always enjoyed contributing to publications, and I still do. I only missed working with Gordon Gullickson. But hey, that was nearly 60 years ago, and I've done a lot of interesting things since then'however, now that you mention it, my Record Changer days were possibly the most creatively satisfying for me. Making films is, of course, exciting, but it is a group effort, trying to coordinate the work of many others, and having to cope with producers and financiers and clients and budgets and deadlines, trying somehow to turn out a unified film that is at least 60% of what I imagined (and 60% is usually the very best one can hope for). For the Record Changer, I did it all by myself, at my own pace, for next to no money, for fun, and my own way, with no restrictions or pressures. Yes. That's what I miss!

AAJ: What sort of student were you in school?
GD: I flunked math. I enjoyed going to school, and tried to learn what I could. I did well in History and English and Geography ' what they called 'Social Studies.' I also enjoyed the technical courses, chemistry, printshop, woodworking, ceramics, and stuff like that. And of course I majored in Art ' so I got by and graduated in spite of my complete inability to master mathematics and algebra. In fact, I barely tried. We didn't have electronic calculators when I was in school.

AAJ: Do you watch today's popular animated shows such as The Simpsons ?
GD: When I can catch them. The Simpsons is the perfect example of the supremacy of story and character, which amazingly overcomes the miserable drawing and crude animation.

AAJ: What Oscar did you win for Munro ?
GD: I don't understand the question. It's gold plated and says 'Munro' on it! Munro won the Oscar for the Best Cartoon Short in the year 1960. Five of my films have been nominated for the Oscar.

AAJ: What is the jazz scene like in Prague?
GD: Varied and abundant. There are great players here in every style and category you can imagine! Jazz has always lived in Prague, and does now more than ever.

AAJ: How has Prague changed over the last 40 years?
GD: The ancient part of Prague is still here, and is well preserved and restored, doubtlessly the most beautiful city center In Europe. But Prague is a large city, and everywhere it has changed tremendously. It is now ' for thirteen years already ' a free city in a free country. Many say, 'too free!' There are things here we never dreamed about in my early years in Prague. I am constantly amazed at what is here. But there is bad with the good. In many ways, Prague is now just like any major city in the developed and richer parts of the world. In thirteen years, it went from having nothing to having everything. Some cannot cope with the changes. It is now necessary to think and manage for one's self, without Big Brother to make all the decisions. I am no longer the unique person here I once was, but I am happy that now every Czech has the same opportunities that I once had almost alone.

Visit Gene Deitch on the web.

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