The Sesame Street Songbook Gets Jazz Makeover on Open Sesame

Trombonist Joe Fiedler reimagines iconic tunes as the show celebrates its 50th anniversary

Joe Fiedler (photo: Peter Gannushkin)

Joe Fiedler wasn’t sure if he’d make it on Sesame Street. Not that he’s a resident on the kids’ show, practicing his trombone in an apartment and keeping Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird up all night with his multiphonics. Since 2009, Fiedler has served as music director of orchestration and arrangements for Sesame Street, working closely with the show’s main music director, Bill Sherman.

With deep knowledge of musical styles ranging from pop to avant-garde jazz, Fiedler seemed like an ideal candidate who could help the show’s music head in a new direction when he took the job about 10 years ago. But it took some time to adjust. “In the beginning, it was very much grasping at straws,” Fiedler says. “We thought we would have a good idea for an episode and then the producers would hate it.”

He recalls one particular meeting when he and Sherman played some musical cues for three executive producers. Two of them hated the first cue and one loved it. For the second cue, one of the naysayers changed his tune while two still hated it. At the end of the meeting, one of the producers approached Fiedler with an idea. “He says to me, ‘All the music for the episode should be like that movie’—he doesn’t know the name—but he keeps saying ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume. You know there’s that catch phrase [in the film],’” Fiedler recalls.

It wasn’t much of a clue, but Fiedler, determined to write a new score, did some research and came across Stanley and Livingstone, the 1939 Spencer Tracy film about the journalist who uttered those famous words to the missing doctor. He transcribed the incidental music and adapted it to serve as cues to a story about Bert, Sesame Street’s unhip regular, and his love of pigeons. “So, we write all that music and recorded it, and [the producers] are like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It’s ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume!’” Fiedler yells, before bursting into laughter.

If Sesame Street brass was uncertain early on, Fiedler and Sherman proved themselves when they teamed up with rapper will.i.am. The Black Eyed Peas founder joined the Muppets for the upbeat “What I Am,” which went on to win a Daytime Emmy Award for Best Children’s Song of the Year in 2011.

Since then, Fiedler and Sherman have used their unique visions to bring a sophisticated blend of styles to the show. Sherman’s skill with loops and electronics adds some edge to the more contemporary music. Fiedler likes to draw on Raymond Scott-style music to underscore comedic scenes with characters like Cookie Monster, adding jazz harmonies in other spots to thicken up the textures.

As Sesame Street geared up for its 50th anniversary this fall, Fiedler preceded the milestone with the release of Open Sesame, an album of songs from the show interpreted by a jazz quintet. Various tunes from the show have been interpreted by outsiders over the years, like “Bein’ Green” (Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles) and “Sing” (a big hit for the Carpenters). But the trombonist, whose own projects include the ’bones-and-tuba group Big Sackbut, brings a sense of adventure to the music. Fiedler is accompanied by tenor and soprano saxophonist Jeff Lederer, along with trumpeter Steven Bernstein on several tracks. Sean Conly on bass and Michael Sarin on drums play everything from surf grooves to slinky funk.

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An album of songs from his workplace was something Fiedler avoided for the longest time, to keep his own work separate from his day job. He never liked the idea of albums that have an angle, anyway. But after considering it, he decided to approach the Sesame Street songbook in the manner of one of his favorite bands, Sex Mob, limiting the improvisation to a few concise choruses. He had other reasons as well. “New York has gotten so complex. And I’m not anti-complex. I love complex music. But you go to some gig and the whole thing’s in 15/8 and there’s weird forms,” he says. “I thought, man, especially given the political situation in the U.S., I need to do something, not as a protest thing, [but to] just have fun.”

The song selection on Open Sesame leans heavily on the show’s first decade and reveals how those early days took musical risks while educating viewers. All of this can be found in a track called “Jazz #10.” Written by pianist Denny Zeitlin, the music for this counting cartoon featured a vocal by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. Rearranging “Jazz #10” wasn’t as simple as digging up the original chart at the office. “I couldn’t find any music for it,” Fiedler says. “I started transcribing it. and later, interestingly, I found the lead sheet with Denny’s own signature on it. And it doesn’t quite match up with what they performed. It seems like in the studio they made some changes, so I made an amalgam of all of it, at least what I heard from it.” The new reading pits some ominous bass rumblings against a free take on the melody.

Fiedler stayed away from “Bein’ Green,” but he found a way to give “Sing” some edge. “It was so easy without a chordal instrument. Where the melody lies is so beautiful because it’s in the cracks of the chord changes,” he says. “I thought, I can harmonize this in a nondescript way because most of the harmonies are in fourths. If I put it in thirds, it would still be the happy-happy sound. So it kind of disguised it. It sounds melancholy the way we voiced it out.”

With a slinky funk take on “Sesame Street Theme” and an uproarious version of “Rubber Duckie,” Open Sesame reveals the adaptability of the music, and the musical talent of the late Joe Raposo, who composed much of the early tunes. “I hate this word but Raposo was a genius, 100 percent,” Fiedler says. “I’ve looked through the archives and that dude wrote thousands of tunes. The way they came across, because of the orchestration, it doesn’t read as blues. But if you look at the form, the chord changes and where the melody comes from, he was so influenced by the blues. And by Gershwin.”

Despite having a very young target audience, Raposo and his crew never dumbed down the music. (The bridge to “Sesame Street Theme,” for instance, which modulates from C all the way up to A, tugged on this writer’s young ear.) “If Sesame Street wasn’t a kid show, so many more of those tunes would become standards like Broadway tunes did in the day,” Fiedler says. “It speaks to how well written they are that they’re so pliable.”

Conly, Sarin, and Lederer played the material with the trombonist in clubs several times before going into the studio. When they were booked at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, N.Y., Fiedler invited Steven Bernstein to sit in since the Sex Mob trumpeter lived nearby. “We played two sets. It was so happening,” Fiedler says, “I thought, now I’ve got to use Steve on the record. I’m not going to rework the whole book. I’ll bring him in for a third of it.”

Bernstein had no qualms about playing songs from a kids’ show. “I don’t really differentiate between one kind of music and another,” he says. “Music is music. Let’s get in there and see what it is and make it good.”

Known for his work on the slide trumpet, Bernstein only uses that instrument on “Rubber Duckie” and plays valve trumpet and flugelhorn the rest of the time. He explains, “It’s blending. You already have a slide instrument in the ensemble and it almost seemed like that’s what the music was asking for—just a regular trumpet. Also, sometimes I listen to Joe [and I think], ‘Man, I’m glad I didn’t play slide trumpet because I would play the exact same solo.’ Joe and I have a shared language in the way we use the slide.”

As he talks about Fiedler, Bernstein describes him with his trademark wit and depth. “A great jazz musician should have some superpower that only they can do. And Joe really has that because the way he plays trombone is so unique,” he says. “He’s got this incredible range. I never heard anyone play like that.”

At the office where Fiedler and Sesame Street’s studio band record each week, Fiedler’s superiors have a similar level of confidence in his work. “In the early years, my notes from Bill and the producers were very specific,” he says. “And now, the spotting notes I get are—I’m not exaggerating—there’s a banana puppet and it says, ‘Banana Music.’ What it means is, when the banana comes on, do whatever you want. So I can incorporate anything I’m thinking about.”

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.