Disney is associated with many things, including exceptional animation, fantastic amusement parks, and, of course, music. At various times, Disney films, shows, and cartoons have dabbled in practically every music genre, ranging from classical music in Disney movies like Fantasia to hip-hop in Let It Shine to Disney’s theme song “Wish Upon A Star.”
Jazz and Disney have also long gone hand-in-hand, with the genre not just making its way into various films but distinctly playing a role in the overall narrative. Here’s a look at the world of Disney jazz.
Jazz Music in Disney Movies and Cartoons
As mentioned above, music plays a significant role in the world of Disney. Walt Disney was a known fan of the genre, with many stating he was a lifelong lover of jazz.
Since that was the case, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s been a long connection between jazz music and Disney creations. Whether it’s the ambient music in sections of the Disney parks, jazz songs from Disney movies, or sources of inspiration for animated shorts, jazz played a far greater role in the company’s entertainment development than many people realize.
When it comes to examples of jazz in Disney, there are likely far too many to list. However, some serve as essential highlights, making it easy to see the genre’s impact on the company. Here are some of the best examples of jazz music in Disney movies and cartoons.
Soul is an Academy Award-winning film that tells the story of Joe Gardner, a jazz pianist. The score features an array of original jazz songs that don’t just entertain and entrance the audience; they also play a critical role in the broader story. The movie secured the Oscar for Best Original Score, and most who’ve watched the film would adamantly agree with that decision.
An interesting fact about the jazz in Soul is that it wasn’t just the music that was authentic to the genre. The animation team also studied the movements of performers’ hands – including Jon Batiste, a Grammy-Winning pianist who contributed to the songs – to ensure the animation was as accurate as possible.
After the release of Soul, Disney launched an exhibit called “The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure,” which was featured at Epcot. Along with highlights from the world of jazz and its history, it showcased much of Disney’s use of jazz throughout the years, showing just how much the company appreciates the genre.
The Princess and the Frog
While The Princess and the Frog is subject to some controversy, it remains a strong example of the use of jazz in Disney films. It’s set in New Orleans, the undisputed jazz capital of the world, and features music that aligns with the Big Easy setting. You hear plenty of classic jazz instruments, and there are even references to jazz legends like Sidney Bichet and Louis Armstrong in some of the dialogue.
The Aristocats is a feature film about a group of cats with clear musical talent. It was released in 1970, and it introduced many children to the world of jazz. Primarily, the music was akin to French jazz in the 1910s, often featuring swing elements in many of the songs. However, the film doesn’t purely feature jazz, as other songs dive into different genres to give various characters a unique vibe.
As with many Disney works released decades ago, The Aristocats is controversial, especially when viewed through a modern lens. This is particularly true when it comes to the Siamese cat, that depiction of Asian people is broadly considered racist.
Lady and the Tramp
If you had to categorize the music from Lady and the Tramp, it’s broadly considered to fall into the classical blue jazz category. As a result, the film – released in 1955 – contains one of the best examples of Disney’s early commitment to the genre. “He’s a Tramp” is a standout number with a slinky, smooth feel featuring Peggy Lee, an outstanding jazz vocalist, and songwriter.
The Jazz Fool
Released in 1929, The Jazz Fool is a Disney animated short featuring Mickey Mouse. While the short is light on plot, it’s brimming with music. Additionally, though Mickey Mouse doesn’t have much in the way of dialog, the animated expressions convey plenty of emotions, particularly when he’s playing the piano. Ultimately, it’s one of the black-and-white Disney cartoons that definitely showed Walt Disney’s appreciation of jazz.
While Steamboat Willie – the 1928 animated short featuring Mickey Mouse – doesn’t generally feature jazz, it was inspired by a film that heavily featured the genre, 1927’s The Jazz Singer. After seeing The Jazz Singer, Walt Disney was dedicated to producing a cartoon with fully synchronized sound. Ultimately, Steamboat Willie resulted from that commitment, and it was the first animated feature to include an entirely post-produced soundtrack, giving the short another unique feather in its cap.
Dixieland at Disney
Dixieland at Disney was an annual event that ran starting in 1960 and continued through the 1970s. During the celebration, jazz often took center stage. Musicians came in to play live on the grounds, and a Mardi Gras floating parade down the Rivers of America often featured jazz music.
The event features performances from many jazz greats over the years, including Louis Armstrong. The celebration was also part of Walt Disney’s broader vision. He felt that music was a critical part of the Disney experience and believed that Dixieland and New Orleans jazz were a major part of the success equation.
Jazz Legends Paying Homage to Disney Music
Just as Disney loves jazz, many jazz greats adored Disney music. As a result, some chose to record albums using Disney music while applying their own style to the songs. Whether the song originally had jazz flare or was part of a completely different genre, these albums ensure that jazz is the foundation of the new recordings. As a result, many jazz fans greatly appreciate the original music.
Another benefit of these albums is that they can make jazz feel more accessible to those unfamiliar with the genre. Disney songs are broadly known due to the popularity of the films. As a result, different renditions of the tracks have a familiar quality, even if they’re performed in completely new ways.
Ultimately, a variety of music artists in jazz world have covered Disney songs, including classic tunes and more modern releases. However, some releases are stronger examples of jazz legends putting their spin on Disney music than others. Here’s a quick overview of some jazz greats that have paid homage to Disney songs through cover albums.
One of the most widely known and beloved examples is Disney Songs the Satchmo Way, the Louis Armstrong Disney songs album. It was released in 1968, during the era of the Dixieland at Disney celebrations. In fact, the album contains the last trumpet recordings of the jazz legend, giving it a unique position in music history.
Walt Disney personally asked Armstrong to create the album in 1966, though the album wouldn’t end up released until after Disney’s death. In the Louis Armstrong Disney album, he covered classics like “Whistle While You Work” from Snow White, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio.
Critically, the album got a warmer reception than many might expect, considering it featured covers of Disney songs. Still, many felt that Armstrong’s vocals and playing were uplifting and that he elevated the material significantly. Plus, the mix of selected tracks expressed a range of emotions, making the collection engaging.
Another example of jazz legends paying homage to Disney music is the album Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins by Duke Ellington. A genuine titan in the world of jazz, Ellington was a renowned pianist, bandleader, and composer. He applied his unique style to the tunes in the classic Disney film, truly making the songs his own and delighting jazz fans worldwide.
As with Louis Armstrong’s musical venture into the world of Disney tunes, the overall critical reception was warmer than most would expect. Many jazz fans feel that the result is surprisingly striking, bringing something unexpected to the table compared to the original versions of the songs.
Modern Disney Jazz Albums
A more modern example, Jazz Loves Disney, features the musical stylings of jazz musicians like Jami Cullum, Melody Gardot, and Gregory Porter. It was released in 2016 and includes a mix of classic and modern Disney tunes. Whether you prefer Cinderella-era songs like “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” or newer favorites like “Let It Go” from Frozen, this album likely puts a jazz twist on a song that will resonate with you.
Modal Jazz Loves Disney is a similar effort by multiple musicians and ensembles, uniquely blending modal jazz and Disney to the delight of listeners. Released in 2008, it also features a mix of classics like “Baby Mine” from Dumbo and some later – though not necessarily modern-era – songs like “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Again, this makes the album highly accessible to jazz and Disney fans alike, so it can serve as a solid introduction to modal jazz to those interested in exploring the genre.