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Swinging The Clouds Away: Jazz Takes Over Sesame Street

Richard Termine
Jazz at Lincoln Center

It wasn't your typical crowd in the Rose Theater one afternoon last fall, for a sold-out concert by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.

For one thing, every grown-up in the audience seemed to be accompanied by an excited child or two. Then there were the guest artists, whom everybody knew on a first-name basis: Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita, Oscar, Abby. Bert and Ernie.

A Swingin' Sesame Street Celebration — the title of that boisterous concert, a new album and PBS broadcast special — was a 50th-anniversary party for Sesame Streetthe beloved educational television series. It was also a joyous acknowledgment of the role music has played on the show, with those familiar characters and their talented puppeteers dashing about the stage, as they sang custom new arrangements of "Doin' the Pigeon" and "Elmo's Song."

On this episode of Jazz Night in America, we'll feature music from that show while exploring the jazz undercurrent in Sesame Street's history, which goes back to its first musical director, the late Joe Raposo. We'll hear from Raposo's fellow songwriter Chris Cerf, and Hoots the Owl (ahem, that would be Chris Thomas Hayes,) who sings Cerf's tune "Put Down the Duckie." Marsalis will share his thoughts about Big Bird and Elmo too.

But it doesn't stop there. The in-demand trombonist Joe Fiedler, an associate musical director for Sesame Street, started a band a few years back called Open Sesame, with peers like Steven Bernstein on trumpet and Jeff Lederer on saxophone. As its name suggests, the group takes a freewheeling approach to songs from the show — as we'll hear in a recording from The Jazz Gallery in New York. Like the rest of this show, it carries a core truth: "You could be serious and have your musical skill set impeccable," as Fiedler aptly puts it, "and still have it be fun."


Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: Wynton Marsalis, music director, trumpet; Ryan Kisor, trumpet; Kenny Rampton, trumpet; Marcus Printup, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Chris Crenshaw, trombone; Elliot Mason, trombone; Sherman Irby, alto saxophone; Ted Nash, alto saxophone; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Janelle Reichman, tenor saxophone; Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums.

Sesame Workshop: Ken Diego, director; Andrew Moriarty, writer; Paul Rudolph, vocal coach; Matt Vogel: puppet captain, Big Bird, Count von Count, Mr. Johnson; Eric Jacobson: Bert, Grover, Oscar The Grouch; Peter Linz: Ernie, Herry Monster; Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz: Rosita; Leslie Carrara-Rudolph: Abby Cadabby; Ryan Dillon: Elmo; Christopher Thomas Hayes: Hoots the Owl.

Joe Fiedler's Open Sesame: Joe Fiedler, trombone; Jeff Lederer, tenor saxophone; Steve Bernstein, trumpet; Sean Conly, bass; Michael Sarin, drums.

Set List

  • "Sesame Street Theme" (Joe Raposo, Bruce Hart & Jon Stone, arr. Kenny Rampton)
  • "Pinball Number Count" (Walt Kramer & Ed Bogas, arr. Carlos Henriquez)
  • "Mahna Mahna" (Piero Umiliani, arr. Wynton Marsalis)
  • "Put Down The Duckie" (Christopher Cerf & Norman Stiles, arr. Carlos Henriquez )
  • "I Don't Want To Live On The Moon" (Jeff Moss, arr. Wynton Marsalis)
  • "Has Anybody Seen My Dog" (Joe Raposo)
  • "Doin The Pigeon" (Joe Raposo)
  • "The Sesame Street Theme"
  • "The Jazzy Alphabet"
  • "Elmo's / Wynton's Song" (Tony Geiss, arr. Kenny Rampton)
  • "Sing" (Joe Raposo, arr. Ted Nash)

The full performance featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Sesame Street Muppets will debut Oct. 30 at 9:00 p.m. EDT on PBS stations nationwide—check your local listings for details.

Special thanks to Shaniqua Martin, Aaron Bisman, Brit Edwards, Samantha Kennedy at Sesame Workshop and Kathleen Dunn at Penguin Random House.

Writer and Producer: Alex Ariff; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Music Engineers: Rob Macomber and James Nichols (JALC), Edward Gavitt (Jazz Gallery); Technical Director: David Tallacksen; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand; Senior Director of NPR Music: Lauren Onkey.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.
Alex Ariff has big ears. A musician first, he straddles the worlds between performance/songwriting, media production and storytelling. Alex earned his B.A in Music from Florida State University where he fell for all facets of jazz music, history, and culture. He went onto earn his M.A. in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers University-Newark. It was during this time that Alex began working at WBGO, where he currently works as a producer on Jazz Night in America. Outside of WBGO, Alex enjoys lapsang souchong, bike rides, and playing with his band The Wali Sanga.