Westmont Magazine Creating Visual Concerts with Cartoon Music
The Blue Note in New York City
Photo credit: Jamie Jung
A composer, arranger, songwriter and jazz pianist, Joel Pierson ’01 has performed on all seven continents, played for Paul McCartney and written music for numerous symphony orchestras. Kronos Quartet commissioned and premiered his 2013 string quartet “Route 666.” The 2013 film “The Internship” featured his composition “Tideland,” and he won second place in the New York Philharmonic’s 2017 New World Initiative Composition Competition. In 2014, he released his first full-length album, “Beautify Your Vestibule,” and his original compositions range from straight-ahead jazz to contemporary classical, all infused with the energy of rock music.
Joel has developed a passion for cartoon music and serves as the musical director of The Queen’s Cartoonists, a jazz band that seeks to entertain audiences while preserving and performing music from classic cartoons. He takes inspiration from cartoon music composers who worked in the golden age of animation and jazz in the early 20th century. Cartoons become a stepping-off point for audiences unfamiliar with jazz. “Jazz can be a fun way to experience music,” he says. “It’s multigenerational, relaxing and part of the fabric of who we are as Americans.”
The band performs music while showing cartoons, turning the concert into a visual experience as well as an audio one. Joel arranges the old scores. “I pick each one apart and adapt it; sometimes I write a completely new score,” he says. “Each film we show has a different solution.” Joel binge-watches cartoons on YouTube and belongs to a group of animators to find material for the band.
“We do other kinds of visual things to keep audiences guessing,” he says. “We’re not bored, and we hope the audience isn’t either.” For example, someone may solve a Rubik’s cube while playing the ‘Jeopardy’ theme song or ride a tiny bicycle while performing the ‘William Tell Overture.’”
“I enjoy trying to make myself laugh in musical situations,” Joel says. “I ask myself –what can I do that keeps me engaged and I think is fun, funny and musically challenging? I like to be a little cheeky and lighthearted.”
Joel now focuses on writing music for the group. “I’ve created a niche for myself and learned my strengths in New York City,” he says. “I only perform in concerts I have a big hand in booking and scheduling and know a lot about.”
His educational journey has varied as much as his music. He began with a degree in classical piano from Westmont, where professors Steve Hodson, Grey Brothers and Steve Butler encouraged him to explore his eclectic music tastes. “It was a very nurturing program, and I did a lot of independent studies,” he says. After graduating, he stayed in California for several years, performing and writing as the member of a rock band. The group got a record deal in Los Angeles, but it eventually fizzled out.
Joel then earned a master’s degree in jazz piano from New York University. “It’s an incredible institution that gathers the most interesting people from around the world,” he says. “But I wasn’t a fit for the jazz department. I learned a lot there, just not the sort of things they were trying to teach me. I performed and toured a lot throughout this time to make ends meet.” Joel finished his education with a doctorate in music composition from the University of Maryland, where he taught music theory and music technology. “I always thought I would end up teaching somewhere—it’s so hard to be a performer and make a career of it,” he says.
“My training and interests split between composing and performing,” he says. “As a performer, I’m a jazz pianist. As a composer, I move more in the classical world. How do I put those things together? The key is #neverstop! Never let your guard down, never stop, always practice, never lose focus. If you’re a musician, you have to diversify.”
Joel also publishes his own humorous music education books with titles such as “You Suck at Piano.” He creates Kickstarter videos to raise money for these volumes, which include cartoon strips and cocktail recipes. He splits his time between the band and his publishing company.
He and his wife, the vocalist Tara Khaler, live in Jackson Heights, the most diverse neighborhood in New York City. It became an epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, and they took their 4-year-old son, Bixby, to Ohio to find refuge in a relative’s home there. The Queen’s Cartoonists have lined up a significant national tour scheduled to begin in October if concert venues begin opening up.
Joel is represented by CAMI Music, alongside pianists Chick Corea and Lang Lang. Read more about him at joelpierson.com and thequeenscartoonists.com.