Is Dr. Teeth a Jazz Muppet?

OK, it’s been too long since I’ve posted anything at the blog — again — but rather than shut things down entirely (as I did in September) I am trying a slightly different strategy for combating the chain of events (too busy to read other jazz blogs, focus my writing energy elsewhere, too tired to write at the blog, get further out of the loop …) that keep me from posting.

Every so often, I will attempt to re-present interesting facets of the academic discussions that occur during my classes in the M.A. program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers University. Last week, I lead a class discussion on the influential call to arms by jazz scholar and American Studies professor Sherrie Tucker, entitled “Deconstructing the Jazz Tradition: The ‘Subjectless Subject’ of New Jazz Studies.” Now, that might seem like a mouthful of academic jargon, but it was actually quite an inspirational read (unfortunately, the text of the article is not freely available online, but you can buy a copy here if you’re interested.)

In the article, Tucker ruminates on the current signifiers and associations that jazz carries with it in contemporary society. An examination of these intersections between jazz and mainstream social consciousness can lead to some interesting discoveries — both about jazz and about the way we conceive it. One of her examples came from the following exchange in a 2001 episode of Spongebob Squarepants:

Patrick: You’re a man now, SpongeBob, and it’s time you started acting like one.
SpongeBob: Yeah! Oh, but I’m not sure I know how.
Patrick: Allow me to demonstrate. First, puff out your chest.
[SpongeBob puffs out his chest]
Patrick: Now say, “tax exemption.”
SpongeBob: Tax exemption.
Patrick: Now you must develop a taste for free-form jazz.
[Both listen intently to jazz music]
Patrick: Okay, you’re ready.

Tucker points out that jazz is brought up as a sort of ironic signifier of manliness, in a particular historical moment (in this case, 2001, the same year that Ken Burns released his influential PBS documentary Jazz.)

Well, I had a similar moment the other day while watching season 5 of the Showtime dramedy Weeds. In episode 10 (Perro Insano,) one of the main characters, Andy, invokes jazz to bolster his mature, masculine credentials: he asks his lady of interest out to hear some jazz. When she challenges him to name even a single jazz musician, he comes up with Dr. Teeth. “He’s a muppet,” she says as she rolls her derisively, to which Andy responds, “but he’s a JAZZ muppet!”

That this conversation invoking jazz, muppets and masculinity comes up in a popular 2009 TV series came as a bit of a surprise: after all, The Muppet Show has been off the air for quite awhile, and the cultural cachet of jazz seems to have diminished rapidly since its spike during the Ken Burns years. But there it is. What surprised me even more, however, was this comment from Myles McNutt, author of the high-minded TV blog Cultural Learnings:

  • And, while I love Andy’s Dr. Teeth runner during the episode, I’d contend that Dr. Teeth isn’t really a jazz pianist. I’d argue that Floyd and Zoot are more definitively jazz musicians if we’re discussing the Electric Mayhem as a whole. But that’s just my opinion.

I don’t think McNutt had any idea about the murky water he waded into with that comment, but I think it is worth considering here. As implied by the citation in Weeds, the Muppet Show played an important role in framing jazz for the many young people who watched it during its heyday. I will leave it up to you to answer his question.

Dr. Teeth:

For comparison, Floyd and Zoot:

Now, my question: do you agree or disagree with Mr. McNutt’s assertion that Dr. Teeth is not a jazz muppet? By contrast, are Floyd and Zoot jazz muppets? Cite specific reasons to support your assertion. I hope that in doing this, we can all benefit from a careful consideration of what we consider “jazz” or “jazziness” when the music intersects with popular cultural conceptions.

Another interesting thing about the Muppet Show is that the show’s writers dealt cleverly with jazz and the life of the professional musician. My favorite manifestation of this is in the musician jokes:

The show also frequently hosted jazz musicians as guests. Note the odd juxtaposition between Kermit’s reverential introduction and the subsequent performance by Dizzy Gillespie in his Muppet Show debut:

I think you’re starting to get the point. The Muppet Show provides a fascinating mirror for thinking about jazz in its many complicated reverberations throughout society. Obviously, these examples are from a different historical moment (the 1980s) but as the Weeds citation shows, still carries cultural significance.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on the issues raised here in the comments section. Please have fun with this, as I offer this object of discussion both with a serious eye towards the issues at hand as well as the fact that, well, it’s a bunch of muppets playing jazz.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
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11 Responses to Is Dr. Teeth a Jazz Muppet?

  1. Myles says:

    First off, I’m glad that my off-hand comment (not only was it one of my throwaway bullet points, but it was the LAST throwaway bullet point) waded into these murky waters unknowingly, for it has led to a wonderful collection of jazz-related Muppet Show clips and some really great analysis of the show’s ability to speak to such a diverse range of musical and cultural influences.

    Second off, I think your point sort of captures the wide range of different contexts in which certain Muppet characters have appeared: while I know the Electric Mayhem as a “group,” where Dr. Teeth is the pianist/occasional vocalist and they tend to perform mainly rock songs, the clips you’ve chosen show the group as solo artists and laidback jazz trios by comparison. This is not to say that my assertion was in any way correct (I know about 99.9% less about jazz than you do), but it is one of many possible interpretations of these Muppets depending on the context in which you most often experience them.

    Hopefully I’ll know something more about jazz by the time I finish watching HBO’s Treme (and hopefully, considering the role of jazz musicians in that series, you’ll be writing about the show as well, and maybe able to stop by Cultural Learnings to offer some insight as well!).

    • arodjazz says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Myles! I’m not saying that you’re wrong about Dr. Teeth — in fact, I’m still curious to know what aspects of Dr. Teeth’s music as opposed to Floyd and Zoot you perceive as less jazzy. Is it his piano style? The way he dresses? The topics of his songs? Just because you aren’t familiar with the jazz tradition per se doesn’t mean you don’t perceive the term and its signifiers in your own way.

  2. Pete says:

    Great post, Alex! Fun and thought-provoking. The question of what is seen as “jazzy” about the Muppets is truly a vexed one. When I see and hear Dr. Teeth, I think of Dr. John–beard, sunglasses, bling, crazy clothes, big toothy grin, growly voice–and I imagine that he might have come to others’ minds when the show originally aired in the late 1970’s. And Floyd’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” reminded me of Leon Redbone a bit. Both of these musicians sometimes lurk on the outskirts of jazz orthodoxy, depending on who you talk to, but many people (hard core jazz fans or not) might see them as representing jazz in some way, largely because they’re both associated with New Orleans. I’d be curious to hear more from McNutt about his criteria.

    As for Zoot–the saxophone is almost always a signifier for jazz, often regardless of how one classifies the music it’s in. And Floyd–a walking bass line is another of those signifiers.

    I like your comment, Alex, about the Muppets and working musicians. You’re right–the show was often about the backstage workings of the performance, rehearsals, arguments, etc. They certainly take performers “seriously” as working people.

    I’m curious, though, about why you saw Dizzy’s performance as an “odd juxtaposition” to the “reverential” intro. Dizzy was known as somewhat of a jokester on stage, and this performance does not seem to be much of a departure from that. But he also does an old jazz standard, “St. Louis Blues” and plays a bebop-oriented solo. Granted, it’s over a backbeat (and what a killing, groovy backbeat it is), but what do you want? It was the late 1970’s.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Paul Brady says:

    I love this post Alex. What an entertaining way to use new technology to write about jazz’s cross-over pop cultural references. Far more fun than a journal entry! But, having said that, I think this is the type of topic that would appeal to a mass audience given the popularity of Weeds. You could consider expanding this into a longer article, and pitching to a larger publication. (I’m thinking like Rolling Stone, High Times, etc). But it works so well with the youtube clips, that keeping it real with your blog may in the long run be the best way to go. Although maybe an academic publication. Get this to Ed Berger and I bet you could have it in the Annual Review of Jazz Studies.

    As for the topic, you know I fight the “is this jazz” fight all the time for my friend Django Reinhardt. And I always remember a quote from the bassist/producer Steve Rodby from an interview at “Wynton Marsalis and his brother like to waste a lot of time talking about what is a what isn’t jazz.” At this point, like Steve, I’m becoming exhausted from arguing. But since I still have to argue on behalf of Django, it seems like the Muppets — though I do take the jazz side — probably will have to wait in line for a bit more discourse before they’ll be scene as canonical. For the next topic, how about Bleeding Gums Murphy?

  4. arodjazz says:

    Thanks to all for the comments so far! I hope that some more people join the conversation.

    I’m going to wade in with my opinion on the question: I don’t think that Andy was incorrect in labeling Dr. Teeth as a jazz muppet; however, I do agree with Miles that Floyd and especially Zoot would have been more appropriate “jazz muppets.” However, I don’t begrudge the writers for using Dr. Teeth as he makes a much better punchline.

    Pete has already identified some of the reasons why Zoot is clearly, in my mind, the jazziest muppet: he plays the saxophone, he invokes Charlie Parker as a saint, he’s struggling to make a living, he’s even named after a jazz musician (Zoot Sims.)

    Dr. Teeth loses points in terms of jazz signifiers for a few reasons: first, the song “money” clearly takes him out of the “starving artist” stereotype that Zoot seems to embody. I agree with Pete that he is clearly a riff on Dr. John, who has made his career on the boundaries of jazz, but does hail from New Orleans. Dr. Teeth also doesn’t play any linear right-hand piano parts, which seems like it would be a relevant characteristic for a jazz pianist after 1945.

    As for Floyd, I see him somewhere in between Zoot and Dr. Teeth on the jazziness spectrum. He has a much more laid-back, cool vibe which is more becoming of a jazz musician, and clearly can play a walking bass line as well as jazzy guitar comping (on the same instrument, no less!) But I also agree with Pete that some of his performances move him away from the core of jazz-as-art as we understand it today.

    And we didn’t even get to Animal, whose subhumanly unintelligent drummer fits more into the rock stereotype, but at the same time he plays a good swing feel! There’s so much underneath it all …

    In response to Pete’s question about Dizzy Gillespie: you’re absolutely right that it isn’t particularly odd in the late 1970s: what is odd is looking back on it from my post-JALC/Ken Burns perspective (I was, after all, not alive in the late 1970s.) It seems so strange to see something both revered as jazz and clearly violating so many of the boundaries that have been put in place since the 1990s about what it is and isn’t. In fact, I think Gillespie’s muppet show appearance says more about him as a trumpet player, performer, and master musician than some of his fetishized early 1940s bebop records. I dig!

    Please, keep the commentary coming: I want to know if I’m missing any jazz signifiers in this show, which was an important mediator of jazz meaning for a generation (and perhaps more) of Americans.

    • Pete says:

      You’re right about Diz’s performance. I misread your astute observation about how that moment translates to YouTube-watching circa 2010. The kind of reverence Kermit lavishes on a jazz saint would today be followed by a much different sound and look–“A Night in Tunisia” in suits, maybe.

      This post (and the accompanying conversation) is fantastic, BTW. I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate it into my class about popular music and American culture. Thanks!

  5. David says:

    Love this discussion. First, I agree that Dr. Teeth is a riff on Dr. John, which comes with it the expectation that he would play a hard-to-define fusion of jazz and funk (of the New Orleans variety). However, his playing on these few videos seems put him pretty squarely in a pre-swing variety of jazz (I am not so familiar with the rest of his oeuvre, so I cannot say whether this is how he plays most of the time). With the evidence at hand, I say he’s a jazz muppet.

    As for the Weeds use of Dr. Teeth, I find it funny (and reassuring) that stupid people would try to fake a knowledge of jazz to seem more worldy and intelligent. Andy is not only trying to show that he is mature and masculine, but also smart and/or cultured(!). So it’s got recognizable cachet, but is not valuable enough to motivate someone to actually learn much about it (which isn’t that reassuring, now that I think about it).

  6. Matt says:

    Great story! Any idea who the musicians are playing as these muppets?

  7. Brian says:

    Great discussion. This really takes me back to being a little kid watching the Muppet Show on TV. The show was pure genius.

    I think another important thing is that in addition to being jazz, the Muppet musicians are also all a bunch of hippie freaks–and I mean that in a good way.

    As in the posts about Dizzy playing with a backbeat, I think we can see from this that at the time jazz and jazz musicians were seen as subversive, countercultural, funky, and street.

  8. First, let me note that Dizzy’s TV shots represented a large percentage of all appearances made by jazz musicians during the 50’s-80’s. Growing up, when I said I played trumpet, people would inevitably say “Do you blow your cheeks out like Dizzy Gillespie?” Subversive? Don’t think so. He represents the trumpet/entertainment strain from Armstrong to Eldridge. Other jazz presences on the tube were Severinson on Tonight Show, Merv Griffin’s band (w. Jack Sheldon-another trumpet/entertainer who, with Bob Dorough, made the music for “Schoolhouse Rock”). There was-and still is-banter about band members being stoned. All through this era, Rahsaan was trying to trying to crack the TV barrier for more “outsider” jazz musicians-including crashing the audience at Merv’s show. The muppets fit pretty well into the general schema: jazz musicians as somewhat alien, but basically harmless creatures. A question: Why did they have the bass player doing the Dr John imitation. It should be the piano player, who’s actually ‘doing’ Dr John.

  9. Nice review. I agree with you on this “I think you’re starting to get the point. The Muppet Show provides a fascinating mirror for thinking about jazz in its many complicated reverberations throughout society.”

    Great post!

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