Thursday, 7 August 2008

RON JONES INTERVIEW

Following my DuckTales piece last week, composer Ron Jones graciously agreed to discuss his early days, his work methods, the much-loved DuckTales score and more.

My eternal thanks go to Ron for taking the time to answer my geeky fan boy questions.

BACKGROUND

Ron Jones has worked as a composer for over 35 years. His classic underscores for Star Trek TNG have won him fans and awards the world over. His score CV includes coutless Hanna Barbera cues, the 1988 Superman cartoon series and latterly Family Guy and American Dad. His theme for the Fairly Odd Parents was awarded the BMI TV & Film award 3 years running for being the most performed theme in broadcasting worldwide.

After graduating from the Dick Grove School of Music and working with Lalo Schifrin, Ron got his initial break at Hanna-Barbera working with Hoyt Curtin scoring many animation projects. He later moved to Disney scoring the studio’s first syndicated cartoon series DuckTales.

In addition to regular scoring assignments, Ron has formed the Influence Jazz Orchestra comprised of many of the top session and recording musicians from both the scoring and jazz worlds of Los Angeles.

Ron is currently building a new website which will be up this Autumn. Ron’s new jazz band site, http://www.influencejazz.com/ is already up and running.

EARLY DAYS


Reel Cool: Were you from a musical family or did you develop your skills playing in bands before you enrolled at the Dick Grove School of Music?

Ron Jones: I gravitated towards arranging and composing from when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I joined a local Drum and Bugle Corps in Bellevue Washington and played in a large brass section. Because Drum and Bugle Corps have no published scores to play, they always have arrangers doing their music. I just was so impressed by these guys that would come in with freshly arranged charts and teach them to us. With well over 30 brass and 20 or so percussion we could make amazing sounds. We were outside school systems. Really rebels, like a rock band, but we would play parades and contests on football stadiums. The music was always set to visual movement like ballet. Not like marching band, much more intensive and deeply hard core. I would get some friends together from the Corps and experiment with things. Eventually this grew and I was leading my own corps and composing and arranging professionally for all sorts of groups while still in High School.

Reel Cool: What was your primary instrument?

Ron Jones: I guess, French Horn. I only played that so I could set in the middle of the orchestra and hear everything from that position. Composing has always been my main thing. Second might be conducting.

Reel Cool: You were a protégé of Lalo Schifrin, how did that come about and what was it like working with him?

Ron Jones: He needed someone to copy a concerto for Guitar and orchestra and instead of paying bucks he taught me orchestration and conducting. What started out as a temporary thing turned into two-three years of very deep study with a master. I applied everything I learned on the very busy scoring assignments I had during that period. Really amazing.

Reel Cool: Assuming Lalo Schifrin was an influence do you have any other musical influences?

Ron Jones: I have many. I am a student of all aspects and styles of western and world musics. I know it all. Early influences were Aaron Copland, Don Ellis, Stravinsky, Bartok, Legiti and all that. I have dwelled with great affection and appreciation for the craft and inventiveness of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann, as have many. I have lots of experience in Pop, Jazz, Classical, early music styles, music for Theater, Opera. I have written more Rap and Hip Hop than Jay-Z spanning over 25 years of that stuff. I know of and can write in the bag of all contemporary composers like John Adams, Steve Riech and all those post-minimalists cats. I lead an elite Jazz orchestra here in LA called Influence. It is made up of the very best session and jazz players on earth. We have sold out every concert and jazz gig. That has been very fun and interesting to explore.

Reel Cool: After graduation, you moved to Hanna Barbera, what was the environment like at HB?

Ron Jones: Strange. I and everyone else who scored all those shows during Hanna-Barbera's golden era, worked directly for Hoyt Curtin. He was great fun and a musical genius. I learned so many wonderful and deep lessons during that time and scored hundreds of shows, thousands of cues. People will never understand or be able to replicate that experience. Amazing.

Reel Cool: Were you given a level of creative freedom or was it ‘scores on demand’ and on a tight budget?

Ron Jones: Yes, it was super demanding in all senses of the expression. It always is demanding. It is not only the gig, the time, the money, it is ultimately, an inner challenge. I always, every single time, every single stroke of my pencil try to create the very best I can. I never say, crap this sucks, let me grind out some shit here. Never do I think that or do that. I write to please first myself. I have high standards. Second, I always regard the intelligence and inborn musicality of the human receptors which will view and listen to what is playing there. I believe that even a 2 or 3 year old knows what is right, what is good and interesting. I never patronize an audience. Never. So regardless of time, money, producers, studios, and all other limitations, I give it my all.

Reel Cool: What was/is your compositional approach, do you have a tune or a mood in your head or do you play with chords and runs until something comes?

Ron Jones: Most people have a very unrealistic notion of what a composer goes through. Misinformation and romantic notions mixed together. I think more like architecture. I build with music blocks. First you need to learn and gather information about the show the story the characters. Then you create musical materials (Themes, Motifs, that stuff). When it has been decided where music will go in the show, then you do all you can to support and subjugate the music to help that scene dramatically. You need experience, craft and good old-fashioned problem solving skills and a big imagination/creativity. Then, you must do this all by Tuesday. Easy right?

DUCK TALES
Reel Cool: You were selected to score Duck Tales – was that a direct commission from Disney or as result of an open casting?

Ron Jones: Chris Montan, a very intuitive guy who heads up Disney music had sat in a few sessions that we where doing for H-B. I did not know at all who he was. He heard some of my cues and said he thought they where pretty good. I told him how I regard the audience and its intelligence. When Duck Tales started out the composers took a low approach, talking down and being very patronizing with the score. Really too stupid and overtly "Cute". So Chris called and said, “Please come down to Disney and let's have you do this series.”

When I went down we met with the head of TV-Animation. He asked me what my approach would be. I said I would treat these Ducks like real people on real adventures. I would not play the score like a kid’s show at all. I said if they went on an adventure I would play it serious like Raiders of the Lost Ark. I guess they saw my point and gave me the job.

Reel Cool: Duck Tales debuted in 1987 – given the lead-time for cartoons at what point were you brought into the production schedule?

Ron Jones: In guess a few months before that.

Reel Cool: Were you shown footage of Duck Tales prior to composing?

Ron Jones: I scored to picture frame by frame of course.

Reel Cool: Did you have the chance to discuss the scenarios you would be scoring with the producers or were you just given broad based themes like ‘action sequence’, ‘dream sequence’, ‘mystery’ etc?

Ron Jones: Not really. They gave me a very wide creative area to operate in. That always allows for good things to happen. Here Ron, do something cool. That is all I need. Most producers micro manage and suppress the scores, it’s really a very sad situation and counter-intuitive.

Reel Cool: Assuming you created the initial demo scores on synths, did you write the final orchestral arrangements?

Ron Jones: There where no demos. I did everything, compose, orchestrate, arrange and conduct.

Reel Cool: Initially you oversaw the sequences you were scoring. As time went on were you involved in applying your cues to later episodes?

Ron Jones: I only scored a few shows. I designed the cues to not only score specific scenes but to be trackable. They tracked the vast majority of the episodes due to the effectiveness of this design. One of the best ever, I believe.

Reel Cool: Duck Tales ran for 100 episodes – many of your cues were reused throughout the seasons (this is why so many are so familiar and beloved by fans), how many cues did you actually compose?

Ron Jones: I composed it as a library. I had Adventure themes, Bad guy themes, chases, heart-felt cues, the gamut. My years at Hanna-Barbera came in very handy.

Reel Cool: How many sessions were there, what was the typical recording set up and size of the orchestra you used for the scoring sessions?

Ron Jones: I think about there were about 14 sessions. I packaged all the sessions. I had nearly 40 players for much of it. I had some sessions with contemporary rhythm section guys, and some synth with a small group of live players. We covered a lot of ground. Duckburg was a big freakin' place!

Reel Cool: There are many varied styles of music evident on DuckTales, were you given creative freedom on this project?

Ron Jones: Yes. I did whatever I chose to do.

Reel Cool: Do you have any specific or lasting memories of this project?

Ron Jones: After I scored the first episode (Armstrong) the music editor called me up and was very excited. He said , "Drop everything and come over, I want to show you something." When I got there, in a little editing room he played back the first few cues with pictures on an old movieola. It was magical. Everything worked so well. My approach of playing things real helped elevate the show, gave it a wonderment. Everyone could tell we had something very special. I just did my thing and it worked out nicely.

DUCK TALES AND BEYOND

Reel Cool: I’ll keep this brief as I guess you’ve probably answered this a zillion times! Getting the Star Trek TNG gig must have been equally daunting and thrilling, how did it feel to be in the same elite group as composers like Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner?

Ron Jones: Yes, it was. I had always in my own mind, pretended every show was great. In the case of ST:TNG, it really was cool. So I did not have to imagine as much. They laid it out - I scored it. I treated each episode like a feature, in every way possible.

Reel Cool: Were you ever tempted to emulate Goldsmith or determined to carve your own niche with your TNG scores?

Ron Jones: Well, we had to in a way. The studio (Paramount) was worried at first. They wanted the music at least, to bridge from the original series to the shockingly different ST:TNG. Sure, there was that element, but my music is still mine. Close your eyes sometime and really listen. You can hear it.

Reel Cool: Seth MacFarlane has made no secret of his love of Big Band Jazz - was it fun scoring Family Guy?

Ron Jones: Yes, we have enjoyed FG and it's fun, crazy dimensions for 10 years now. We are just starting the 6th season. Seth supports the music so deeply. If it where not for him, it would have been screwed down, like most of the crappy scores on broadcast today. He creates a zone where music can live. He knows and values what music does to a film or TV show. It is a vital element on may levels and he uses that to make the shows better. I guess that is why it is a billion dollar franchise world-wide. There are typically like, 20 styles in each show. It really makes you stretch. I love that. I love the challenge.

Reel Cool: The Fairly Odd Parents theme harks back to Swing Band Jazz and the classic 60’s Hanna Barbera themes – was that your idea or Butch Hartman’s?

Ron Jones: Seth recommended me to his close friend, Butch. Butch is a great person. He just trusted me to come up with something, and I did. He sent me a fax with some hand-written lyrics. i messed with them a bit and composed two different themes and sent them over for him to listen to. He took them home and played them for his young daughters. They loved the one that is used in the show. Yes, I brought into the theme the notion of a big Hoyt Curtin type thing. Of course it was fun.

FUTURE PROJECTS

Reel Cool: What new scores are you working on?

Ron Jones: Family Guy, American Dad and I think I will be doing part of the new Cleveland series. I am composing a lot of new things outside TV, like for my Jazz Orchestra-influence and for symphony orchestras. I just composed a new work called, The Ascent. I will premier it with the Las Vegas Philharmonic this weekend. Also, I am doing some free-form improvisational performance with Brad Dutz (my main Percussionist and dear friend) in the more artzy clubs around LA. I want to expand myself, and get out of the groove of just doing sessions in closed studios. I want to share with real people, live. This has been going very well.

Reel Cool: You’ve branched into film with your documentary with the musical group "Obliteration" and you series of shows Cookin' Carribean, - is that where your future lies or is scoring still your bread and butter?

Ron Jones: Look, Hollywood is about many things. In features it's about box office. The studios select composers, primarily because the last film they did made money. It is a factory. I still hold out great hope and possibility in scoring for features, even though many have dismissed me and all that. I feel that I have learned and experienced so much. I know my craft very well. Eventually Seth or someone else will look around and see what is available and choose to give me the creative opportunity. My life is so full of joy and thought and humanity that I really don't worry about it. I just do my best at all times. I let all that other stuff come or not. If I am given a great film to score, I know I will create something on a high level with meaning.

Reel Cool: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me

Ron Jones: Thank you for asking.

You can find out more about Ron Jones on his current website www.ronjonesproductions.com

1 comment:

House said...

Wow, this was an amazing read. That was some great insight into a composer's mind, and I have a particular interest in the Ducktales soundtrack. Thanks so much for doing this interview, I really appreciate it.