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Five for Friday: The Musical Legacy of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"

This summer will witness the usual cinematic blockbusters hitting movie screens, as films in the Marvel, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park franchises are predicted to dominate the box office. But a far quieter and equally important film opens this week. Won't You Be My Neighbor? takes a look at the life and legacy of one Fred Rogers, whose "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" show functioned a children's' staple for decades. While the puppets and educational focus may appear quaint by today's standards, Rogers' series also stood for optimism and possibilities. And it championed music. Many songs heard on the show were written by Rogers, but he wasn't a hype man. Instead, he wanted to show his audience the joy that could be had by performing and singing. Here we take a deeper look at the musical legacy of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Tony Bennett
Today, at 91, Bennett feels ageless. He's still touring, and doing so with gusto, bringing a light jazzy flair to standards he helped popularize (see "Stepping Out with My Baby" and "I Got Rhythm"). A classical singer's singer, Bennett excels in the arts of phrasing and articulation – treating every word as sacred and lending a sense of intimacy to the Great American Songbook. The patient approach brings an air of professionalism to his work. In calling attention to every syllable, he's like a professor, which makes him a perfect guest for a children's show. In 1975, when in his early 40s, Bennett appeared to sing a pair of songs and make some crafts. In the episode, Bennett tackles the loving Mr. Rogers staple "It's You I Like," a tune fit for a wedding slow dance, and serenades the puppet Lady Elaine Fairchild. And he does so with the grace a fancy marionette deserves.

Johnny Costa
Jazz pianist Johnny Costa served as the unsung hero of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." An accomplished musician in his own right – and one with a budding recording career before he aligned with Rogers – Costa accepted the stability of a children's show gig to stay close to his Pittsburgh home. Working on the series as part of a trio (Costa played with Carl McVicker Jr. on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on percussion), he gave the Neighborhood its too-cool-for-after-school-special jazz vibe. Costa often scored the program as if it were a film, lending borderline-experimental flourishes to nearly each of Rogers's moves. Every toy, puppet, and animal had its own assortment of odd sounds that arrived courtesy of Costa's synthesizers and ambient noises. He also took Rogers' simple, direct lyrics and gave them stately readings. See the relaxing, overture-like flourishes of the Beethoven-inspired opening theme song "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" or the constant tempo shifts of "It's Such a Good Feeling," which witnesses Costa sneaking in a slight ragtime tone under Rogers' sing-song vocals.

Yo-Yo Ma
Often cited as one of Rogers' heroes, cellist Yo-Yo Ma made multiple appearances on the show. Back in the early-to-mid-80s when Ma was still a budding star, he visited with Rogers to discuss music, art and family. No doubt Ma's presence marked the first introduction to classical artists for many of the young viewers. Yet Ma was also game to rework some of Rogers' own compositions. The mournful nature of the cello revamps the lullaby-like "Tree Tree Tree" into a tale of loss. More than anything, Ma understood the sense of wonder Rogers helped create. "Fred Rogers deliberately opens himself to such an extent that to a socialized person it seems somewhat ridiculous," Ma once said when describing the program's appeal. "But actually that's what three-year-olds are used to and that's what they want; they want to believe in somebody."

Esperanza Spalding
Today, violinist Hilary Hahn is a world-renowned musician, a classical artist who celebrates modern music and has even led orchestras. But when she visited the Neighborhood in her young 20s back in 2000, she was still something of a prodigy, a welcoming new voice on the classical circuit. She also served as an inspiration to other young musicians. Jazz trailblazer Esperanza Spalding has been ambitiously expanding her sound since winning the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011 – increasingly incorporating elements of funk and R&B to her songs while giving her acrobatic vocals intense workouts. Before she was Esperanza Spalding, so-called Savior of Jazz, Spalding was just a Mr. Rogers fan. In fact, she credits an appearance from Hahn on the show for inspiring her music career. "That was an affirmation that little girls can grow up and be musicians, be instrumentalists," Spalding said on a recent PBS documentary.

The Marsalis Family
Giving Rogers' penchant for jazz, as well as Costa's presence, one should not be surprised that members of the Marsalis family paid a few visits to the Neighborhood over the years. Of special note is a 1990 appearance in which the family offers swinging versions of Rogers originals and adds a bit of free-jazz improvisation to "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" But when a group such as the Marsalis family came on the show, they weren't mere musical guests. Rogers would expand his set to include a music shop and the act would perform surrounded by instruments. Once Rogers was back home, he spent time dissecting the instruments used by the group. In such a sense, the Marsalis appearances weren't promotional – little kids watching likely weren't begging mom and dad for jazz records, after all – but about wonder and possibility. Considering Rogers' often-stoic appearance and mannerisms, he may not be considered as a musical rebel. Yet he never stopped acting as a guide to teach people it's okay to express themselves.

June 8, 2018

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