Allen Mezquida is an accomplished alto saxophonist. As a regular on the New York jazz scene in the 80s and 90s, he performed and recorded with many of the greatest musicians still playing at that time, like Art Blakey and Gerry Mulligan. His 1996 solo album, A Good Thing, was well-received by critics. In an earlier age it might have been the beginning of a glorious career. But as the 20th century came to a close, Mezquida was becoming increasingly disillusioned.
“I was more frustrated with jazz’s tiny place in the current cultural landscape than with my jazz career,” Mezquida told Open Culture. So he turned to another of his artistic passions. The visual arts–cartooning, in particular–had always attracted him. “Mad magazine, Chuck Jones and various art books held my attention alongside Miles, Coltrane and Stan Getz,” Mezquida said. He began experimenting with digital animation, and before long he moved to Los Angeles and began receiving work from Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony and PIXAR. He contributed to Aladdin and Toy Story.
Mezquida found himself where he wanted to be: at the very heart of America’s cultural landscape. Still, something wasn’t right. As he told The Daily Beast in 2010, “I was just holding an oar in the bowels of a Viking ship. And executing the ideas of morons that I didn’t respect.” Mezquida wanted cultural relevance and artistic freedom. As a consequence, Smigly was born.
Smigly is Mezquida’s alter ego, an Everyman adrift in a dehumanized, corporatized culture in which social media serve only to intensify a sense of social alienation. As an artist, Smigly faces a society less interested in art than in the degradation of artists. Like Charlie Chaplin, or Charlie Brown, there is something timeless about Smigly: a sensitive soul pouring his heart out to an indifferent, or hostile, world.
The trials and tribulations of Smigly are chronicled on Smigly.tv. The latest installment, Kind of Black and Blue, is shown above. The piece was commissioned by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, but Mezquida was given complete creative control. Kind of Black and Blue moves like a Swiss watch, each part fitting tightly into place. A musician’s sense of timing is evident. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the clearest way to visually communicate an idea,” Mezquida said. “It brings people into the story faster. Gary Larson, PIXAR and Don Martin quickly come to mind as very precise visual storytellers. Coltrane made every note count. Same thing.”
Mezquida continues to play music, performing with several jazz groups in the Los Angeles area. And many of his cartoon episodes feature his saxophone playing. With his growing popularity on YouTube, Smigly has helped Mezquida find a new audience for his music. And so, Mezquida moves closer to that elusive combination of artistic independence and popular success. We asked him about his hopes for the future. “I want to experience a major existential crisis deciding what to do when a major corporation wants to sponsor Smigly,” he said. “I’m kidding. A little.”
For more Smigly, go directly to Smigly.tv or begin by checking out a few or our favorite episodes: