Jazz Toons: Allen Mezquida’s Journey from Bebop to Smigly

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:


Art and Com­merce

I Heart Jazz


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