The Pigeon Man: Hey Arnold’s Jazz Legacy

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Hey Arnold is one of the 90s’ most memorable cartoons that has left an imprint on the hearts and minds of many millennials. A 9-year-old boy raised in an city, whose inner life is richly imaginative, tries to help save or improve the lives of friends, family, and strangers alike. Its premise was simple and impressionable. Not just as a result of the conclusions it leaves us with each episode (including the harshest of life lessons) but also the music that brought life to the cartoon.

Hey Arnold‘s music composer Jim Lang, who also composed Hey Arnold The Movie, created a score that had variations of classical jazz and its sub-genres. There were not any other cartoons at the time that had a distinct score like Hey Arnold and made an impact on its audience as much as this show’s storyline. Fans of the show can think of their favourite episodes and quickly remember the music that accompanies it. So, why jazz? The genre relies on improvisation by its musicians to reflect their mood as well as atmosphere. While it may not always come with lyrics, jazz music can still create a narrative that is easily relatable. Lang masterfully utilised the genre in Hey Arnold to enhance the mood, tone, and atmosphere of the show and because of this his music is just as nostalgic as the lessons the show delivers.

One particular way Jim Lang’s music makes a mark on his audience is by giving both main and supporting characters their own theme song comprised of jazz instrumentation. Depending on the character, the individual’s theme will tie into the themes of the episode. The episode ‘The Pigeon Man’, from the show’s first season, is one example (and personally one of my favourite episodes from the cartoon). We only meet the Pigeon man, whose actual name is Vincent, one time but he has remained one of the show’s most memorable characters.

In the episode, one of Arnold’s carrier pigeons is ill. His best friend Gerald, the show’s keeper of all things urban legends, tells him the story of the pigeon man. Lang’s music for this man is dark and terrifying at first. It is so strong we feel as if we need to fear this mysterious person. Even to the point that the pigeon man has the potential to be dangerous. Having the perception of a stranger described as a “crazy, psychopathic freak” with birds for friends, Arnold has no choice but to go to pay him a visit since he is the only person who can help save his bird. On an innocent level, we agree with Arnold on this. Like most children’s cartoons, Arnold is the kind of protagonist we want to root for and at this point, Arnold and the audience are hoping for the best. We follow him. Arriving at the The Pigeon Man’s location on 88th Street, Jim Lang’s score becomes ominous but not without a hint of childlike curiosity from our protagonist’s view. The music forces us to become curious ourselves. After all, urban legends are not always what they seem to be in reality. We don’t know what truly lies beyond the tale, whether its details are rooted in fact or pain all fiction. Still, the music leads us to confront our uncertainty about meeting this seemingly bizarre man.

Under the piercing screech of wild pigeons, the bass drum beat sounds foreboding while the strings ramp up the anticipation of what Arnold is going to encounter. Lang’s musical effect here is intense but not overbearing. It just enough to spark our curious minds and makes us become brave just like our protagonist. Arnold opens the door to the rooftop and the music abruptly stops as he looks for this stranger. He eventually finds the man standing on the opposite side of the shot. Arnold introduces himself and when Pigeon Man turns around we are welcomed by the calming sounds of a synth keyboard, wind instruments and acoustics. It is the complete opposite from the horror-filled music that shrouded the details of this individual before.

Immediately, we are thrown off guard. This man who is regarded as a psychopath turns out to be relatively harmless. Lang’s previous theme of pigeon man described in Gerald’s legend gets quickly erased. Earlier, we were given a false perception of the pigeon man on purpose. From here on out, we meet Pigeon Man with a smooth jazz theme. It’s soft and poignant. By hearing this, we are getting prepared to gain a new perspective. The lesson of this episode begins here with the help of Lang’s new thematic change for our new character. It’s effect is strong. We have no choice now but to sit back and listen. Pigeon Man’s theme forces us to see him as a human being whose backstory, as we learn later on, is nothing short of unfortunate. Vincent is a victim of school bullying and has remained a recluse well into his adulthood. Arnold, being the sensitive idealist that he is tries to help by reintegrating him back into society and taking him to a local pizza restaurant. This seems to work. As we watch these two kindred spirits together, we believe Arnold can make a breakthrough with Vincent by reintegrating him back into society. That is, until you hear Lang’s music dramatically shift from the happy Italian music of the Pizzeria to the distorted tunes of the busy streets.

Smooth jazz turns into acid jazz when Arnold’s peers Stinky, Harold, and an unnamed male character enter the scene. The gang’s theme is heavily warped and playful while still being pleasing to the human ear. What’s great about Lang’s acid jazz here, including the cartoon’s intro/outro, is that it brings out the colours of Arnold’s hometown. Acid jazz is a unique mixture of jazz, funk, and soul. So it makes perfect sense to use this form of Jazz here. We see and take in the vibrancy of the town thanks to this musical blend. Unfortunately, in this particular episode, the acid jazz pierces through the bonding moment between Pigeon Man and Arnold by bringing us back to noise of city life. The heart-warming connection we were just witnessing, and enjoying, now feels disrupted. On some level, you don’t to hear the sound of warped jazz but Lang puts it in front of you anyway because life is full of interruptions, pleasant or not. The boys decide to make a mess out of Pigeon Man’s home. Here, Lang’s earlier horror music from Gerald’s urban legend returns as they ruin the outsider’s home. This time the music has nothing to do with the innocent pigeon man. Instead, it is the reflection of the chaos caused by three nine year old boys. It’s frightening to say the least but more so from a younger audience perspective because we don’t understand why this had to occur – it’s the first time we are seeing human nature at its worst but through a child’s perspective. Here, Lang demonstrated how music can stir up complex emotions that can’t be explained with precise words.

Lang’s music pauses briefly until Arnold and Pigeon Man return to see the destruction. Lang brings in the sombre bird keeper’s music. Except this time, it is met with more sadness and loneliness that younger audiences could have anticipated. At the same time, we feel a sense of calm. It’s like the storm has passed. Now, we are left to pick up the pieces. We even hear Arnold tell Vincent we can always clean up and replace the bird cages with new ones. Though Arnold maybe shocked by what just happened, Vincent is not and begins to give Arnold a true look into that mean-spirited nature of mankind. Vincent’s smooth jazz theme remains as he delivers his famous speech on his dedication to taking care of birds. Now, we no longer hold a sense of unhappiness. We feel as hopeful as we can feel, as the warm notes of a piano come in as his birds prepare Vincent for flight. He tells Arnold he hopes to find another “Arnold” in his next destination, “Remember Arnold. Wash your berries before you eat them. And fly towards the sun.” The pigeon man’s theme has the most profound effect at the end of the episode as the episode’s outro. It acts as sombre reminder of Vincent’s story. Lang’s theme for pigeon man is heavy but with a calming effect that lingers long after the show is over. Though we are left behind a beautiful picture of him flying off to find a better place, we are also being made to wonder if there are any more Vincents like him in this world that deserve another chance at having a more fulfilling life.

Pigeon Man’s theme is a one of Lang’s most recognisable jazz pieces from the show. Millennials, like myself, who remember “Pigeon Man” back when the episode debuted can hear his theme now even in our early to mid-20s and are reminded of the real life lessons that come with it. Humans can be cruel, regardless of age. Through Arnold’s perspective, we learn that we cannot save everyone. Arnold’s determination to help Vincent couldn’t stop humanity from hurting him. Despite this, there is a sweetness of hope within Vincent because of him. We can feel that hopefulness through his theme. Without Lang’s soothing jazz music score for Pigeon Man, this episode could have easily have been forgotten. Since Lang’s colourful jazz compositions are intricately woven into the characters’ lives you can still know who they are even if you remove the words. Lang’s music score for Hey Arnold is a teaching lesson in jazz appreciation class. It’s a unique genre of music with the ability to tell story beyond words we can all share.

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