Animators had embraced African American jazz for decades by then. Most famously, Max Fleischer cast Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and the Mills Brothers in cartoons in the early 1930s, and Hugh Harman hired African American musicians to lampoon those celebrities for his jazz-frog cartoons of the late 1930s. Bosustow himself was no stranger to marrying jazz with animation; his UPA cartoon Rooty Toot Toot, directed by John Hubley, featured a score by musician Phil Moore. In fact, the Pittsburgh Courier of January 24th, 1953 reported that London’s music periodical Melody Maker named Moore’s score “the best jazz music in a film in 1952.”
The 1959 article does not provide any reasons why Bosustow started the Morton film. It merely cites him as wanting to produce “a serious motion picture told in cartoon.” However, he laid out a plan for it that depended on the successes of other projects–namely, two features starring UPA’s flagship character Mister Magoo. If the public responded well to 1001 Arabian Nights, then Bosustow would have followed it with another comedic adaptation of folklore–Robin Hood Magoo. After that film would have come the serious Morton movie–without Magoo. “We already have five minutes of scenes completed with jazz ready for the picture,” the producer bragged to the Courier.
The announcement of the Morton biopic adds a twist to Bosustow’s speech at the segregated Tulane. He apparently began work on the film after the speech. He had given his address on December 11, 1959, but the Courier’s article of December 26 mentioned that he “started his chores last week,” which would have been December 18 at the earliest. The separate interests of the press outlets also add to this twist. The Pittsburgh Courier was a newspaper established by African Americans for an African American readership, and it did not mention Bosustow’s Tulane remarks. On the other hand, none of New Orleans’s mainstream periodicals like the Times-Picayune relayed his announcement about the Morton film.
The project was risky for several reasons. Movies starring African Americans had hit-or-miss track records; Porgy and Bess had mixed reviews in 1959. African American biopics were even rarer. In addition, animation studios steered clear of depictions of African Americans by this time. Civil rights organizations pressured distributors to pull cartoons with stereotyped characters from theaters, and television networks had already begun censoring old cartoons with those images. Aside from an appearance by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in The Mouse That Jack Built that year, the African American cartoon character was a thing of the past. The Courier had publicized protests against many cartoons like Chuck Jones’s Angel Puss and Tex Avery’s Uncle Tom’s Cabana; the newspaper’s willingness to promote Bosustow’s project showed a high level of trust in the seriousness he promised for the film.
The Courier’s report on Bosustow’s research unfortunately coincided with a major transition at UPA. Columbia Pictures stopped distributing the studio’s films to theaters after the failure of 1001 Arabian Nights, and Robin Hood Magoo never played in theaters. In 1960 Bosustow sold the studio to Henry Saperstein, who then committed UPA to television. When the studio made one last feature two years later, the featured musicians were singers Robert Goulet and Judy Garland–a drastically different musical direction from Jelly Roll Morton–for Gay Purr-ee. That movie did not fare well either; perhaps those five minutes of Morton-inspired animation would have helped.