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Jazzing Christmas

Christmastime comes in my household sometime in late September or early October. The arrival of the season is signaled—not as in my childhood by the appearance of the Sears Wish Book—but a UPS truck disgorging the annual harvest of Christmas jazz CDs. For the past six years, I have been the go-to-elf for Christmas jazz recordings at Cadence. (The latest installment forthcoming in the December issue.) Each year I get to survey that year’s batch of potential stocking stuffers that range from your neighborhood singer intoning “Silent Night” to a southern steel guitar ensemble soulfully whining “The Dreydl Song”.

Some CDs are meant to be sold off the bandstand while others are major label releases meant to add to the piles of merchandise clogging the aisles of discount retailers. While the most presumptuous releases declare that their contents merit year-round listening, the truth is with one exception—more on that later—no Yuletide release, even the very best, gets listened to during seasons when daylight outweighs the night. In fact, at my house there’s another measure of a keeper CD. As my son said of Dianne Reeves’ Christmas Time Is Here: “We may actually listen to this at Christmastime.”

My own love of Christmas music dates back to my childhood. Raised in a French-Canadian Catholic family, the music of midnight Mass, especially the reedy strains of the parochial tenor singing “O Holy Night”, resonate in my memory. And carol singing around the piano started with my mother playing and continued on with myself, my wife and, now, my son doing keyboard honors. Given that, it’s not surprising even with my love of jazz, my taste in Christmas music tends toward the traditional, my favorite being Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”.

All along my view of Christmas music, and by extension Christmas celebrations as a whole, has been bifurcated. I distinguish between the spiritual, or as I see it now, the cosmic, and the secular, or pop. In other words, Rudolph the Reindeer was not one of the talking beasts at the manger. And even as I drifted away from religion, that sense of the transcendent, albeit free floating, has continued to be associated with the season. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy all the frivolity as well. Still to me “the season” is rooted in just that... the season, that innate sense of the encroaching darkness suddenly giving way, ever so slightly to the light. That feeling is behind the Nativity story—with a sense of moral darkness added to the physical darkness—and behind ancient Nordic celebrations as well. In A Christmas Carol, a sense of psychological darkness engulfs Scrooge before his nighttime visitors help him see the light. That sense of seeing the light, or redemption, pervades the popular depictions of the season underneath all the rampant commercialism.

So how does jazz fit into all of this? Actually, despite the annual flood of Christmas releases, not all that well. The earliest jazz songs like “At the Christmas Ball” by Bessie Smith celebrate the hedonism of the holiday with wild bashes where if your partner’s not fair there’s another over there. That’s the spirit of Paul Whiteman’s “Christmas Night in Harlem”, sung by Johnny Mercer and Jack Teagarden and full of the casual racial stereotypes of the 1920s. The big band era helped to domesticate jazz, so that Glenn Miller would offer his own version of the venerable American winter standard “Jingle Bells”, the first in a line of winter songs associated with Christmas through the sheer force of that holiday’s cultural magnetism. Fats Waller, with his own “Swingin’ Those Jingle Bells”, kept the irreverent view of the holiday alive. What remained off limits was that vast repertoire of traditional carols, save for Glenn Miller using the strains of “Silent Night” as a scene setter.

Within just five years of the onset of World War II, the four popular standards that now define secular Christmas were written: “White Christmas”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, “The Christmas Song”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.  All speak of a longing for the comforts and companionship of home and hearth, of a more pastoral time. (“Silver Bells” is the rare Christmas standard that celebrates the holiday in the city.) The first three of these all establish the iconography of the holidays, listing the presents, trees, bells, chestnuts, carols being sung by choirs, and the like that serve as the essential accoutrements of the season. Though “The Christmas Song”, best known though for its opening line “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, was co-composed by jazz singer and drummer Mel Torme and was a hit for jazzman-turned-pop-idol Nat “King” Cole, the jazz community didn’t rush to adopt these tunes.

This sentimentality and celebration of middle class comfort, presaging the 1950s, was just the kind of attitude the boppers, super-cool hipsters, skeptical, if not jaded, rebelled against. Charlie Parker can’t help but add a few sardonic fillips to his reading of “White Christmas”, interjected into a 1948 Christmas broadcast from the Royal Roost.  In 1961, Miles Davis summed up the dismissive attitude when he approached Bob Dorough to write a Christmas song he could perform on the Columbia holiday sampler Jingle Bell Jazz. “What the fuck am I supposed to play for them? ‘White Christmas’!” (Chambers, Milestones) Miles, unlike Parker, was more a romantic than an ironist, and lacked the emotional distance from the material that allowed the saxophonist to deliver such a fetching, yet hip rendition of the Bing Crosby hit. The result of the Davis and Dorough collaboration was “Blue Xmas”, one of the worst holiday songs ever, a smug exercise in self-righteousness.

Not every hipster turned his nose up at Christmas though. Louis Armstrong, in 1953 and 1955, recorded four seasonal songs that are unique in finding common ground between the prevailing holiday cheer and a distinctly jazz sensibility. “Cool Yule”, “’Zat You Santa Claus”, “Christmas in New Orleans”, and “Christmas Night in Harlem” (cleansed of the racist language) seem to be having a revival just as jazzers seem less able, or even inclined, to revel in the earthy attitude the songs embody. The songs cover that early jazz hedonism (“Christmas Night in Harlem”), a streamlined, modernistic sleigh ride (“Cool Yule”), a bit of minstrelsy (“’Zat You...”), and, yes, a bit of nostalgic hokum (“Christmas in New Orleans”). Taken as a group they embody a hip holiday cheer. (They’re now available together with Armstrong’s versions of “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” on The Best of Louis Armstrong and Friends on Hip-O. Not included is his reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, where he sounds like a good-natured grandpa pressed into service to read to the grandkids.)

Armstrong was not part of Jingle Bell Jazz, though he was involved in another Columbia project that year. The session established an enduring form of jazz Christmas album, the label sampler. The idea is that album label executives get artists on their roster to each record a holiday number, then package them together as a way of introducing the musicians to a wider audience using the hook of jazz versions of holiday favorites. The album included cuts by Chico Hamilton with Charles Lloyd taking a solid solo on an otherwise turgid reading of “Winter Wonderland”, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ irreverent “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie” (the name adopted from cartoonist Walt Kelly), and a ringing reading of “Jingle Bells” by Duke Ellington.

Just the year before Ellington had waxed that one exception to the rule about no Christmas music out of season, his and Strayhorn’s piquant take on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”. They neither condescend to the material nor seem in awe of it. Rather they give it new life through the orchestra’s own vivid palette of instrumental color. Ellington’s piece has been given new life as “The Harlem Nutcracker”, a fully choreographed ballet, and the music is getting covered more often. The New England Jazz Ensemble has a new recording of it and two bands, the Toledo Jazz Orchestra and the II-V-I Orchestra, are giving live performances in my area.

Also, at this time Ella Fitzgerald produced her Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, which set the benchmark for vocal jazz Christmas albums. Ramsey Lewis also produced a Christmas album in 1960. Yet jazz albums still seemed a novelty some 20 years later. In reviewing a reissue of Jingle Bell Jazz for Cadence in July 1981, Carl Brauer wrote, “given the program of tunes... I doubt the average jazz consumer will find much of interest here”.  And in writing the liner notes for God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen, Columbia’s 1981 follow-up to Jingle Bell Jazz, Barbara Lynn Micale wrote “jazz and Christmas haven’t teamed up very often in the past”. That, however, was already changing.

God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen shows one major shift in the jazz attitude toward Christmas in the repertoire, which reflects that bifurcated view of the music. Side one is devoted to treatments of three standards—“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, given a bouncy, perfunctory reading by Dexter Gordon, not recognizing the great ballad that it is; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, rendered with great majesty by McCoy Tyner on solo piano; and “The Christmas Song”, delivered with a touch of astringency by Arthur Blythe with his standards quartet of the time.

On side two the merry jazzmen turn their attention to the sacred repertoire—Jimmy Heath remakes “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” as “Our Little Town” for the Heath Brothers; Paquito D’Rivera with John Miller on acoustic bass probes “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”; and Wynton Marsalis wraps “We Three Kings” in tightly wound altered harmonies. Now this was not the first time jazz instrumentalists had taken on sacred tunes—The Modern Jazz Quartet led the way in the 1950s with its Baroque rendering of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, recorded at the time as “England’s Carol”. And Stan Kenton evoked the great tradition of carols played by brass when he recorded his Christmas album.

Still jazz players tended to shy away from the sacred. That musicians broke that barrier reflects John Coltrane’s own overt embrace of spirituality, most prominently on A Love Supreme. Mary Lou Williams had presaged this in the late 1940s, and Ellington spent much of his late career on his Sacred Concerts. The jazz community now addressed the sacred literature not because it felt empowered to deconstruct and tweak it as Charlie Parker had “White Christmas”, but because musicians now felt their music should address their own spiritual concerns. The religiosity of the music in general has grown more pronounced in the past two decades. Just note how CDs offer thanks to the Creator in the credits.

And in the flood of Christmas releases, whether it’s smooth jazz with Gospel inflections or carols by a group of Presbyterian beboppers, “Silent Night”, et al get deferential treatment. And that extends to those secular hymns as well. Christmas jazz espouses the conventional view rather than questioning it. Undoubtedly the market for the mawkish is there, and jazz follows just as surely as pop country.

The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra of Boston under the direction of Mark Harvey does stand out from this crowd in their pursuit of serious original jazz composition that addresses the deeply rooted spiritual issues in a contemporary way. For more than 30 years the ensemble has staged a Christmas concert—shades of the premiere of Handel’s “Messiah”—in a local church. Last year’s CD release Bethlehem Counterpoint: Carols and a Christmas Cantata includes Sheila Jordan as guest vocalist. In a sweeping performance, the orchestra demonstrates how timeless themes can be expressed in authentic contemporary terms. I suspect the cantata portion, “Bethlehem Counterpoint”, works better in a church setting. Still its message rings true even in home digital form.

When I received this it was too late for inclusion in my own attempt to fashion a musical narrative of the Christmas story. I have over the years assembled various mix tapes of Christmas music. The first brought together whatever I could find, but they grew more refined in selection and theme over the years. The most elaborate was something I dubbed “Christmas Soundscape”. The aim was to fashion through music in my collection a narrative from darkness to light to enduring hopefulness even in the face of the stubbornness of evil. (We hardly need to be reminded of that last point at this period in human history.)

I found that I had to draw on European art music, from Medieval songs to contemporary composer James MacMillan’s variations on “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” to find the musical correlatives to the emotional meaning I was seeking. When I did draw on the jazz repertoire, it was usually for material that was not explicitly Christmas-related. The mix opens with Wesla Whitfield singing “Lost in the Stars”. As I drew to the climax—the moment of birth—jazz became most prominent. The central sequence opens with “Our Little Town” from the Heath Brothers. That’s followed by the closest Thelonious Monk ever came to writing a Christmas song, “Round Midnight”. I use the duo of Enrico Rava and Roswell Rudd, in a loose, boozy rendering that sounds to me like two shepherds wandering the streets of Bethlehem after last call. As Rudd’s raucous low note fades, chimes ring in, signalling the moment marked by Mahalia Jackson’s reading of “O Holy Night”. That tenor back at Immaculate Conception church never sounded like this. That’s followed by Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time”, offering the right bit of lyrical complication and then Roland Hanna’s solo version (from Montreux) of “A Child Is Born”.

When it comes time for the royalty to arrive, they are presented in the form of Coltrane blowing “Greensleeves”, Ellington playing “Come Sunday”, and Billie Holiday singing “God Bless the Child”. The tape closes, as several other of my Christmas mixes do, not with a Christmas song but with Louis Armstrong singing “It’s a Wonderful World”, his reflective, worldly vocal triumphing over the saccharine lyrics. Now there’s something you can actually listen to at Christmas, and all year round as well.

A note on sources: This essay, a preliminary investigation to be sure, owes a great debt to Dr. Jack Santino, one of the premier experts on holidays and pop culture. Not only is he widely published and his views widely sought, but his field research extends to discussions over Bushmill’s—his Bushmill’s no less. Truly a boon scholar. Also, The Jazz Discography by Tom Lord, both the print and version 3.3 of the CD-ROM was used. Finding the complete contents and discographical information on the original Jingle Bell Jazz proved daunting since Lord does not index by album title. For this the Cadence All Years Index did the trick, allowing me to locate the review of the 1981 reissue. The actual copy of the 1981 reissue of Jingle Bell Jazz, as well other pertinent material, was located in the Bowling Green State University Sound Recordings Archives.