Jazz Christmas Songs
What you’ll find with many acts is that they’ll turn out a Christmas song/album that has all the hallmarks of a half conceived project, a throwaway creation that’s brazenly in it for the money. One genre that appears impervious to this shoddy approach is jazz because it appears as if its finest exponents have reserved their best moments for the sounds of Christmas. Jazz Christmas music has been with us for longer than most other styles so inevitably there are going to be rich pickings. Take the Andrew Sisters ‘Christmas Island’ which made 1946’s season of goodwill all the more special for the gentle pep in its swing. The vocals were faultless as was Guy Lombardo’s orchestration which gave the dynamics a velvet coating.
If you list the greats of jazz you more than likely discover a winning jazz Christmas number in their armoury, in many cases there are several of them. That’s certainly the case for Ella Fitzgerald whose ‘Ella Wishes You A Swingin’ Christmas’ is one of the best Christmas albums, housing as it does some of the greatest jazz Christmas songs ever. Her radical reworking ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is immense with lyrical, vocal and orchestral flourishes that would put most Christmas compositions to shame. Equally impressive was her retelling of Count Basie’s ‘Good Morning Blues’, a smooth jazz Christmas ditty if ever there was one. And even if you fall in love with Ella there is plenty on Count Basie’s 1937 swish original to warrant giving it plenty of listening time. The crackle you hear may well be the sound of worn vinyl but there was also electricity in the air as the Jazz man and his orchestra cut a Christmas classic.
First there was the 1965 TV cartoon and then there was the music from the Vince Guaraldi Trio that so illuminated the slow moving animated classic ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’. Nowadays the cartoon and the music are interdependent which probably makes the ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ soundtrack the most recognised and loved jazz Christmas album’s of all time. With piano led classics such as ‘O Tannenbaum’, ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ and ‘Skating’ this record never fails to raise a smile from everyone within earshot. Similarly humour improving is Eartha Kitt’s ‘Santa Baby’ from 1953, a simple concept that Kitt sexily dispatches in her own inimitable way. Back then it may have seemed risqué, today it just still sounds fantastic.
Another lady (day) who didn’t need a handful of snow to send the shivers down the spine was Billie Holiday and her 1937 cover of Irving Berlin’s ‘I’ve Got Your Love To Keep Me Warm’ remains the definitive version by some distance. While Holiday’s song was a classy affair Miles Davis took things one step further for his 1962 hit ‘Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)’. With Davis driving the cut and paste jazz swing it was left to Bob Dorough’s odd but arresting vocals to complete an experimental Christmas Jazz song par excellence. For something a little more on the straight and narrow you can always rely on Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’s early 1960’s version of ‘Jingle Bells’. The song can be found on an excellent compilation called ‘What a Wonderful Christmas’ which features plenty of Louis Armstrong festive numbers. ‘Christmas In New Orleans’ is understated genius with the Benny Carter Orchestra adding the necessary backing while Louis sounds quite cheeky on ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’ which is characterised by a set of creeping brass lines.
Sadly we have to turn the clock back to find the true jazz Christmas gems but there are newer artists like Diana Krall who are giving contemporary artists a decent chance of festive immortality. The jazz pianist’s 2005 album ‘Christmas Songs’ featured the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and was sprinkled by joyous versions of old standards such as ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ and ‘The Christmas Song’. Proving conclusively that there’s life in the old genre yet.