From Duke's 'Nutcracker' To A Cynical Carol, Jazz For Christmas
Over the years, jazz musicians have produced countless recordings of carols and holiday music. Nick Spitzer, host of public radio's American Routes, called NPR's David Greene to weigh in on some swinging, soulful and snarky jazz holiday favorites, some of which were created by the genre's most beloved and influential artists.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
How about some jazz, baby?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Over the years, jazz musicians have produced a trove of recordings of carols and holiday music. And if you think this is a great excuse to play some good music on the radio, well, you're right. But it's also a chance to catch up with Nick Spitzer, host of public radio's AMERICAN ROOTS. He sent us some of his holiday jazz favorites, and he's on the line to talk about them. Hey, Nick.
NICK SPITZER, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be here.
GREENE: Let's listen first to Duke Ellington and his take on Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, "The Nutcracker Suite."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: So why did Duke Ellington want to interpret a ballet?
SPITZER: Well, Billy Strayhorn, of course, worked with him as an arranger, had classical training. And I think that, you know, Ellington saw jazz as not only jazz, but he just saw it as great music. And so he wanted to let people know he appreciated these kinds of things. And he's out in Vegas, and there's a kind of a showy quality here to the Vegas world he was inhabiting.
But also, I mean, you can hear him kind of mingling Tchaikovsky and Ellington. You can hear, you know, counterpoint and swing on the familiar tunes of "The Nutcracker." So it's just a lot of fun as a kind of improvisation meets the tradition of classical.
GREENE: All right, Nick. Another song you sent us here. This is a happy-sounding tune. It's the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers with "Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRIST WAS BORN ON CHRISTMAS MORN")
COTTON TOP MOUNTAIN SANCTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Early on one Christmas morn, Jesus Christ the son was born, singing carols Christmas songs, early on one Christmas morn. Early on one Christmas morn...
GREENE: Does old scratchiness like that just music sound better? I love that.
SPITZER: Well, for some people who like that sort of thing, it does. And for the rest, well, maybe they tune out occasionally. But this is from the golden era of 78s, as it's called, the 1929 session in Chicago, and kind of a put-together band. But they used a local church congregation to back up the leader and singer, Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon. And he was a sometime-female impersonator...
SPITZER: ...yeah, and writer of sort of comedic stuff. And it's got a wonderful mix of a sort of lining out, testifying style of gospel meets kind of jazz, almost old-time country sort of feel to it. And for the people who follow old 78s, this one of their great ones.
GREENE: Well, there's a song that you had on your list that I would say is a bit more cynical. It's Miles Davis with the vocal stylings of Bob Dorough, and it's called "Blue Xmas."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE XMAS")
BOB DOROUGH: (Singing) Blue Christmas, that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue. Blue Xmas, when you're blue at Christmastime, you see right through all the ways to all the sham, all the haste and plain old bad taste.
GREENE: Well, welcome to the Grinch. That's mean and that's fun. What's the backstory to this?
SPITZER: Well, first of all, you know, let's point out that Miles Davis was at times known as the Prince of Darkness. In the early '60s, he had known Bob Dorough, who was a wonderful arranger and writer of comedic songs and known to probably most of the listeners as the guy that wrote the songs in "Schoolhouse Rock."
GREENE: Oh, those little educational ads on TV, like "How a Bill Becomes a Law."
SPITZER: That was later in his career. But Miles went to him because he liked his cynical comedic songs and said, you know, I need a Christmas song. And Bob told me, he said, you know, Miles didn't want folderol and jingle bells, so I concentrated on over-commercialization of Christmas. And it's worth a listen and a smile.
GREENE: I guess so, and it sounds like the Prince of Darkness got the project he was looking for with this song.
SPITZER: I think so.
GREENE: And Nick, you're coming to us from New Orleans, which might explain your last pick here. It's The New Birth Brass Band with their song, "Santa's Second Line."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA'S SECOND LINE)
NEW BIRTH BRASS BAND: (Singing) Oh, Santa, have you been here? Santa, yeah. Oh, Santa, Santa, Santa, Santa, Santa, have you been gone? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Say, now you know me and Rudolph and Santa gonna go back home. Say, Santa, have you been here?
GREENE: Nick, I've been transported to New Orleans right with you. And we should remind out listeners, I mean, tell us what a second line is. It's so important to that city.
SPITZER: Well, these are the parades that go with the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs back into the 19th century. They're at the beginning of jazz, and they're strongly African-American and Afro-Creole. And the second line are the people that follow the band and follow the people who sponsor it. So, everyone joins in the streets.
And, you know, the band here is doing a kind of single leader with James Andrews, the Satchmo of the Ghetto, and then a call and response with the crowd and the band, and probably in the street. And I like how Santa's portrayed here. It's all kind of improv, but he's more of a backdoor man who kind of has to be looked for than coming down the chimney.
And, you know, they're winging it, and that's the way it sounds and the way New Orleans makes music for itself.
GREENE: Well, Nick, I'm going to channel Miles Davis here: Merry Xmas to you.
SPITZER: Thank you so much.
GREENE: Nick Spitzer teaches as Tulane University in New Orleans, and he's the host of public radio's AMERICAN ROOTS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.