Playlist: Eight Tracks to Get Your Holiday Music Groove On

A roundup of holiday classics and some new alternatives for a festive season

What would the holidays be without Eartha Kitt, seen here performing in the Broadway show Timbuktu. Photo by C.M. Nell, Courtesy Smithsonian Archives

Guest blogger, Joann Stevens is the program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month at the American History Museum. Courtesy of the author

It’s that time of year again when the airwaves jingle with a potpourri of holiday music, performances and mashups, featuring songs and artists with jazz, pop culture, film, classical and sacred music roots. Some of the chestnut classics are playing 24/7 on radio stations (for those of you who still listen to radio) across the land.

Speaking of chestnut classics, during his 29-year career, jazz vocalist and pianist Nat King Cole recorded four versions of his chestnuts roasting by open fire “The Christmas Song” before arriving at the 1961 version that became the perennial favorite. Surprisingly, the tune was composed on a hot summer day in 1944 by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells. Whitney Houston released her stellar version in 2003. Two years later, the music licensing organization ASCAP noted that the song was number one among the ten most performed holiday tunes during the first five years of the 21st century.  Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, were two and three, respectively.

I always keep my ear out for Eartha Kitt.  The original Cat Woman purrs for holiday furs, cars and jewels in Santa Baby, a satirical tune co-written in 1953 by Philip Springer and Joan Javits, niece of U.S. Senator Jacob Javits.

Whether your tastes veer towards the traditional or something a little funkier, here’s an eclectic mix of jazz and other music by seasoned and emerging artists to explore this season, along with some interesting bedtime stories you probably didn’t know. So curl up with your hot cocoa and click through some of my holiday favorites.

For all he did, including giving us one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, Nat King Cole got his own stamp in 1994. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite.  Tchaikovysky swings in the hands of these classically trained jazz masters. In 1960 the duo reinvented the ballet classic, mixing rhythms and musical styles. These two selections bring sass to the Nutcracker Overture  and make the Sugar Plum Fairies sound like they’re hung over from too much partying at the Sugar Rum Cherry Dance.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.  At four foot nine, country music-rock star Brenda Lee was known as Little Miss Dynamite.  She was 13 when she recorded this classic in 1958.  Her version became a chart buster in 1960 and reigns as the all time favorite, played by radio formats from Top 40 to Country Music to Adult Contemporary and Adult Standards.  Nielsen Sound Scan rated digital track sales at 679,000 downloads.  Miley Cyrus also had fun with the song .

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Composed by Hugh Martin Jr., who also wrote “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” for the film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland.  This song from the film might have become the most depressing holiday song ever written.  Luckily studio executives and Garland intervened, requesting  rewrites to give the public a more hopeful classic.  Compare the original lyrics to the holiday friendly versions sung by Frank Sinatra and Luther Vandross. 

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late). What more can I say?  Gotta love Alvin and the Chipmunks in this song composed by Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian, who had a knack with novelty music.  The son of Armenian immigrants, Bagdasarian was a bit stage and film actor whose first musical success, ”Come-on-a-My House,” was a dialect song that became a hit for Rosemary Clooney, the aunt of actor George Clooney.  The song was co-written with Bagdasarian’s cousin, the famous writer William Saroyan. Go ahead, do your best impersonation. ALLLLLVIN!

Oh Chanukah.   This traditional song commemorating the Jewish Festival of Lights was standard fare in the New York City school programs when music appreciation and performances were used to explore cultural diversity and heritage. Enjoy the traditional song by this young choir and an offering of  Klezmer holiday music by a high school sax quartet.  Klezmer Jazz  a fusion of  the rhythms and traditional music of the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe with American jazz, evolved in the U.S. in the 1880s.

Carol of the Bells.   One rarely hears jazz played on the Hawaiian ukelele or such performances compared with Miles Davis, unless you’re Jake Shimabukuro — a largely self-taught virtuoso who was introduced to the instrument by his mother. Listen to his take of the classic Carol of the Bells, a song based on a traditional Ukranian folk chant, followed by a rocking jazz performance .

Yagibushi. Okay it’s not a holiday carol but if  music by jazz performer Chichiro Yamanaka, a standout at the 2012 Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, doesn’t rouse you for the holidays, nothing will.

Kwanzaa.  Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January 1 in Canada and the U.S. to honor African and African American cultural traditions that teach valuable life principles.

And Now for Something Completely Different. Jazz pianist/composer and NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston has made African and world culture the core of his creative process. Blue Moses is a composition influenced by time Weston spent in Morocco learning the traditions and musical culture of the Gnawa  people—West Africans taken to North Africa as slaves and soldiers around the 16th century.  In an interview with Jo Reed, Weston said that within the Gnawa music ”I heard the blues, I heard Black jazz, I heard the music of the Caribbean, I heard the foundation which proved to me that the rhythms of Africa, they remained alive, but disguised in different forms, whether in Honduras, or Haiti, or Jamaica, or Trinidad, or Brazil, or Mississippi. ”

Happy Musical Holidays!

Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure.  JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Danilo Pérez: Creator of Musical Guardians of Peace and Jason Moran: Making Jazz Personal

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