Talking Jazz

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It's not just Sir Paul and Sir Cliff who have marked the festive season with songs that stand as terrible blots on their careers. The temptation to come up with a tune or two guaranteed radio-play from late November to New Year has also afflicted many jazz artists. Jimmy Smith's contribution to the Hammond-organ oeuvre is unequalled, but when the day of reckoning comes, his version of "Jingle Bells" will not be counted on the plus side of the balance sheet. Others, such as Louis Armstrong, indulged the entertainer part of their musical personae with, in his case, a harmless and fun " 'Zat You, Santa Claus?". Given Satchmo's other achievements, the occasional foray into cabaret didn't seriously impair his reputation.

The surprise is how many Christmas jazz outings are really very good. On her Jazz For Joy album, Shirley Horn applies her smokey vocals to Winter Wonderland in a way that makes one think quite differently about the song. Her delicate, dry touch, backed by a top-notch horn and rhythm section, brings that most unseasonal of qualities, good taste, to that sloppy trifle of a tune, transforming it into a light but lovely meringue.

When Thad Jones wrote "A Child is Born", it was not supposed to be just for Christmas. But this beautiful ballad, especially when handled by a pianist like Oscar Peterson (whose solo recording of it is worth searching out), has a still contemplation that the celebration of the birth of Jesus is theoretically all about, even if it's generally overshadowed by at least two of the seven deadly sins.

Mel Torme can be thanked for writing a tune that has served as a vehicle for jazz vocalists for half a century, including himself and Nat "King" Cole. He actually wrote "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" etc) in the middle of a summer heatwave. Once he'd immersed himself in midwinter imagery, he said, he could manage it, and wrote the whole tune in 40 minutes.

Its popularity has the bonus of rendering a joke told by the trumpeter Clark Terry, recorded in Bill Crow's Jazz Anecdotes, fully understandable to the general reader. A man goes into a pet shop and is shown a bird called Chet who can sing Christmas carols. All he needs, says the shop owner, is warming up. When the owner places a cigarette lighter under one wing, Chet immediately starts singing "O Come, All Ye Faithful". The lighter placed under the other wing produces "O Little Town of Bethlehem". The visitor is so impressed he buys the bird and takes it home to his wife. Not being able to wait till Christmas, the man shows off Chet's skills to his wife straight away, warming him over a candle. Chet first sings "Silent Night", then "Joy to the World". Let me try, says his wife, grabbing the bird. Unfortunately, she holds him too close to the flame. Chet starts singing urgently: "Chet's nuts roasting on an open fire!"

If Terry's joke is too silly for some, Bob Dorough and Miles Davis's "Blue Christmas" provides a curdled enough take on the festivities to satisfy any jazz-loving Scrooges out there.