Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Swinging Christmas with the Big Bands

At the end of every year, right after Thanksgiving, Christmas music begins to fill our home in Martin, TN, and the jazzier the rhythm, the more enjoyable it is! While the idea of holiday music as a very profitable business must be traced back to Bing Crosby's early 1930s recordings of "Silent Night" and "Adeste Fideles" for Decca, it didn't take too long for everyone else to follow in Bing's footsteps, and by the time the Swing Era erupted, all major bands were including Christmas tunes in their repertoires—and finding out that many of them kept being popular and selling year after year. Fortunately, there are several compilations of big band holiday music currently available, but my personal favorite of its kind is Christmas on the Bandstand (Columbia/Legacy) because it features 12 timeless performances cut between 1939 and 1962 by name bands like those led by Harry James, Benny Goodman, Les Brown, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington, among others, all with great sound and some well-written liner notes by Will Friedwald, whose contributions are always a plus.

Les Brown and a young Doris Day
Some of the tracks included are the expected holiday evergreens, such as "White Christmas" (by Harry James, with a fine vocal by Marion Morgan), "Jingle Bells" (a 1962 recording by the Ellington band arranged by his son Mercer Ellington, one of the absolute highlights of the collection), and "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (in a Sammy Kaye version that is the perfect synthesis of sweetness and corn). Kay Kyser shows both sides of the sound of his very popular outfit here: first, the band has fun with the catchy "Hello, Mr. Kringle," complete with a contribution from the inimitable Ish Kabibble; then, Harry Babbitt shows off his crooning wares on the beautiful "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Woody Herman gives us an excitingly swinging "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and Harry James takes us on a Latin American trip on the rare "Brazilian Sleigh Bells." It soon becomes clear that not all the songs actually refer to Christmas, but the compilation also features its share of winter songs, such as Benny Goodman's "Winter Weather" (Art Lund and Peggy Lee provide the vocals), Eddy Duchin's "When Winter Comes," and Les Brown's lovely "Sleigh Ride in July" (with Gordon Drake handling the vocal chorus). Brown's Band of Renown also offers "When You Trim Your Christmas Tree," a lesser-known gem featuring vocalist Jack Haskell, and puts the spotlight on Doris Day on a magnificent reading of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." This is undoubtedly the place to start for anyone who would like to infuse some solid swing into the holiday season.

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