Saturday, December 1, 2012

Holiday Jazz: How it all began

By Derrick Bang

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — began writing about the annual holiday jazz scene in 1997. His interest in the sub-genre began many years earlier, however, as the following essay explains. Quick links to these annual columns — archived within this blog — can be obtained by clicking on CHRISTMAS in the list of labels at the bottom of this post.]

It started reasonably enough.

Back in the Stone Age of the 1970s, years before our local National Public Radio outlet (KXPR) begat a sister station (KXJZ), the former catered primarily to local classical music enthusiasts. Jazz fans were restricted to the late evening hours, when most sensible people would be getting ready for bed. (I could argue that jazz fans rarely are sensible people, but that’s another discussion.)

Aside from the occasional one or two tunes that might pop up in the middle of otherwise conventional sets, jazz covers of familiar Christmas songs were restricted to a two-hour, 10 p.m. to midnight timeslot on Christmas Eve, appropriately dubbed Jingle Bell Jazz.

I lived for those two hours.

Although I grew up enjoying the holidays, and particularly its melodies, there was something faintly ... well ... corny about most Christmas music being played in the ’70s. It was the stuff of Muzak and easy-listening schlock, with gag-me choruses and more damn strings than you’d find in most symphony orchestras. Much like some aspects of the holiday itself, most Christmas music had become gaudy, overly commercialized, lowest-common-denominator pap.

Christmas jazz, though ... now that had an edge: some genuine bite and enough musicality that you’d stop and really listen to the stuff, instead of tuning it out the way you’d desperately ignore the junk you heard in department store elevators.

No seasonal trauma is too great that it can’t be alleviated by a warm fire, a warmer companion and a soulful interpretation of “Silent Night” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by the likes of Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck.

And for an all-too-short 120 minutes every Dec. 24th, host Gary Vercelli played a tasty and delectable selection of hip holiday tunes, drawing from a woefully limited supply. Options were few back then: CDs weren’t even a dream on the horizon, let alone iTunes and other Internet downloading sources. LPs still ruled the roost, and many of those had gone out of print. That’s what made radio both good and bad: Avid listeners often heard things they didn’t own, but at the same time might have little chance of purchasing, short of a lucky find in a used-record store.

Then, too, KXPR was a relatively young station, without the backlist that would give listeners access to more than a handful of old-timers such as Les Brown, Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong.

Even so, I enjoyed the stylings of relative newcomer Ron Eschete, whose solid guitar work enlivened a series of hard-driving cuts on Christmas Impressions. Jazz/blues organist Jimmy Smith weighed in with Christmas Cookin’. For pure swing, you couldn’t beat Duke Pearson’s cuts from Merry Ole Soul. Ensemble albums were perhaps the best, with contributions from a dozen different groups or individuals: Mistletoe Magic and More Mistletoe Magic; God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen, featuring (among others) the Heath Brothers, McCoy Tyner and a spicy rendition of “We Three Kings” by a youthful Wynton Marsalis and his quintet; and Jingle Bell Jazz, the collection that gave Vercelli’s show its name.

Vocalists were represented by Nat King Cole (The Christmas Song), Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas) and Lou Rawls (Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho), with occasional visits from Frank Sinatra. So desperate was Vercelli for variety, that he’d occasionally move as far afield as selections from Vince Guaraldi’s jazz-mass composition, Live at Grace Cathedral, scarcely conceived as holiday music yet — one had to admit — certainly suitable for the season. Guaraldi, of course, also was represented by his far more appropriate and incredibly popular up-tempo cuts on the Charlie Brown Christmas television soundtrack.

Then there were one-shot wonders, such as Stix Hooper, who included a rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” on an otherwise non-Christmas album called The World Within. And, since “My Favorite Things” has become forever associated with the holiday season, we’d occasionally hear John Coltrane’s lengthy version of that tune: ground-breaking in its time, but these days a bit tiresome.

I taped those two-hour segments and played them to death during the next few Decembers, carefully adding to my painfully limited supply as, each Christmas Eve, Vercelli spun a precious few more cuts that he’d overlooked the year before, or the year before that. In 1983, when my wife and I took a Christmas Eve train trip to share the holidays with family members up in Oregon, I made a good friend pledge against his first-born that he’d tape the Jingle Bell Jazz program. He was as good as his word, and subsequently was allowed to keep his daughter.

The mix improved a few years later, when our local cable television provider added cable radio options; one of the choices, the Cable Jazz Network, was quite aggressive with its holiday music during most of December. I developed a telephone relationship with that service’s manager, a wonderful gentleman whose name, alas, is lost to memory. CJN’s programming was block-taped in advance, and this kind soul sent me photocopies of their playlists, along with his best guess as to what time and day each segment would kick off. I’d therefore know when a new (to me) holiday jazz cut was coming, and my wife became quite accustomed to the sight of me poised over the tape deck, fingers hovering above the PLAY/RECORD button, as a much-desired track grew ever closer.

(Yep. Tape decks. Had I known how much easier Web-based streaming radio would have made this process, at the time I’d have thought I’d died and gone to heaven.)

CJN brought me the hitherto-unheard sounds of the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, a well-named group that positively ripped through cuts on an album called Hark, the Herald Angels Swing. Stan Kenton turned up with his joyfully up-tempo covers on A Merry Christmas. On the quieter end of the jazz spectrum was Sandy Owen, a solo pianist with a superb touch on the modestly titled Carols. Ramsey Lewis and his trio contributed a pair of holiday albums: The Sound of Christmas and More Sounds of Christmas. Those aforementioned Jimmy Smith riffs were joined by Kenny Burrell’s equally engaging jazz organ, on Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas.

CJN also had one helluva backlist, both in classic jazz and blues, and my library broadened to include selections by Ozie Ware, Gatemouth Brown, the Charlie Parker All-Stars and many, many others. (Bear in mind, by the way, that many of these albums had been around for years, if not decades. They were simply new to me.)

Then, as the years passed ... trouble. Terrible thing, about audiocassettes. They s-t-r-e-t-c-h. Over the course of time and lots of use, some audiocassettes start to sound a bit ... off. Warbly. Watery. Too fast or too slow. It’s impossible to predict, and not always related to the quality (or price) of the tape itself; I’ve had obscenely expensive tapes flake out after two or three years, while more modest purchases still sound excellent 20 years later. But I knew, going in, that preserving my holiday jazz on tape was an imperfect and temporary solution.

What I wanted seemed reasonable enough: that this carefully accumulated collection of music would last as long as I do.

And thus began The Quest.

Collecting coins, stamps or baseball cards is fun, but ultimately frustrating; there are just too many of ’em. But collecting Christmas jazz, on LP? That seemed reasonable. Approachable, even, both in terms of quantity and finances.

The process became easier during the 1980s, when LPs gave way to CDs. The nice thing about new technology is the excuse it grants labels to re-release a lot of previously out-of-print stuff. Some of the above-named albums and artists I found in CD re-issues under the same title. Other individual tracks popped up on compilation CDs: Santa Claus Blues, Big Band Christmas, Jingle Bell Jam and others.

I cheered the year one of my earliest audiocassettes became wholly irrelevant, thanks to the LPs and CDs I had acquired. That first “obsolete” tape was followed by another, and then others. (All these years later, the quest still isn’t over; I still have a few tapes that include cuts never re-issued on CD. That keeps the process alive; I’m a firm believer in pursuit for its own sake ... in the fire and excitement that come with the knowledge that there still are a few more nuggets of gold yet to be found.)

And I’ll share another secret: Although delighted by the increased “permanence” of all this music, I occasionally return to those original tapes ... partly because I like Vercelli’s incidental commentary, and partly because, well, it’s just more fun. Sorta like the way it can be more exciting to stay up late and catch a favorite movie you stumble across on TV, as opposed to renting or buying it, and watching whenever the urge strikes.


The collection grew. Every year brought a few new releases. Vercelli’s annual show became an informational source, during which I’d jot down artists and album titles. Most of the new releases were compilations; individual efforts still were rare. (That would change, over time.)

I was drawn to Tuck Andress (Hymns, Carols and Songs About Snow), Paul Horn (The Peace Album), the Kevin Gibbs Trio (Christmas Presence, a very nice one), David Grisman (An Acoustic Christmas), David Benoit (Christmas Time) and Chet Baker (Silent Nights). Classic big-band personnel gathered together for Take the Holiday Train (the Duke Ellington Orchestra) and In the Christmas Mood and In the Christmas Mood 2 (the Glenn Miller Orchestra).

New compilations included The Christmas Collection, A Merry Jazzmas, A Jazz Christmas, Yule Struttin’: A Blue Note Christmas, An Uptown Christmas and Hot Jazz for a Cool Night. Windham Hill began its popular Winter’s Solstice series, with a new release each year. Dave Grusin’s GRP Records released the first of its eventually three entries in a less-frequent series, A GRP Christmas, which showcased newer talents in what was to become the modest late ’80s re-emergence of classic jazz.

In the early ’90s, though, the whole thing exploded. Suddenly every jazz artist was releasing Christmas CDs, from people we’d known for years — Mel Torme, Joe Pass, the Manhattan Transfer, Joe Williams, Oscar Peterson — to newcomers such as Greg Abate, Liz Story, Oliver Jones, Houston Person and Harry Connick Jr.

This was both good and bad ... good because it was nice to hear more of this music, bad because science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon’s Law still held: 90 percent of everything is garbage.

But all these musicians were merely responding to consumer demand. Everybody I knew, it seemed, was buying Christmas jazz. No longer was I the rebel, the lone source of “quality” Christmas music among our friends. (All together, children, in your best Andy Rooney imitation: “Don’t you just hate it when the whole world jumps on your personal hobby???) (No matter. Fads rise quickly and die even more rapidly in this country, and soon enough I’ll once again be a voice in the wilderness.)

Unfortunately, as a result of two trends — the success of Windham Hill’s signature sound, and the revival of lounge music — “jazz” lost its original meaning and was co-opted into an all-encompassing designation that included everything from monotonous synth garbage to puerile schlock so far down the E-Z listening scale that even Muzak stations might have thought twice before programming such junk.

Every half-baked solo instrumentalist (most often a sax player) with access to a computer cranked out monotonous covers of the usual suspects — “Jingle Bells,” “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night” among the worst offenders — that were virtually indistinguishable. And no wonder: The programmed “fill” and percussion sections were an infantile insult to true musicians.

It became necessary to carefully sift through scores of new releases to find those that were actual JAZZ.

KXPR twinned, and fledgling sister station KXJZ, initially programming jazz 24 hours a day, entered the fray with a vengeance. Vercelli’s modest 120 minutes on Christmas Eve mushroomed into frequent holiday tracks during the two weeks prior to the 25th, culminating with nothing BUT on Christmas Day itself. The first few years, it was hard to concentrate on what was under our Christmas tree.

Better yet, KXJZ began to air annual NPR specials, hosted by the likes of Steve Allen, Tony Bennett and Bill Cosby. The hour-long programs featured brand-new solo piano recordings by James Williams, Ellis Marsalis, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Shirley Horn, Junior Mance, John Lewis, Ray Bryant and many, many others. Dozens of these tracks subsequently were released on NPR’s Jazz Piano Christmas albums.

To add even more to the general insanity, I became aware of regional releases: CDs that never would be found in my local stores — or even in California — because the artists in question, no matter how talented, lacked the publicity machine and $$$$$ to get their work distributed beyond the borders of their own city or state (something else that has become much easier, in this Internet age).

I was knocked out, while shopping in 1995, by a stray cut heard on the radio at the mall; after several impatient phone calls to the station in question, I eventually traced it to Washington-based Barney McClure, whose Tidings of Comfort & Jazz is a fascinating mix of Christmas standards and Native American spiritual themes. At the time, I had to order it by mail. Today, such a transaction would be a matter of mere minutes on the Web.

My father alerted me to Portland, Oregon-based Tall Jazz — all its members stood over 6 feet — and its seasonal release, Tall Jazz Plays Winter Jazz. (This group eventually followed that debut seasonal album with two more.)

Back in the day, a good year saw the release of two — maybe three — new holiday jazz albums. When 1996’s new holiday jazz purchases exceeded two dozen, I suddenly realized that I was collecting baseball cards. The Quest had blossomed into a monster ... and it has only grown since then.

As the 20th century faded and we moved into the 21st, the Internet completely changed the equation. My annual search became a true treasure hunt, since imagination and persistence were required to track down offerings from micro-labels. Mind you, “homemade” isn’t necessarily a pejorative these days; CD technology has turned living rooms into high-tech recording studios, and Web sites provide the best in free advertising to the entire world. The Web’s streaming radio networks can be quite useful (although registration might be required). Two of the largest — and — play the sounds of the season 24/7.

As-yet undiscovered artists also post their efforts, often as downloadable MP3 files, at Web “collectives” such as, which has a section devoted to holiday jazz; and CD Baby (, which — during my first gleeful visit — offered hundreds of holiday-themed albums that I’d never before encountered. (But be careful: Some of the “artists” you’ll find at CD Baby and its clones deserve to remain undiscovered!)

In 2006, my real-world treasure hunt became a bit harder, as Internet downloads took their toll on local retail outlets .. and most particularly the iconic Tower Records. Whatever the chain’s other vices and virtues, Tower always had displayed an impressive selection of seasonal music. Flipping through discs to find new holiday jazz releases was an annual treat, and one I greatly anticipated.

Five years later, the same fate befell Borders Books and Music. Today, “record stores” — as they once were known — have become an endangered species.

Fortunately, the still-cherished “search the bins” experience remains a possibility, albeit one requiring a bit more planning. Berkeley’s Amoeba Music sets up a dynamite display of holiday music in late November, and those folks also stock an impressive supply of used CDs and — wait for it — even LPs. (Everything old is new again, right?) I call it paradise.

And, so, the years have passed. Now, decades into this process, I own a collection of Christmas jazz that I’d stack against anything belonging to most radio stations. Each year, I anticipate the new while remaining obsessed by The Ones That Got Away: titles I’ve sought for decades, which haven’t yet made the transition to CD — and, I fear, never will at this point — and which send me, feverishly, to the Christmas bins in every used LP outlet I encounter.

Frustrating, but true: Back in the day, most stores would only put out their Christmas music in December, and it would be smooshed together into a single — frequently unlabeled — bin toward the back. They wouldn’t drag the stuff out for you in June. (I ask you, is that reasonable???) The situation improved in the 1990s; the “Christmas Music” section would appear in mid-November, and often stretched for an entire row, with sub-headings for pop, country, jazz, spiritual and New Age. Even so, come January it’d all vanish. (That’s another reason to love the Internet; it’s always December at

Well, since the Internet’s greatest asset is its function as a bulletin board that can be browsed by anybody in the entire world, please note that I’m still seeking CD re-issues of the following (I have the LPs):
Merry Old Soul, Duke Pearson
Hark, the Herald Angels Swing, the World’s Greatest Jazz Band
Carols, Sandy Owen
Holiday Soul, Don Patterson
More Sounds of Christmas, the Ramsey Lewis Trio
Holiday Inn, Ralph Flanagan
Any leads or information, please drop me a line at


I began writing these commentaries in 1997; initially, the newspaper space allotted to this annual feature was minimal. As a result, some of the early reviews are quite short. Climbing the editorial ladder, over time, eventually granted me the ability to discuss holiday jazz at greater length, and more recent reviews reflect this change.

In any event, these columns are time capsules: reprinted here pretty much as they originally were published. Perhaps, in time, I’ll go back and add a bit of depth to the earlier, shorter reviews ... but, so far, I’m kept too busy with new releases.

And given the age of some of these reviews, I cannot guarantee the continuing availability of the albums being discussed. Superstars remain hot all the time; it’ll never be hard to find a back-catalogue title by Diana Krall. But each disc in the Justin Time for Christmas compilation series — four CDs, at last count — seems to vanish within one or two years of its release (despite the little-known fact that Krall had tracks on the first two).

Of course, we live in an age where obtaining second-hand LPs or CDs can be just a few mouse-clicks away ... assuming you can find the item in question for sale in the first place.

Readers will notice that, for the most part, my reviews are positive, my attention focused on albums that have brought me pleasure. That’s not to say I’ve loved everything I’ve heard: far from it. But I don’t like to waste time on the unlistenable, and I see no reason to compose good words about bad music. Even harsh reviews call attention to the album being discussed; as far as I’m concerned, the best fate for the worst albums is that they die quiet deaths. (That said, sometimes I can’t resist. Mea maxima culpa.)

Besides, you’ll find plenty here with which to keep occupied. I welcome word about albums that may have escaped my notice; if you think I’ve overlooked somebody fabulous, by all means drop me a note at

Otherwise ... onward!

(Because it’s always December in this blog, as well...)

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