THE DOZENS: RUDY REINDEER'S FAVORITE JAZZ by Alan Kurtz

First, about the name. The whole “Rudolph” thing started as a joke. To friends and family, I’ve always been Rudy. The single exception was my second-grade English teacher, Miss Valentino, who so basked in reflected glory from being distantly related to the silent-film star, that she insisted on calling me Rudolph just to not-so-subtly remind everyone of her famous 93rd cousin twice removed. But otherwise, it’s been Rudy to one and all.

What happened, though, is that when Santa put me out front one Christmas Eve to guide his sleigh with my nose so bright—well, frankly, being only a reindeer and all, it went to my head. I started lording it over the other reindeer, like I was somebody special all year round, not just on exceptionally cloudy December 24s. Finally, to put me in my place, Blitzen began referring to me as Rudolph, just to not-so-subtly remind everyone that I was getting too big for my harness. (Did you know Blitzen is German for Lightning? He’s definitely quick on his hooves.) After a day or two, I took the hint and got down off my cloud. Now I’m just plain Rudy. Rudy the jazz-loving reindeer. Happy holidays, kids!


Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song

Track

The Christmas Song

Artist

Nat 'King' Cole (piano, vocals)

CD

Nat "King" Cole 1946 (Classics 938)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Nat 'King' Cole (piano, vocals), Oscar Moore (guitar), Johnny Miller (bass).

Composed by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells

.

Recorded: New York, June 14, 1946

Albumcovernatkingcole-1946-classics938

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Partridges, as ground-nesting seedeaters, have no business in pear trees, unless they're waiting for said fruit to fall and yield its seed. Or maybe they're hanging out for acoustical purposes, to amplify the marginal snickering that passes for partridge birdsong. Certainly they can't compete as singers with Nat King Cole—who could? As for "The Christmas Song," Rudy Reindeer prefers Nat's first recording, despite its being long shelved in favor of remakes with syrupy strings. In any form, though, it's the coolest possible yuletide greeting, with Jack Frost nipping at your nose and partridges dressed like Eskimos in pear trees.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Charlie Parker: White Christmas

Track

White Christmas

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Jingle Bell Jam: Jazz Christmas Classics (Rhino R2 71786)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Al Haig (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), Max Roach (drums).

Composed by Irving Berlin

.

Recorded: New York, December 25, 1948

Albumcoverjinglebelljam-jazzchristmasclassics

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Two turtle doves (an indecisive species; are they turtles or doves?) happened to perch one Christmas night at Manhattan's Royal Roost, a 1940s jazz joint known to aficionados as the Metropolitan Bopera House. Having satisfied themselves that "Roost" referenced fried chicken, with neither turtles nor doves on the menu, the turtle doves cooed politely at the emcee's joking introduction of "White Christmas" as a turkey that a magician promisingly named Bird would raise from the dead. Sure enough, the sublimely sax-tooting Bird soon had Irving Berlin's terminally overdone song trotting about like a gobbler Lazarus. Talk about miracles of Christmas!

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Jackie Cain & Roy Kral: Auld Lang Syne

Track

Auld Lang Syne

Group

Jackie Cain & Roy Kral

CD

Jingle Bell Jam: Jazz Christmas Classics (Rhino R2 71786)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Jackie Cain (vocals), Roy Kral (piano, vocals),

John Romano (guitar), Marilyn Beabout (cello), Kenny O’Brien (bass), Elaine O’Brien (drums)

.

Traditional arranged by Roy Kral and Kenny O’Brien

.

Recorded: New York, October 6, 1949

Albumcoverjinglebelljam-jazzchristmasclassics

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

When three French hens showed up for the gig, they were informed as delicately as possible that the summons had been for three French horns, not hens. They stuck around anyway to hear Jackie & Roy's sextet—which included an equal number of men and women. (In jazz, the French hens knew, gender parity is a rarity.) Jackie & Roy's sprightly rendition of the traditional Scottish ode sung at midnight on New Year's Eve sought to "ring out the old, swing in the new" and encouraged revelers to "bop away at work and play." The French hens clucked their approval, and when the clock struck 12, bopped "Happy New Year!" in perfect 3-part harmony with the rest of the revelers.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Chet Baker: Winter Wonderland

Track

Winter Wonderland

Artist

Chet Baker (trumpet)

CD

Chet Baker Quartet Featuring Russ Freeman (Blue Note 93164)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Chet Baker (trumpet), Russ Freeman (piano), Joe Mondragon (bass), Shelly Manne (drums).

Composed by Felix Bernard & Richard B. Smith

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, October 27, 1953

Albumcoverchetbakerquartetfeaturingrussfreeman

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

For calling birds, a trumpet is the most reliable instrument. Especially if the trumpeter looks like jazz's James Dean. When the youthful Chet Baker blew, feathered friendlies flocked from miles around. To the wunderkind's “Winter Wonderland,” birds in the meadow built a snowman, pretending it was Parson Brown. "Are you married?" they'd ask Chet, who'd say, "No, man." The birds would then twitter and tweet, vying to win Chet's heart. It didn't work, but with his quartet swinging down the lane as snow glistened, the birds flew along and merrily monitored. Nothing could dampen birdie spirits in Chet's winter wonderland.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Modern Jazz Quartet: England's Carol

Track

England's Carol

Group

The Modern Jazz Quartet

CD

The Modern Jazz Quartet & Orchestra (Collectables COL-CD-6184)

Buy Track

Musicians:

John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibes), Percy Heath (bass), Connie Kay (drums),

symphony orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller

.

Composed by John Lewis

.

Recorded: Stuttgart, West Germany, June 3, 1960

Albumcovermjq-andorchestra

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Ironically, the greatest achievement of Third Stream music, for all its intellectual pretensions, was an update of the traditional English carol "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." John Lewis first arranged it for the MJQ in 1956, and later added German symphonic backing for what became a surprise hit and perennial Yuletide favorite. It's hard to convey a jazz fan's wonderment at discovering a tip-top Milt Jackson solo swinging across pop radio in the early 1960s. Talk about a gift from Santa! As stocking stuffers go, this remains jolly good, Holmes. Pip-pip and all that. God Rest Ye Modern Jazz Quartet.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Ella Fitzgerald: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Track

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz (Verve 514 549 067-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Oscar Peterson (piano),

orchestra arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol

.

Composed by Johnny Marks

.

Recorded: New York, July 15, 1960

Albumcoververvepresents-theverybestofchristmasjazz

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Six geese, allaying Rudy's fears, assured him, "You'll go down in history." That's exactly what he was afraid of. It wasn't so much this song's embarrassing gossip about the original eight reindeer laughing and calling him names, refusing to let poor Rudolph join in their silly games. It was the scary way Ella interpolated "Tom Dooley," The Kingston Trio's 1958 folk hit about a knife-murderer. "Hang your nose down, Rudy," Ella hoarsely scolds. "Hang your nose and cry." Frankly, this veiled threat nearly scared the shine out of him—although the geese were right about one thing: having Ella sing about you is historic.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Lambert, Hendricks & Ross: Deck Us All With Boston Charlie

Track

Deck Us All With Boston Charlie

Group

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

CD

Jingle Bell Swing (Columbia/Legacy)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Lambert (vocals), Jon Hendricks (vocals), Annie Ross (vocals),

Gildo Mahones (piano), Ike Isaacs (bass), Jimmy Wormworth (drums)

.

Composed by Walt Kelly & Norman Monath

.

Recorded: New York, May 4, 1961

Albumcovermilesdavis-jinglebellswing

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

If you think seven swans a-swimming is a tongue-twister, try singing along with LH&R's spoof of "Deck the Halls" à la Walt Kelly's cartoon carolers (Pogo Possum, Albert Alligator, et al.):

   Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
   Walla Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo!
   Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
   Swaller dollar cauliflower Alleygaroo!

Annie Ross sounds like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie—the dowager soprano desperately in need a stocking stuffed down her throat. Fine fun.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Dave Brubeck: Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town

Track

Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town

Artist

Dave Brubeck (piano)

CD

Jingle Bell Jazz (Columbia CK 40166)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Brubeck (piano), Paul Desmond (alto sax), Eugene Wright (bass), Joe Morello (drums).

Composed by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie

.

Recorded: New York, June 2, 1961

Albumcoverjinglebelljazz

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Eight maids a-milking aptly describes Santa's Christmas Eve pace when he's on schedule. With all the world's children awaiting his visit, you'd think it would get pretty hectic. But Mrs. Claus & the elves have computerized everything down to the nanosecond, what with their little Gantt charts, PERT networks, SCADA systems and critical path methods. Mrs. C. is a stickler for scientific management. So Brubeck's no-nonsense tempo here is apt. Besides, recorded amidst the far-out metrics of Time Further Out, this chance to relax in familiar 4/4 was no doubt welcome. Only the diatonic door chimes ring untrue.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Ramsey Lewis: Here Comes Santa Claus

Track

Here Comes Santa Claus

Artist

Ramsey Lewis (piano)

CD

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz (Verve 514 549 067-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Ramsey Lewis (piano),

Eldee Young (bass), Red Holt (drums)

.

Composed by Oakley Haldeman & Gene Autry

.

Recorded: Chicago, October 1961

Albumcoververvepresents-theverybestofchristmasjazz

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Nine ladies dancing, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer figured, meant one for him and one apiece for the other reindeer. Boogying to Ramsey Lewis's cover of singer/songwriter Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus," however, seemed like a stretch. But when someone handed Rudy a copy of Mr. Autry's Cowboy Commandments (1930s), which included telling the truth, keeping your word, respecting women, children, elders and animals, helping those in need, working hard, obeying the law and (get this!) disavowing racial and religious intolerance, Rudy was impressed. As for Ramsey, this track cultivates the same funky soil that yielded his mid-'60s pop hits. Look at those reindeer dance!

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Duke Ellington: Jingle Bells

Track

Jingle Bells

Artist

Duke Ellington (piano)

CD

Jingle Bell Swing (Columbia/Legacy)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano), Cat Anderson (trumpet), Bill Berry (trumpet), Roy Burrows (trumpet), Ray Nance (trumpet), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Chuck Connors (trombone), Britt Woodman (trombone), Russell Procope (alto sax), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Aaron Bell (bass), Sam Woodyard (drums), Eddie Locke (percussion).

Composed by James Lord Pierpont. Arranged by Mercer Ellington

.

Recorded: New York, June 21, 1962

Albumcovermilesdavis-jinglebellswing

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Ten lords a leaping plus a Duke, Cat and Rabbit shake up "Jingle Bells" (1857) by James Lord Pierpont, who wasn't really a Lord, but an American commoner. For that matter, Ellington wasn't technically a Duke, Cat Anderson was feline only in name, and Rabbit Hodges nibbled his lettuce on sandwiches, not in gardens. Even so, this is the leaping-est "Jingle Bells" ever, with lordly solos by Duke, Brown, Hodges, Nance, Gonsalves and Hamilton. Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, swinging all the way, oh what fun it is to hear Duke's big band play.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Jimmy McGriff: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Track

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Artist

Jimmy McGriff (organ)

CD

Christmas with Jimmy McGriff (Collectables COL-5747)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Jimmy McGriff (organ),

Larry Frazier (guitar), Willie “Saint” Jenkins (drums), Rudolph Johnson (sleigh bells)

.

Composed by Tommie Connor

.

Recorded: New York, November 1963

Albumcoverchristmaswithjimmymcgriff

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Eleven pipers piping are peachy for pipe organs, but the Hammond B-3 has no such plumbing. It's as electrified as Mrs. Claus's reaction to this song about Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Mrs. C. didn't work and slave 364 days nonstop so Santa could fly about on Christmas Eve to be kissed by strange women! Santa's protestations that the red smudges on his cheeks were from the cold night air, and that the lady in the song kissed her hubby, who was merely playacting Kris Kringle, fell on deaf ears. Why, if Santa hadn't saved an especially nice gift for his missus, he'd have never gotten back into the house. And it does get nippy outside at the North Pole on Christmas Day!

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Vince Guaraldi: Linus and Lucy

Track

Linus and Lucy

Artist

Vince Guaraldi (piano)

CD

A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy FCD-8431-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Vince Guaraldi (piano), Fred Marshall (bass), Jerry Granelli (drums).

Composed by Vince Guaraldi

.

Recorded: Berkeley, CA, 1964

Albumcovervinceguaraldi-acharliebrownchristmas

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

"Twelve drummers drumming?" suggested Linus. "Don't be ridiculous," snapped Lucy, his older sister. They were choosing a gift for her unrequiting sweetheart, Schroeder the toy pianist. "I've got it!" exclaimed Linus, passing Lucy an LP from the stash in Charlie Brown's garage. "Vince Guaraldi?" she hesitated. "Is that classical?" Linus, anxious to finish before Charlie Brown returned from the fool's errand upon which Lucy had sent him, replied, "The classiest!" And that's how Schroeder came to supplement his devotion to Beethoven with a love of jazz. Alas, he still ignored Lucy—one more thing for which she'd never forgive Linus.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Check out more ‘Dozens’ here