As is her habit, the Beloved is listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s Christmas show on WNYC-FM, where his guests include Mandy Patinkin, Charles Osgood, Jay Leonhart, Steve LaSpina, Harry Allen, John Pizzarelli, Tony Monte, and Gene Bertoncini. When the chatter comes to a graceful halt, Jonathan offers high-quality seasonal music, including tenor saxophonist Harry’s romp through “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
The Beloved, quite properly, was delighted with Harry’s performance. But she asked me, “Do jazz musicians really enjoy playing such silly songs?”
“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is well-established in the American cultural landscape, ubiquitous, even. I used to roll my eyes whenever it was played. However, when I found out that it had been composed by J. Fred Coots, composer of “You Go To My Head” and “For All We Know,” I was able to feel more kindly towards the song. Somehow it appealed to me that Coots should have made a fortune on this musical shred — enabling him to live comfortably and write far better songs.
I answered the Beloved’s question by invoking the Sage of Corsicana, Texas, Hot Lips Page, who, when asked a similar question, reputedly said, “The material is immaterial.” And Django Reinhardt, who surely knew something about improvisation, asked for the simplest theme from “Tiger Rag” as material to improvise on at a jam session.
Like alchemists, jazz musicians inhabit a miraculous universe, turning junk into gold, often enjoying the vapidity of a piece of music because its three-chord structure allows them to improvise freely while the F, G7, and C are endlessly returning. Think of the twelve-bar blues as the perfect example. The freedom to create as one wishes — what a blessing!
But back to seasonal matters. Between now and Christmas, I am always tempted to equip myself with a pair of earplugs when I go out in public. I would be thrilled to hear Bing’s “White Christmas” once a day, but “The Little Drummer Boy” performed with funk underpinnings raises my blood pressure alarmingly. So I propose two aesthetic alternatives for the season.
One is the best, most jubilant jazz Christmas CD I have ever heard: Mark Shane (and his X-mas All-Stars, including Jon-Erik Kellso) on the Nagel-Heyer label, WHAT WOULD SANTA SAY? It’s a CD I enjoy all through the year.
The other piece of music is accessible online, as I found to my delight. It’s a 1944 record made for the Savoy label, featuring the delightfully accomplished pianist Johnny Guarneri and the irreplaceable bassist Slam Stewart. A truly irrepressible pair!
The song — apparently improvised impromptu in the studio — is called SANTA’S SECRET, a jolly evocation of Fats Waller, who had died less than a year before. It answers the pressing question, “What makes Santa so jolly?” Whether Johnny and Slam were Tall when they recorded this I leave to scholars more erudite than myself.
If you visit http://www.musicalfruitcake.com (which bills itself as offering the worst Christmas songs ever recorded — a position I don’t hold) and search for “Guarneri,” all should be revealed. The link is genuinely troublesome, but it is alive and worth pursuing.
In this holiday season and beyond, I hope that you are as happy as Johnny and Slam seem to be on that record. And that you get to display your very own alchemical wizardries, even if you don’t play an instrument.