For those who celebrate it and those who don’t, the Christmas carol songbook is chock full of great music. Stuffed with standards that are often interpreted in new and exciting ways, that holiday songbook isn’t always about singing. In the jazz genre, instrumentals abound.
With that in mind, let’s listen to some of the best interpretations of classic Christmas tunes out there—through a jazz lens.
”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With 190 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
First up: “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin. Bing Crosby’s version—first performed on his radio show in the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, then released in 1942 as part of the Holiday Inn soundtrack—would become the best-selling Christmas song of all time.
One of the founders of the jazz genre of bebop, Charles “Yardbird” Parker, offers an interpretation of “White Christmas” that differs dramatically from Crosby’s famous rendering.
Have a listen!
Thanks to “The Wallbreakers” podcast from New York City’s WKCR-FM, we can go back in time and swing on down to The Royal Roost nightclub, where famous jazz disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torin broadcasted a live Charlie Parker All Stars performance for WMCA radio on Christmas morning in 1948.
RELATED STORY: Celebrating 100 years of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker
Next up is the famed rendition of “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane. As many musical fans might assume, it was not originally written as a Christmas tune, which Billboard notes.
The first time “My Favorite Things” became associated with Christmas was in 1961, when Julie Andrews performed the song on a Garry Moore TV holiday special – long before she starred in the movie version of The Sound of Music, which was filmed in 1964 and released in April 1965.
Bertil Holmgren declared Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” to be the “definitive” one when writing in 2007 for All About Jazz.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s song in the musical The Sound of Music, following its initial appearance on Broadway and on film, in as short a time as eight years was to be taken to a journey that the composers could not have anticipated when they wrote it. From the original version sung by Mary Martin on stage in 1959 Coltrane, when forming his classic quartet in 1960, picked it up to become his own “favorite thing.” With his first album, also called My Favorite Things, with the “classic” quartet that was to become an all time high in modern jazz, Coltrane took a modal approach to the song. He arranged it in a chant-like, Afro-Indian, style, using his then new instrument, the soprano sax, with pianist McCoy Tyner hammering the chords to create a completely new thing in jazz. The song made Coltrane and the band to instantly sky-rocket to fame in the overall jazz scene.
[In] his very last taped concert performance, as the very last song, appears “My Favorite Things.” And it is the definitive version, over all, including those by other performers, of the Rodgers-Hammerstein composition. This time Coltrane appears, as if he knew it would be his last opportunity, to want to hand it over to future generations in its true and refined form.
Have a listen!
Another non-Christmas tune that became one is “Greensleeves.” Galaxy Music Notes brings us the story of how its melody became “What Child is This?”
“What Child Is This?” is a famous and traditional Christmas carol crafted in 1865. The lyrics were composed by William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon residing in Bristol, England. William spent most of his life as a businessman in Glasgow, Scotland, working at the managerial level of the Maritime Insurance Company. He was greatly enticed by traditional English folk songs. And when he started writing the lyrics for “What Child Is This?,” he decided to utilize the melody of “Greensleeves” to create the carol. It is his most memorable and famous creation to date.
Enjoy Coltrane’s interpretation:
Oscar Peterson also gifted us with a delicate interpretation on the piano.
From the YouTube video notes:
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson CC CQ OOnt (August 15, 1925 – December 23, 2007) was a Canadian virtuoso jazz pianist and composer. Considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, Peterson released more than 200 recordings, won seven Grammy Awards, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy, and received numerous other awards and honours. He played thousands of concerts worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years. He was called the “Maharaja of the keyboard” by Duke Ellington, simply “O.P.” by his friends, and informally in the jazz community as “the King of inside swing”.
RELATED STORY: Black Music Sunday: They tickled the ivories and made jazz history: Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson
For many music lovers, “The Christmas Song” (subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire”) will always evoke memories of Nat King Cole’s vocal version, which was also the first version, as reported by Denver’s KUVO-FM.
Stories of Standards: “The Christmas Song” by Bob Wells & Mel Tormé
“The Christmas Song” (1946) by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé was the product of a sizzling hot day in Los Angeles in July of 1945. Tormé had gone over to Wells’ house to visit and found a notebook with a small verse which began “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”. When asked, Wells said he “thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off”. Tormé saw its possibilities as a song and in less than an hour of collaboration had written the melody, more lyrics and they had the song. First recorded by Nat “King” Cole in early 1946, his second recording later that year added a string section and was a hit on both the pop and R&B charts. The first recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974. By 1999 over 1700 versions had been recorded and ASCAP lists it as the number one holiday song of the 21st century.
This lyrical instrumental version recorded by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon in 1970 is one of my personal favorites.
If I were asked to pick a favorite Christmas tune, I would most likely choose “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” And as I wrote for Three Kings Day in 2019:
When I was growing up, I was always more interested in the figures of the three kings, which were part of our family creche-nativity scene, than I was with the baby Jesus or Mary.
Thinking back, it probably had something to do with the fact that one of them was black, and that all three were exotic and mysterious, dressed in elaborate robes and turbans.
I savored the sound of the gifts that they brought with them, especially frankincense and myrrh. Gold was the only one I could identify.
I never grew out of that fascination and have amassed quite a collection of musical interpretations of the 1857 tune.
Here’s a bit about how “We Three Kings of Orient Are” came to be, from Blind Pig and the Acorn:
John Henry Hopkins Jr. was an ordained priest of the Episcopal Church. Hopkins preferred writing to preaching and worked for a New York newspaper as a writer and as a scribe for a church journal.
In 1857 while trying to decide what Epiphany gifts to buy for his nieces and nephews, Hopkins decided to write them a song. He chose the wise men as the subject for his gift. As Hopkins wrote the lyrics he tried to imagine what the wise men must have felt as they searched for the Christ Child.
After giving the song to his nieces and nephews, Hopkins published the song in his own song book, Carols, Hymns, and Songs. During the next century when churches began to add Christmas songs to their hymnals the song was among the first carols chosen ensuring “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” would become one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.
Multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk put his own unique stamp on it, using his version as the title tune on his 1962 album with the same name: “We Free Kings.”
RELATED STORY: Black Music Sunday: Time to celebrate some ‘bright moments’ with Rahsaan Roland Kirk
This swinging 1964 version of “We Three Kings” from The Ramsey Lewis Trio almost makes me want to leave the comfort of my home and head out to a jazz club. Almost.
RELATED STORY:Black Music Sunday: Ramsey Lewis made all of us part of ‘the in crowd.’ May he rest in peace
I’ll close today’s story here as a gift to my editor with Miles Davis’ appearance on “The David Letterman Show” in 1987 playing his jazz/fusion version of my favorite song. (Editor’s note: Thanks, and happy holidays!)
As always, I’ll have lots more music in the comments, but just in case you don’t find any music to match your tastes or you simply want to hear more, check out some of the offerings from my past holiday stories!
2021: Have a sultry, soulful Christmas!
Featuring Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Betty Carter, Aaron Neville, and Nat King Cole.
2022: Black Music Sunday: Christmas a capella and more!
Kings Return and Afro-Blue.
2020: The world needs love on Christmas—and every day of the year
2020: Spend some holiday Black music family time with Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers
2019: Celebrate the holiday season with Earth, Wind & Fire
2018: Aretha and Nancy sing Christmas
2017: Jazzin’ it up for Christmas
Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Modern Jazz Quartet, Jon Hendricks.
2016: Born on Christmas Day: The Chevalier and Cab Calloway
The Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Cab Calloway.
2016: Enjoy an a capella Christmas
Manhattan Transfer, The Singers Unlimited, New York Voices, Take 6, Vocal Sampling, Pentatonix.
2014: Christmas in her soul: Laura Nyro
Have a very merry, musical Christmas, y’all!