Happy Holidays

Not all of the songs that comprise the canon of Christmas carols are unrewarding vehicles for musically creative collaborations, but most need at least a re-harmonization in order for jazz musicians to improvise intelligently on them. Why are these examples of the tribute our society pays to redemption so devoid of musical excitement?

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

Louis Armstrongs' Christmas Album
It’s that time of year when many a working musician gets called for gigs that are, hopefully, less than life-defining. New Year’s Eve will find me playing yet another glorified cocktail party, but a lot noisier. Every year I make a list of resolutions that always includes “never take work on New Year’s Eve.” But as usual, after a long year of making a lot of music for not a lot of money, a mid-November phone call starts the New Year’s Eve shuffle going. This year, it’s to play in town for less than I would like, but too much to say “no.” Shortly after came the calls offering a little more, but requiring a drive across the Hudson River. Because I don’t want to get to bed after 4 am on New Year’s Day this year, I have decided to take less in order to stay near home. Besides, mass transit is free that night.

I had a taste of the holiday festivities on Wednesday, playing a pre-Christmas party in the lobby of Trump World Tower. I know that, considering the rants about the Great American Culture Machine that have been a regular feature of this blog, it might seem odd for me to play music at that location, but the acoustics there are rather nice and one cannot really equate the world of Donald Trump with American Culture, even if the image of intensity and ruthlessness he projects appeals to a sub-culture of wannabe robber barons living under the delusion that ascending the corporate ladder will make them interesting. And, judging by what I’ve seen and heard of him, he’s not a shaper of American culture so much as a caricatured product of it. So I resisted the urge to play the theme from The Apprentice during my bass solos and focused on the litany of Christmas songs that find their way into my performance repertoire between Black Friday and year’s end.

It’s not that all of these songs are bad. My colleagues and I are usually in agreement (around this time of year, anyway) that there are excellent vehicles for improvisation in the canon of carols composed to commemorate the holiday season. “The Christmas Song” by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane seem to top the list among the circles of jazz musicians with whom I negotiate, although I’m partial to the version of the latter performed by Cliff Edwards in the role of Jiminy Cricket, myself. Often “Christmas Time is Here” by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi is considered a good choice for improvising as well. But then we start running into problems as we run out of options because the majority of Christmas songs are just not suited for intelligent jazz improvisation. The majority need to be doctored in a big way to be of interest to the jazz person’s sensibilities. (I’ll put in a shameless plug now for a Christmas music project by Lee McClure that I believe is worth listening to.)

Why is most of the serious Christmas musical fare so devoid of musical meat and yet, for nearly two months, we are all barraged from almost every angle with it? Truly, without corporate hype there just wouldn’t be any reason to listen to or play most of this stuff. My theory is that it’s part of a plan to use a musical “less-is-more” paradigm to numb the American aesthetic into a mindless torpor that could be subliminally inculcated into accepting the prospect of sitting in a concert hall and listening to the music of long gone European composers whose music has been heard a hundred times on recordings at home as superior to listening to master improvisers inventing new music in an intimate setting. It sets up a process of brain decay that allowed works that delve into the possibilities of melodic invention like “Karma Chameleon” to rise to the top of the charts. This approach to music marketing also fosters a kind of blind (or deaf) acceptance of anything orchestral as being the height of human achievement. I found the second concept reinforced as I was walking out of the elevator in my apartment building with my “stick-bass” and asked by a neighbor if I was part of “the philharmonic.” When I explained that I was a free-lance musician she told me that even though her sister sings opera and her brother is a concert pianist, they and she “also like jazz, too.” I now understand why artists like Duke Ellington and Max Roach abhorred the word “jazz.”

But this ranting inspired by the Christmas spirits needs, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s visitations, to be left behind so that better things can be discussed. A New Year approaches and in it, I plan to not be blogging. NewMusicBox has informed me that they prefer that I submit more in-depth articles for future publication and I agree whole-heartedly. I’ll be submitting a list of jazz artists who also show wizardry in the wide wonderful world of words who can collectively present a picture of American improvised music from other regions of the United States. I can now spend more time composing for Alt.Timers as well as the bass trio I put together with Ed Schuller and Scott Lee, plus other musicians I play with. I’ll still work with Fay Victor (today—Friday, December 20—at the Greenwich House in Manhattan and Thursday, December 26, at the 55 Bar) and (hopefully, before the Fates take away the chance) the other fantastic artists I’ve been blessed to make music with. I’ll be playing at the United Methodist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, with pianist-composer Eric Olsen on Christmas Eve, before meeting up with the rest of my wife’s family, which will lend a sense of verity to the homage paid to the Prince of Peace’s nativity narrative. The regular Thursday jam session at Jimmy Ryans in the Bronx; and the irregular Monday session at The Turning Point in Piermont, New York will continue (pending the Fates’ whimsy). I’ll also be taking on a new project with a repertoire ensemble, Mr. Gone, playing the jazz-rock fusion music of Weather Report and Herbie Hancock, and plan to work on a method book and a few other self-motivated writing projects. With a little luck and funding, I even hope to continue my formal education. But this three-year run as the “improvised music correspondent” for NMBx has been a great honor and eye- (as well as ear-) opening experience for me. I’ve been given the opportunity to observe my peers and betters and the forces that make them do what they do best, create new music, in a way that I had hitherto not done. Before, I listened to music just to know it, and not as a point of discussion beyond the technical elements of the piece heard. Now I find myself listening critically to works in a greater body of human achievement and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the old way. For that I thank you, NewMusicBox.

Happy Holidays!