Aside from sacred carols, many beloved holiday classics were composed in the swing era, making Christmas music and jazz as smooth a pairing as eggnog and brandy. Kansas City jazz musicians have been recording their own expansive collection of songs, including hymns, contemporary staples and originals, to get you in the holiday spirit.
Swing in the good cheer with this homegrown holiday soundtrack.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker graced the airwaves on Christmas Day in 1948 with a historic rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” alongside his quintet. Broadcasted live from the Royal Roost—celebrated as the birthplace of bebop—in Manhattan’s Theater District, Bird’s bebop interpretation takes flight with a brisk tempo, a departure from the once-ballad, and his virtuosic solo interjects a brief but unmistakable quote from “Jingle Bells.”
Bird’s dynamic take on the holiday favorite remains a unique gem as the only known holiday recording in his discography.
Count Basie Orchestra
The Count Basie Orchestra’s hard-swinging arrangement of “Jingle Bells’’ was first performed live amid the heat of an NYC summer in 1961. Arranger and saxophonist Ernie Wilkins arrived at the big band’s gig at Birdland—just down the street from the Royal Roost—clutching a freshly penned manuscript.
Following the live performance, the arrangement was formally recorded and released a year later in 1962 by Roulette Records. With Basie’s distinct touch at the piano and a joyous, exuberant brass section, the recording swiftly earned its status as a classic.
The recording also showcases the skills of two other significant KC musicians: Saxophonist Frank Wess and guitarist Freddie Green also appear on this holiday classic.
Pianist and singer Julia Lee’s original “Christmas Spirits” is equal parts festive and flirtatious, embodying the Kansas City style with Lee’s bluesy, laid-back swing sensibility. The song opens with a dissonant and almost jarring play on “Jingle Bells,” but the holiday blues quickly take an audacious turn, casting the song as a risqué love letter to none other than Santa Claus himself.
Like many of Lee’s songs, “Christmas Spirits” faced a challenge in terms of radio play due to its suggestive lyrics. Reliant on jukebox plays and record sales alone, the track reached No. 16 on the Billboard R&B chart in January 1949 and was one of Lee’s final hits with Capitol Records.
The track also features Kansas City drummer Sam “Baby” Lovett, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s.
Singer Paula Saunders shines in her a capella delivery of “Skating,” originally from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Saunders’ warm vocals and skillful scatting blend seamlessly with Guaraldi’s rich harmonies in this lyricless cover.
Released last month, “Skating” is part of the Soul of Santa Christmas Album, a compilation album released by the Soul of Santa “Do Good’’ Foundation (headquartered in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District) and produced by Grammy-nominated producer Jo Blaq. Blaq boasts an impressive portfolio working with renowned artists including Diana Ross, Jill Scott and Rihanna.
The album is set to serve as the soundtrack for the upcoming Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District and The Shops of Blue Parkway this year.
“Have a Very Merry Christmas”
Released during the pandemic in 2020, Andrea Lewis’ “Have a Very Merry Christmas” became an uplifting musical respite in a year filled with uncertainty. Her Christmas album’s title track, the song was composed by Andrea and artfully arranged for a big band by her husband, trombonist and composer Marcus Lewis. With a funky groove, an infectious melody and buttery horns, it’s an earworm you’ll find yourself humming along to this season.