Thursday, December 19, 2013

Miles Davis with Bob Dorough - "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)" from the LP Jingle Bell Jazz

A guest post as we approach Christmas Day from my lovely girlfriend Melanie.

Many many years ago, my friend Richard made me a cassette tape of Christmas songs. I believe the title on the homemade tape was "Let It Snow." The cover of the tape was a Christmas scene cut from a magazine and glued to the paper cover that comes with the cassettes. Inside, Richard had written the A & B side titles with one of those great silver metallic pens, directly on the tape. The tape is filled with old familiar holiday favorites, from Ellington, Sinatra, Ives, Crosby, Torme, and of course, the most beloved Christmas music from Vince Guaraldi.

I had heard everything on there, except the Dorough song. I don't think I had ever heard of him. I had heard of Miles Davis, who plays trumpet on the song. The song is a bit of a depressing take on the merriest holiday of the year. Dorough's drawling style, part spoken word, part singing,tells us of the greed, bad taste and all the "Santy clauses with fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins." Sadly, much of what Dorough sings of is true, and a lot of the true Christmas spirit has been buried by "the commercial", like Thelma Ritter's character refers to in Miracle on 34th Street.

As I listen to "Blue Xmas," in my mind, I always see New York City. The streets filled with dirty, slushy wet snow. The sidewalks crowded with folks bustling to meet for cocktails, buy gifts, go to dinner or just get home. There is steam rising from the carts filled with roasting chestnuts and it's snowing. If you tilt your head back, the snowflakes look grey against the sky. I imagine Dorough and the band inside one of those hip coffee/poetry places, the kind tucked away below the street, like in Bell, Book and Candle. It's completely dark in there, except for the glow of candles on each round table. On stage,we see the band, and Dorough, all dressed in black, singing very jazzily, very cynically, about a holiday that most cool hipsters would rather avoid.

Blue Christmas, that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you're blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste
I saw Christmas decorations in the stores the week of Halloween! Christmas beers were already in our store in October! C'mon!

It's as if the holiday season has become this huge kitchen sink stew in which we've combined every great Christmas image, food, piece of music, character, song, and movie, all in one, and easy to swallow. Only, it doesn't taste that great, because it's gotten muddied. There's no balance, no highs and lows, like a beautifully seasoned sauce with that punch of umami, or an elegant wine that has the fruit, acidity and tannin in perfect harmony.

They've got us on a hamster wheel trying to keep up,with the seasons rolling as quickly as they can change the floorset at Walgreen's. What's the hurry? is my question. I say, take it easy. Enjoy the seasons slowly, and savor each one separately. Give each holiday it's due. Especially Christmas!

"Blue Xmas" is a marvelous song, because of the music and the very unique voice of Bob Dorough. It has become my favorite Christmas song, because I love its humor, I love its jazzy down beat view of a very well-worn holiday, and I always love imagining myself listening to it, live, in that dark little poetry joint tucked away in a New York City basement. I am forever grateful to Richard for introducing me to "Blue Xmas." It just wouldn't be the holidays without it.

"Merry Christmas, I hope you have a white one, but for me, it's blue."

rastronomicals addenda: Jingle Bell Jazz has something of an interesting provenance, one that even those who are not record geeks may find interesting. It was originally released in October of 1962 on Columbia, and featured a mix of music that had been released on Columbia over the previous three years along with new material that had been commissioned especially for the compilation. ("Blue Xmas" was one of the new songs).

In 1973, the album was reissued on the Harmony label, replacing a by-then somewhat archaic Dixieland tune from the '62 release with a newer version of "Deck the Halls" by Herbie Hancock. It was also given a new cover that featured a bebop-looking Santa in dark shades blowing into a sax. Wish I had a good image of that to share, but ah well. In 1980 Columbia released its own reissue, and that LP--which Melanie owns--is the one that has the wonderful taxicab cover you see at the top. This one retained the Hancock tune from Harmony's 1973 edition.

Strictly speaking, the LP has never been issued on CD. In 1985, Columbia reissued a CD that featured excerpts of the original album along with music taken from something called God Rest You Merry Jazzmen, and called it Jingle Bell Jazz, as well. Aficionados I am told don't prefer the CD, but the CD does include the Miles/Dorough joint.

Which, by the way, Miles himself didn't much care for. The album's Wikipedia page quotes Miles, from his autobiography:

Columbia got the bright idea of making an album for Christmas, and they thought it would be hip if I had this silly singer named Bob Dorough on the album, with Gil (Fuller) arranging.

We got Wayne Shorter on tenor, Frank Rehak on trombone, and Willie Bobo on bongos, and in August we did this album. The less said about it the better, but it did let me play with Wayne Shorter for the first time, and I really liked what he was into.

Melanie and I will both have to call Miles out on that one.

File under: Xmas Blew


TAD said...

This is nice work, guys. Bob Dorough's the guy who did ABC's "Multiplication Rock," right...?
By the way, Miles's autobiog is a hoot -- every other word is "muhfuh."

TAD said...

Oh, and Dorough also did a vocal version of "In Walked Bud" on Thelonious Monk's UNDERGROUND album. It's ... different....