Christmas in the Jazz Age

03 Dec, 2016

There is something about jazz that just makes Christmas perfect. The gentle saxophone tones and the stirring snare drum is practically the most recognized sound of the season (next to sleigh bells and holiday ads touting the latest department store sales). I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the sights and sounds of Christmas in the Jazz Age and give you some recommendations of what to put on the record player or playlist this holiday season. Christmas is ubiquitous in 2016 but in the Jazz Age, Christmas was a fairly new thing.

Christmas during this time was the first instance of what we would dismissively call “commercialization.” Christmas was not a big celebration in the 19th century if you weren’t Catholic. Most mainstream protestant religions did not celebrate Christmas and it was not common in America until it began to be more popular in the 1880s. After World War I, the popularity of Christmas became universal and the ancient figure of Kris Kringle or Santa Clause became a central character of not only the myth of Christmas but around the marketing of products over the holiday. Many ads from that time (and certainly now) prominently feature the jolly man. Even local businesses took on the common symbol for Christmas. Part of Santa’s appeal was that regardless of your religion, Santa was just a kindly old man who brought children toys and punished bad children with coal or rocks in their stocking. This image was reinforced by popular literature like the familiar story, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823.

Many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas became common beginning in the 1920s. Musicians took to the holiday and composed new songs to celebrate, creating many of today’s secular favorites like Sleigh Ride, White Christmas and The Christmas Song.  By the 1920s, vinyl recordings were widely available and people bought Victrola record players to enjoy music at home. This opened up a new market for musicians to spread their new sound into the homes of regular Americans. Coupled with the radio, new and exciting sounds could be piped in directly to where people lived. America had urbanized. People moved into cities to take on new jobs in factories and offices. The advent of leisure and holidays allowed people to spend their disposable incomes on trees and other decor to celebrate the winter holiday. Americans could gather around the fire, roast chestnuts, and listen to the festive sounds of the season.

Santa Claus and Christmas even generated controversy in the Jazz Age. In 1913, John Gluck founded The Santa Claus Association. He took children’s letters written to Santa Claus, (which were usually dumped in the U.S. Post Office’s dead letters pile in Philadelphia) and matched the children with donors of gifts. Celebrities of the time like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford posed for photos and attended fundraising events. The good work even elicited a telegram from President Warren G. Harding. However, a politically ambitious man named Bird Coler took over New York City’s office of public welfare, saw a landscape of charities that were often scams and aimed to bring them to heel. He took on the biggest players in the game and this included Gluck. By this time, Gluck was living a lavish lifestyle and rubbing elbows with the elite of New York. Coler exposed this lifestyle and exposed the organization for the glorified Ponzi scheme that Gluck had created. He basically filled every office in the organization and had none of the normal oversight that was common in a public charity. By 1928, Coler had gone public with his information and the Post Office quit forwarding the letters to him and the charity closed. It’s not really clear what happened to Gluck after that. But many people thought that he simply moved on and started over, leaving bill collectors and others burned to a crisp.

It seemed like there was never a dull moment in those days. The Post Office now forwards those letters to donors itself and many children are still helped. Good is being done to this day despite Gluck and his dishonesty.

In spite of the unsavory dealings of a few bad apples, jazz has always supported the holiday spirit with honest intention and good cheer. Holiday jazz classics are a perfect way to relax after a stressful drive home or bring up the spirits of guests at a holiday party. For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas without some Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters or Lena Horne. I like to mix in some Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald too. The jazz sounds are easy to listen to in almost every situation and the musicianship is first-class.

To kick off the season, I’ve compiled a list of 7 Jazz albums I think you should give a listen to over the course of the holidays paired with performances of great artists at DazzleJazz that you should definitely attend:

Festive!

Annie Booth Trio

Their new jazz effort is light, fun and truly festive. It comes to us from  Annie Booth who is a local Denver area favorite of both international jazz dates and Westword magazine. This new album is out now. The best part is that you can see these selections live. The Annie Booth Trio will be appearing at Dazzle on December 23rd and 24th

Sound of Christmas

Ramsey Lewis

A simply great collection of jazz favorites for the holiday season. This is a must have for any listener.

On December 11th, Katie Glassman and Snapshot return to DazzleJazz for their 4th annual Winter Swing Show which you are sure to love.

Merry from Lena

Lena Horne

Lena Horne is one of those iconic voices of jazz and having her voice alive during this holiday season is never a bad idea.

If you just can’t wait, stop in to hear the vocal stylings of Mandy Harvey’s Holiday show on December 10th at DazzleJazz.

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Ella Fitzgerald

I wore out my vinyl of this and had to find another because it really is just that good. It’s on my playlist in my phone and on my record player.

Ella won’t be there, but you can swing it out with CU’s Thompson Jazz Ensemble performing “Nutcracker Suite” by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorne on December 6th at DazzleJazz.

Hipster’s Holiday

Louis Armstrong

If you like your Christmas music loud and in charge than this is the album for you. Big, brassy sounds fill the air from this holiday favorite.

On December 15th the Adam Bartczak Republic returns to DazzleJazz to perform their Holiday Show which is likely to be a sonic explosion of joy and is not-to-be-missed.

A Merry Christmas with Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters

Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters

In my mind, no list would be complete without Bing Crosby. Most of the Christmas favorites many of us remember from our youth came from this man’s throat. Match that with World War II-era favorites The Andrews Sisters and it’s an award-winning combination for the holidays. If you want to take Bing Crosby to a new place, check out Tania Katz w/ Taeogi & Freaky North’s Avant Garde Interpretations of a Bing Crosby Christmas at DazzleJazz on December 22nd!

Jazz Piano Christmas

Beegie Adair

There aren’t many moments of quiet reflection around this time of year. We’re rushing around, trying to see friends, shuffling children to and fro or just trying to navigate family troubles. If you have a quiet moment at home or in the car, this album is essential. It’s really the perfect light piano album.

And what Christmas would be complete without a live performance by Purnell Steen? Come see his holiday show on December 21st at DazzleJazz.

This holiday season, gather your loved ones around the fire place, put on some amazing jazz (or come hear it at Dazzle!) and enjoy the sights and sounds of this holiday season. If there is one thing that we’ve learned from this story is that you should always donate to great charities like Toys for Tots and other verified charities that aren’t simply organizations for the enrichment of crooked people. It can be hard to see through the commercialization of this winter holiday. The best way forward is to gather some great people, put on some great music, and add plenty of rum to your eggnog.

Cameron Cowan is a writer, thinker, and human being writing from Tacoma, WA. Connected to you on all your favorite social media.
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