Friday Night Music, December 22, 2012: “Blue Christmas/Xmas (To Whom It May Concern),” Miles Davis and Bob Dorough, 1962
I’m riled about the Xmas season now. I am not feeling it at the end of the year, because there has been so much death and disrespect for and dishonor of people’s lives. I just want the season to hurry up and end because of all the wretched excess and focus on people who ostensibly have more and don’t suffer the usual slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune. For every loud example of dehumanization, there are the silent ones, the ones that don’t make the news, the silent suffering and the silent deaths. Not just physical death, but spiritual death.
That’s why I decided to use this morose piece from a little known album called either Jingle Bell Jazz or Jingle Bell Swing. You could say that it’s one of those holiday vanity numbers that the record company would collect from its stable of jazz musicians and then release to showcase that even the jazzbos felt something/anything about Christmas. Wikipedia says that Columbia compiled about three years worth of songs and instrumentals to turn out this album, which includes the likes of the lately departed Dave Brubeck, Carmen McRae, Paul Horn, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and even Duke Ellington.
At the time of its release, Jingle Bell Jazz was reviewed in Billboard, “Unfortunately, this album is reaching the market too late to really be a factor this year, but it contains such a swinging, bright collection of jazz names, it certainly bears comment.”.
Despite his unenthusiastic assessment of his contribution to Jingle Bell Jazz, Miles Davis recalls the recording session as the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, “…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.”
Jingle Bell Jazz reached #28 on the Billboard Christmas Albums Chart on December 10, 1988.
The cynical, bah-humbug “Blue Xmas” was probably not what Columbia executives had in mind in 1962 when they asked Miles Davis to record a track for a planned Christmas jazz compilation album. Davis turned to Bob Dorough, whom he had met in Los Angeles in the late ’50s and would have sit in with his band to sing “Baltimore Oriole.” Miles dug Dorough’s hip, laid-back singing style. Dorough left L.A. with a song in hand, met with Miles and arranger Gil Evans, and was soon in the studio with Miles’s sextet singing the incendiary words to “Blue Xmas.”
So Bob Dorough, now 89, is not exactly “silly.” He’s bona fide, despite Miles’ deprecating criticism, and you’d be surprised who he is and where he has been. I have a feeling even Michael Franks has been riffing off him.
[...] He is perhaps best known as a voice and primary composer of many of the songs used in Schoolhouse Rock!, a series of educational animated shorts appearing on Saturday morning television in the 1970s and 1980s on ABC affiliates in the United States. Dorough composed, conducted and played much of the “Schoolhouse Rock!” music. He has released vocal jazz albums periodically over the last 50 years; his latest, Small Day Tomorrow, came out in 2006. He worked with Nellie McKay on her 2007 album, Obligatory Villagers as well as her 2009 release, Normal as Blueberry Pie – A Tribute to Doris Day.
At the same time Dorough recorded “Blue Xmas” for Miles, he teamed with the horn genius in another piece called, “Nothing Like You,” that appeared on a later album, Sorcerer. Bob Dorough remains one of the few singers who have appeared with Miles on one of his recorded compositions. He recorded “Blue Xmas” once more in 2008 for Dees Bees/Circumstantial Productions.
The album covers have changed over the years, and so have the personnel. The Dukes of Dixieland’s “Frosty the Snowman,” was replaced by Herbie Hancock’s instrumental, “Deck the Halls” in subsquent reissues, in 1973 and in 1980. (Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are Nichiren (SGI) Buddhists.) It has yet to make the jump in its original entirety to CD or to even iTunes. Columbia cherry picks what it wants from the 1962 line-up and adds newer personnel. Some of the original tracks have shown up in other holiday compilations on other labels.
Let me say that I think that this is the first time I have ever accessed Miles Davis on this blog. I like some of his work, truly. Personally, he’s doesn’t appear to have been a nice guy, especially with black women. I don’t have to talk about his active expression of a pimp aesthetic that he never really shrugged off even after his life-saving marriage to Cicely Tyson. That’s how Pearl Cleage came out with her essay and later her play, both entitled “Mad at Miles,” about the prevalence of abuse in black heterosexual relationships just before his death in 1991. So I reject what Miles did as a man, but I enjoy the better part of him, which was his music, but only by so much.
The words to “Blue Xmas”?
I hope you have a white one, but for me it’s blue
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
Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin
They’re wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins
And nearly everybody’s standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup
Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme
Fill my stocking up
All the way up
It’s a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy
Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral
Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all
What I call
Lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards
While you’re very, very busy addressing
Twenty zillion Christmas cards
Now, Yuletide is the season to receive and oh, to give and ahh, to share
But all you December do-gooders rush around and rant and rave and loudly blare
I hope yours is a bright one, but for me it bleeds
May we all be healed this holiday season.
- Schoolhouse Rock at 40: Still Fabulous and Rocking On (openculture.com)
- AllMusic Playlist: Gifts of Music (allmusic.com)
- Miles Davis and His ‘Second Great Quintet,’ Filmed Live in Europe, 1967 (openculture.com)
- Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die (blogs.villagevoice.com)
- The Miles Davis Story, the Definitive Film Biography of a Jazz Legend (openculture.com)
- The Excellent Paradox of Dave Brubeck (theatlantic.com)
- An Impossible Duet, Miles Davis Improvising on LCD Soundsystem (laughingsquid.com)