A mix of jazz standards and some of the most well-known Christmas carols. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Sleigh Ride, Let It Snow, L’enfant au tambour … How did jazz become a holiday mainstay?
“Jazz musicians have always taken popular songs and melodies and made them their own. And Christmas carols are no exception,” said Martin Desjardins, who teaches jazz history at Université Laval.
According to Desjardins, this relationship began at the end of the 19th century, when the United States was welcoming immigrants from all over the globe, resulting in a blend of different holiday traditions. At the same time, New Orleans musicians started playing longer pieces, improvising and sharing repertoire. Precursors to jazz appeared while the American melting pot started developing a Christmas culture.
In the 1920s, big bands started infusing Christmas classics with swing. Jazz orchestras arranged Silent Night, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and O Come All Ye Faithful, updating the centuries-old tunes.
The hits we still hear every December were mainly written in the 1940s and ’50s. “At the time, they wrote songs for crooners and singers to top the holiday charts,” explained Desjardins. And it worked! Bing Crosby sang White Christmas, Nat King Cole recorded The Christmas Song, and Judy Garland offered us Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. These singers were hugely popular, making the tunes instant chart-toppers. Their albums, featuring traditional melodies and new hits, were in every Western home.
The new songs all had one thing in common: they weren’t religious. They talked about winter, presents and modern legends, like Santa Claus or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “The goal was to cater to the largest audience, which influenced how the composers handled the subjects,” added Desjardins.
Slowly but surely, a cultural phenomenon was born, where Christmas distanced itself from Christianity. The jolly old man in a red suit—who has nothing to do with Saint Nicholas—became the season’s icon. Christmas became a universal, and commercial, holiday.
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