Two Takes On Christmas Music: Sweet And Sour

What do you get when one of the songwriters behind a beloved children's program and a champion of challenging new music each approach Christmas songs in their own ways?

Not what you might expect.

Saxophonist, composer, and MacArthur "genius" John Zorn is also a record producer who runs his own label, Tzadik — the Hebrew word for "righteous one." The top of the label home page reads:

Tzadik is dedicated to releasing the best in avant garde and experimental music.

Indeed, Zorn's first stab at capturing the spirit of Christmas in sound came in 1999 with a piece that was what you might have expected. "Blues Noel" careens from jump blues sax and hand claps to electronic noise to ethereal wordless chanting to blues piano mixed with sleigh bells and ends with a voice in French backed by glockenspiel wishing listeners "Joyeux Noel."

This year? The Jewish Zorn has produced a straight-up love letter to Christmas.

"I've always loved the holidays — my parents celebrated Christmas when I was young. We had a tree and we used to trim the tree with music playing," Zorn says.

He was an 8 year-old looking forward to the holidays in 1962 when another jazz composer, pianist and singer Bob Dorough — the man who would later write songs for that children's favorite, Schoolhouse Rock — took a completely different approach and created a kind of anti-Christmas classic.

Dorough's "Blue X-mas" begins like this:

Merry Christmas.
I hope you have a white one but for me it's blue.
Blue X-mas — that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue.
Blue X-mas — when you're blue at Christmastime you see right through
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
And plain old bad taste.

"Blue X-mas," subtitled, "To whom it may concern," was commissioned by a musician as well-known for his ill temper as he was for his singular trumpet playing — Miles Davis.

"Can you imagine?" says Dorough, only half jokingly. "You know it's pretty wild to get a phone call from him. And then he said (Dorough imitates Davis' gravelly voice) 'I want you to write me a Christmas song.' I said, 'huh?'"

It turns out Davis had been asked by his label to contribute to an album of jazz artists doing Christmas music. And, well, Miles didn't hear himself playing "Jingle Bells."

But that's exactly what John Zorn wants to hear.

"Every year comes around, I put on the holiday music that I really love listening to," Zorn says. "Vince Guaraldi. And there's a Beach Boys record I love. Sinatra has a bunch of Christmas songs. And I began thinking, you know, I mean I wish there were more records I'd really enjoy listening to at this time 'cause I keep pulling out the same records year after year after year."

Zorn says he's wanted to make a Christmas record for more than a decade. He curates a Jewish music series on his record label and his first idea was to do an album of Christmas music all written by Jews. Think Irving Berlin's "White Christmas."

"It turned out that a lot of Christmas songs have been written by Jews," says Zorn. "Then as I got deeper into it, I decided — I mean that's a funny idea but I don't want to make any political statement here or do any kind of agenda. I just want to keep it in kind of the secular vein and just celebrate the holiday as you know, hot-buttered rum and mulled cider and tinsel on the tree and little toys and Santa flying in the air and you know those childlike visions."

Childlike visions make their way into Bob Dorough's "Blue X-mas," too. This lyric, for example:

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, ah, to share
But all you December do-gooders rush around and rant and rave and loudly blare
Merry Christmas

Dorough says his inspiration was Miles.

"You know we always called him the Prince of Darkness and so I thought this was not going to be one of those happy 'what are you going to bring me for Christmas songs,'" Dorough laughs. "And my point was to emphasize the over-commercialization of Christmas. I was thinking of Miles and the way he lives his life and commends his music. I hope I didn't overdo it."

The song was something of a jazz landmark. It was the first time the celebrated trumpeter had recorded with a vocalist and it was great exposure for the young Dorough, who sang a played piano on the record. But there was a downside. When the album came out, Dorough noticed that Davis had claimed co-songwriting credit — Dorough admits the trumpeter did re-arrange the song a bit. But Davis also claimed full music publishing rights — something Dorough didn't get back until after Davis' death in 1991, almost 30 years after the recording.

So in the end, Dorough's acerbic observations in "Blue X-mas" were created as a work for hire. And John Zorn's album, "Christmas Dreamers" is a work of love.

"It's just that it's coming from my heart, going out to all of you," Zorn says. "It's meant to be listened to and enjoyed and I hope people appreciate it."

As the band says at the very end of the album, "Merry Christmas everybody!"

However you feel about the holiday.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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