What, Me Merry?

Lee Mergner riffs on the proliferation of holiday jazz albums, on the market and in his own house

There are some things that simply can’t be explained. The annual futility of the Chicago Cubs. The success of Adam Sandler. Why I own more than 300 jazz Christmas CDs. I calculated that I could continuously listen to jazz versions of Christmas music 24 hours a day for two straight weeks without repeating a single cut. Too bad that the few times my family actually listens to holiday music, my wife and daughter insist on familiar sing-along versions. Every year it’s yea to Dean Martin crooning “Let It Snow” and nay to Jimmy Smith’s smokin’ version of “Jingle Bells.” And 334 CDs go back into the basement.

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Kim Love

As the holiday season approaches again and I unearth those boxes, I started to wonder: Just how many jazz Christmas CDs are there? Why do artists keep churning them out? What will my family do with these records when I die? Forget that last question. There are some things I don’t want to know.

Jessica Sendra, national jazz buyer for Borders, has seen her fair share of holiday music. She confirms that her company starts ordering the CDs in June or July, and if that isn’t enough to make you a little queasy, Sendra says the perennial big seller in jazz is A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Unless Kenny G releases one, as he will this year,” she adds. Wow, a white Christmas really is coming. Sendra mentions Diana Krall as another contender for the Christmas CD crown: “Krall put out a three-song Christmas EP. We still get requests for that one. So if she did a full-length CD of Christmas material, that would be a guaranteed big seller.” In fact, Krall was planning on such a recording but postponed it because of the death of her mother.

Borders, like most brick-and-mortar outlets, stocks only 40 to 50 jazz holiday CDs during the short season, so it’s difficult for new artists to break into this already crowded field, yet artists of no (or ill) repute continue to crank out Xmas discs by the giant stockingful. Amazon lists more than 4,800 Christmas titles, so we know there must be hundreds of jazz versions. But are there any good ones?

Blue Note’s Yule Be Boppin’ is one of the best in the genre and it features label prez Bruce Lundvall on the cover as Kris Kringle (he didn’t even need one of those phony white beards). Despite that record’s artistic success, it turns out Blue Note has been restrained in the genre. Senior VP and General Manager Tom Evered says flatly there isn’t much gold in those Xmas-CD hills: “You have the same production, manufacturing and marketing costs for records that are sold for such a short period.” I always thought labels forced artists to do these things, but Evered says most of his artists would love to do Christmas records. “When you think about it, it’s just like jazz in that it has a standard repertoire with its own challenge for the artist to put his or her individual stamp on the material.” He even confesses that he would love to hear Jacky Terrasson do one.

I find it hard to believe that artists love to do Christmas records. I could call any number of 334 artists, but since Chris Botti was the first this year to publicize a Christmas recording—his December (Columbia) was sent to us in August—he’s my man. The pitch from his publicist says, “Botti seamlessly blends scintillating sounds of the holiday spirit to create music that is joyful, romantic and sexy.” A sexy Christmas? Except for Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby,” let’s not go there. I’ve always thought of sex and Christmas as mutually exclusive activities.

Chris, tell the truth: You’re doing it for the money, right? “No,” he laughs. “I wanted to make a CD for that reflective time of year. Christmas is a time for such a wide range of feelings. And I love playing with those great melodies.” The trumpeter admits that he did feel weird recording Christmas music during a hot July in Los Angeles. “I came out of the studio and was listening to the mix on the way home in my car. Man, you should have seen the look I got from a girl in a car next to me when I stopped at a light.” And he also confesses that he worried about the CD cover. “My biggest fear was that I was going to have to pose on top of a reindeer or something.” Bad Christmas CD covers could be a whole column unto itself, but Botti’s isn’t bad at all. In fact, he assures me that the fireplace shown on the back cover really is his home fireplace, not some cheesy faux model. Authenticity counts.

Still, I told Botti that if he needs a hackneyed concept for his next holiday CD, I have plenty of ideas. More than 300 of them.

Originally published in December 2002

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