If you’re at all like me, a healthy serving of jazz helps you through the holidays. I love Christmas, but assorted right hooks and uppercuts from the fists of life have made the season of giving—and the season when loneliness is more acute—a challenge in recent years, which has meant a number of long, solitary days at the café reading and listening to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Smith, and Kenny Burrell. They are the Magi-esque gift-bearers when it comes to gainsaying the blues that can come with this season of red and green.
Ah, those Christmas blues. Rudolph had them, Frosty had them, Jimmy Stewart definitely had them, but has any singer had them quite like Bessie Smith? If they have, I bet they’ve never shaken them off like she did.
Bessie Smith was by no means a silky singer, but she was the best at blending the respective strengths of artists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, with the added perk—well, I consider it a perk—that the era in which her music was recorded adds mystery and power to a voice that sounds akin to moonbeams penetrating a darkling bog (if such beams could be heard), a torch illuminating an overgrown mountain path, a guiding searchlight in a blacked-out city, a Sherpa instructing how to depart hell.
Smith’s recordings have the feel of being made before the time when recording even existed, as if they were stamped into the air, part of the DNA of the elements, always present like waves have always been present. She comes at you in waves too, with a voice that, all of these decades later, might remain the single most powerful sound in American popular music. Scientists can measure the bite speed of a snake’s jaws; there ought to be a device that can register exactly the power with which Smith’s voice smote air. It was, and remains, a miraculous mallet of perseverance and joy.
The Empress of the Blues lived a mere 43 years, leaving this world upon which she had so deeply imprinted her sound in September 1937, when the Packard being driven by her lover on U.S. Route 61 outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, crashed into a truck with Smith’s right arm hanging out the window. The now-debunked story went that she died because a white hospital refused her admittance, but it’s fitting that this larger-than-life persona should inspire legends. She was earthy, but she had something that smacked of iconography enmeshed with her story, the idea that this human was also more than human. She certainly sang that way.
Which makes Smith perfect for Christmas. Anyone who knows her music knows that she loved a good time. The harder it would be—logistically, financially, emotionally, mentally, spiritually—to have that good time, the harder she was going to fight to have it. The world invents a lot of mats for us to lie on after we’re knocked down; Smith the jazz and blues singer was all about rising off of them again. Had Herod’s men come to get her, in a different time and a different place, they would have found buckets of beer and pigs’ feet jammed into their gobs, straw underfoot.
In the 1933 song “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”—which Billie Holiday later covered—Smith is the ultimate banquetess. She’s the jazz version of that proud (the good kind of proud), insistent sumptuousness that the Ghost of Christmas Present presides over when we first meet him, stacks of foodstuffs ‘round his person, in Scrooge’s rooms. We talk about the life of the party; Smith was the will of the party, the human spirit that recognized that it was important to have that party—some form of coming together—even, especially, when times are tough.
On November 18, 1925, in New York City, Bessie Smith cut her lone Christmas number, which would be, as it turned out, both enough and plenty. The song was called “At the Christmas Ball,” and she was backed by Joe Smith on cornet, Charlie Green on trombone, and Fletcher Henderson on piano. Henderson always played well with Smith. He had a knack for cuing up her lines, then getting out of her way; Smith didn’t really need someone to clear the runway for her, of course—she could clear one on her own—but this was still better, more amalgamated. Her voice is a party unto itself, and what I mean by that is though it is one single voice, a community of various voices seems to live within it. She speaks for the town, we might say, as much as she does the individual homeowner.
“Hey Bessie, it’s Christmas here,” a male voice intones, as if addressing a symbol of the season that one happens to find upon returning home from out of the cold air. Notice how the word “here” centralizes location, entrenches the holiday in this moment, this song, what passes between singer and listener. Shut off that noise outside. This is our Christmas, it seems to say. It’s a prefatory sentiment for the feeling that Smith is going to develop, expand upon, and ram home.
Christmas, she informs us, by way of reiteration, comes but once a year, and when it does, it brings good cheer. There’s a whiff of the Victorian there, an awareness both of history and the fun that comes with more modern riffing upon that history. Those good times were cool, cats, but now it’s our time. She next extols the copious quaffing of wine and beer in what is a bluesy wassail. She was excellent at building kinship this way. Connection. More than the power of her voice itself, I think this is why listeners have always felt they shared something with this artist that felt fraternal. The manner in which she sings the word “Hooray” in “Hooray for Christmas” is along the lines of a quavering slide trombone. It’s a performance-opening vocal as a form of hailing the listener, sounding the note to gather. Smith sang with more vibrato than maybe any other blues and jazz singer. She bends the notes, but even when she’s espousing the guzzling of presumably vast quantities of holiday spirits, there’s pacifying beauty in her voice that’s a warming comfort; she’s less a primal angel than an angel equally able to gladden a simple rustic setting, a plush manor hearthside, or just a huddle around the space heater in a cramped city apartment.
This is broad-spirited singing. All-encompassing singing. Her Christmas ball exists at some distance from the normal Christmastime strokes of the clock. “Christmas bells will ring real soon/Even in the afternoon,” she sings, and what a wonderful qualifier that “even” is—the holiday we associate with long nights is potent enough, she grants, to make inroads into the ordinary hours of early afternoon. And yet this Christmas ball she’s hosting, at which we are her musical guests, knows no chimes, for it hasn’t need for them. These blues serve as our bells. She gives us a little advice, which is but a joke; we should be careful to watch our step, lest we lose our rep—sweet 1920s slang—but you’re in on the joke now, and you understand that if you’re having a good time here and being honest and living large for a while, at least, you can’t lose your reputation at all. That only results if you hold back, something of which Smith—our exemplar of the shindig—is incapable. And happy ho ho ho for it.
The cornet mimics revelers in attendance. You get a sense that lots of people are in the room where this is being recorded, almost like when Oscar takes the lid off of his garbage can on Sesame Street and you hear dozens of voices coming from below. Henderson’s piano is the piece’s through line, keeping momentum moving forward, because Smith’s voice has a way of singing a line such that it also doubles back—like a willow bending in its own self-generated wind—on the one that came before. Henderson is integral to the Christmastime progression, our sensation of this party taking us through an evening. When she sings the line “Christmas bells will ring real soon,” Smith breaks into a momentary falsetto on the word “soon,” her voice going bell-like, a tintinnabulous musical pun, on the bell-like shapes of the internal vowels.
I hear this and I think, “Damn, that’s how you sing, son.” Not me, of course—I can’t sing like this. Who could? But this wouldn’t be Bessie Smith if there weren’t a sobering component to go along with the feeling of, well, let’s call it so much mulled cider. And that sobering component takes the form of her reminding us that if our partner is not fair—meaning if he or she behaves like a jackass, in either the small or big ways of life in which one can—there are other options.
“More over there,” as she sings it. Christmas may only come once a year, but the amity we associate with the season is a thick spread we can slather over all the seasons, all the months, all the days. That’s doing life Bessie-style.