The Greatest Jazz Christmas Performance of All Time

On Dec. 25, 1948, Charlie Parker created a jazzy manger in the Royal Roost

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker (photo: William P. Gottlieb c/o Library of Congress)

Charles Dickens, that prose poet of Christmas, believed that the end of the year—the holiday portion—not only was made for the best celebrations but also was the ideal season for us to reflect on pain and loss, and how our life might become better fructified in the future. In other words, it’s a chance to take stock, be grateful, or try to figure out how we might come to a place in our journeys as humans where future Christmases will provide many reasons for gratitude.

We jazz fans always have music to be thankful for, whether it’s that new artist we fell in love with in the past year, or maybe a titan of old we’ve rediscovered, or someone who ought to have been a titan but too long eluded our standard radar for such things. And there are so many wonderful Christmas-related recordings we can dip into from our favorite artists. There’s Ella Fitzgerald wanting us to have a swinging Christmas, or Jimmy Smith offering us some Christmas cookin’—and though the radio playlists, shopping malls, and seemingly a million Starbucks want you to think Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole are seasonal crooners, they were mighty jazz maestros who just happened to invoke the Christmas spirit, a time or two, better than nearly anyone else who has ever decided to open their mouths and sing a tune.

But they are not whom I wish to write about today, in my self-ascribed role of the Ghost of Musical Christmas Past, for many Christmases have come and gone since a man with a beat-up alto saxophone recorded—in a live performance—what I will rest easy, as the most confident of merry gentleman, in relaying to you is the greatest jazz Christmas recording we have.

If you’re like me, you might sometimes wonder what Christmas was like for Charlie Parker. Did he practice on his horn? Was he aggrieved because the demons he’d aimed to vanquish before the year started still remained? Was it just another day, only a harder day to book club work on? Was he not thinking about music so much because he was about to become throat-deep in a week of seeing old friends and partying hard? Was he stressed about money? Was he inventing new modes of improvisation in his practice space while the rest of the world hummed carols and basted turkeys and wrapped presents? On Christmas Eve 1948, was he concerned about getting to the Royal Roost on time the next day—oh, that hangover!—to cut some tunes that would go out over the airwaves?

The Royal Roost, which was located at 1580 Broadway, was originally a chicken restaurant. It struggled to make a profit, and the would-be poulter, Ralph Watkins, sold it to Sid Torin. You might not know his given name, but you’ll recognize his nom de jazz of Symphony Sid, the man who turned a place to nosh on some legs and breasts into a venue that did worlds for postwar jazz, helping bebop to blossom and send its seeds a’wafting into millions of homes, courtesy of the radio. Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and of course the Bird were all Roost regulars. The club was near the Met, which led to its dashing handle of “the Metropolitan Bopera House.” In jazz, even a nickname is a hot lick.

At this point in his career, Parker has already done a lot of his innovating. The core bebop texts have been waxed, and he’s nursing a dream to record with strings, one he’ll realize in November of the next year. He’s an inventor still, but a lot of that invention is glimpsed in live performance. Bird has some stalwart help this holiday morning at the Roost: Max Roach on drums, Al Haig on piano, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Bennie Green on trombone, among others. Symphony Sid certainly does not sound dimmed by any revelries from the previous evening. If he had been out late wassailing, you’d not know it. He’s clearly gassed to have the Bird for Christmas morning, and that energy feels pervasive. Miles Davis’ “Half Nelson” is taken at a gallop; we are obviously not here to lollygag over Bloody Marys at brunch. Sometimes Bird’s lines could become enjambed, like he was thinking so quickly that one figure would run into the backside of another, maybe several others—but here, right now, he’s bang on. The number feels complete, total, definitive, but also a setup. Rarely do we feel that we are both wholly satiated and just getting started. But we are.

Sid takes the microphone at the close of the number. “You know, somebody called a little while ago at the studio,” he says, as you can just make out Haig lightly chording away on the piano, “and they said, ‘I wonder if you’d get Bird to do something on Christmas.’” You can hear that Sid didn’t think this request would necessarily be met with open arms. “Well, it’s fitting,” he says, more to himself than any of us, a replay of the thought process he had when the caller gave Sid his idea. “This is Christmas morning … and the Bird’s got a little arrangement, a little surprise for you, on ‘White Christmas.’” As he’s talking, Haig’s piano chords are coming up ever so slightly in volume until, with the close of Sid’s announcement, they instigate the performance proper.

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These days, we cannot get away from “White Christmas.” For some of us that’s an annoyance—no matter how great the tune—and for others, like myself, it’s a welcome sound each and every time it’s encountered, so long as it’s by an artist who’s up to handling the job. Give me Bing, give me Clyde McPhatter, give me Elvis. Crosby gave the first public performance of the song on Christmas 1941, cutting it the next year for release as a package of songs from Holiday Inn, in late July 1942. The master was then used over and over again to the point that it was deteriorating, such was the song’s popularity. (Crosby had to re-record the song due to that raddled master; what you usually hear on the radio is a version he taped in 1947, which put the song back in the American consciousness, although it had never really left.)

That original 1942 version made No. 1 on the Harlem Hit Parade, the first time Crosby reached the top spot on black charts. This is not surprising to me. The song is no work of Hollywood bunkum. It’s bluesy as hell, and the blues, just like a ghost story, is perfect for Christmas. Think of something like Judy Garland’s performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—its blues feel is every bit as strong as anything by Skip James. Think of how many carols work from within the context of a bluesy minor key, and how they have a fraughtness to them that tends to elude popular songs. They appear to be pregnant with what we might think of as the overarching, the ineffable.

Now the blues tends to be slow and bebop, naturally, is fast. But everything in Parker, if you know how to listen to it, is passed through a blues filter. He must have heard Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” and filed it away as an idea to return to later, in his time, in his fashion. For an artist to take a pop song and turn it into a veritable secular carol is among the greatest achievements of seasonal song alchemy. Perhaps something best undertook by a tuneful Santa, or the elfin equivalent of Rudolph, with his unique skill set. Or a transcendent alto saxophonist.

Back to the Royal Roost, Christmas 1948. The horns begin in unison behind the chordal beat established by Haig, like a collection of wise men starting out on a journey. But very soon one of the Magi departs from the main path. Parker starts blowing behind the beat, which has the neat effect of providing further direction to it. We are just a couple bars in, but you already know he is bringing the creative intensity. Roach sets off a few bass drum bombs; the full melodic refrain sounds in all the horns, which are interacting with that ease of old friends who can communicate sans expressed expectations and directions.

Parker’s playing travels further away from the beat, so much so that we think his melodic figure in bar eight, much higher than the core melody, might be the beginning of his solo. But no, he hangs in there through the rest of the theme, working with his mates, building up that all-for-one, one-for-all mentality—a Dickensian mentality—before, about a minute in, he takes off and does his thing, as if to wait any longer would be to deprive the members of this performing unit, and all the listeners then and since, of something truly special. It is time to unwrap the gift.

The first few bars of the solo might as well be their own song. Parker manages to create something completely new, leaping beyond the parameters of the tune, but he also lovingly confers greater gravitas upon it, with mirth and a spirit of giving rather than solemnity. His lines are clearly delineated, but they do come fast. The solo builds in its pace, mirroring a child’s excitement over the weeks leading up to Christmas: the quickened heartbeat, the fast-paced, expectant footfalls, the words that become shrieks of elation no dictionary can contain. The etymology of this solo is that of the gladdening human heart, more than anything based in any musical theory.

His lines become deliciously involuted, a staircase threaded through another staircase threaded through another, going up and up, as in a Powell and Pressburger film. When you think the excitement is going to make you crash over headlong in your chair—that is, if you had the power of self-control to remain seated—Parker mixes in a five-second quote from “Jingle Bells.” Put it this way: He knows how good you’re feeling, and he wants to give you a little more. That quote flirts with dissonance, a hint of Eric Dolphy a decade and a half before the fact. These are the highest notes Parker plays, the culmination of his solo, and they are akin to a great and mighty heraldry. The Annunciation has come to Jazz Town.

If this is a Christmas that finds you dispirited, I am not suggesting that listening to a Charlie Parker performance will relieve you of that particular burden. But what it does do is repeat … if not a sounding joy, a sounding reminder, that the very taking of stock implies change; that, as things had changed before, requiring the stock-taking, so too will they change again. You now have a soundtrack for this realization, be it for this Christmas, next Christmas, or any conceivable Christmas.

We are all Yardbirds, in some ways. We improvise, we figure out the next line to play. And if anyone ever suggests to you that Christmas isn’t the jazziest holiday, you know what to play them.