Jazz certainly loves its autumn leaves, going by its taste in standards. And its plaintive, twilight horns can sound like so many gusts of wind, denuding a belt of trees and sending us home for pumpkin pie. If you’re at all like me, one of your deeper, quieter pleasures of each year is striding through the early portion of an October night, tang of smoke in the air, darkness having descended, and entering the jazz club for a rousingly contemplative set. Feels a lot different than it does in summer, doesn’t it? Feels apropos, like cider down the gullet as a child on an apple-picking field trip, or the first slice into orange construction paper when you’re helping your kid whip up her fall decorations.
To children, jazz music can just sound scary, deliciously so; to adults, it’s more complicated. Horns have a knack for suggesting funerals, of course, but since many of us have probably never been to a funeral with horns doing their thing, the association doesn’t hit as close to the bone of our personal experiences. Still, have you ever noticed how the right bluesy, wailing horn section sounds perfectly spook-engineered to aid a ghost in cutting a rug? My vision of a desired future includes a house by the sea, guests arriving for a Halloween party, nothing but jazz on the stereo, and friends inquiring, “Why, who is that? What a wonderfully sinister song!”
Chances are excellent that the following pieces would be on that macabre dream playlist: 10 jazzy ingredients—we can call them songs—for adding spice to your Halloween witches’ kettle, loosening up your graveyard dance party, and tricking out your mausoleum sound system.
Keeper of the crypt, rattle the jazzy bones!
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks listed in this JazzTimes 10:
1. Bessie Smith: “Haunted House Blues” (1924 Columbia single; appears on The Complete Recordings Vol. 1, Columbia, 1991)
We’re going back to 1924 for this one, an end-all, scare-all Hallows’ Eve recitative that mixes in the right amount of fun—and all-too-human resonance. Block piano chords, slide trombone, Bessie admonishing the ghosts to enter through the back door, please; the front way is for the living. I like how she’s cool with revenants paying a visit, so long as they don’t overstay. She interpolates spoken-word parts with vocal chops that wouldn’t be remiss in a Verdi opera. Her real ghost is her mistreating daddy, who comes in home from his … wanderings, let us say, waking up the singer at 2 a.m., then insisting that she promise him that he’s her only man. Devil of a situation, as we can all grant. She makes the word “scared” linger over multiple bars each time she sings it. Of course, the reason this song gives us an imperiling shake is because the haunted house is the stand-in for the daily scene. Bessie’s Halloween, as we gather from this song, raised the dead in January, in May, in the dog days of summer, just as it did the final day of October. She does not haunt us so much as she exorcises sonic demons, and her ghoulies become our Halloween and post-Halloween treats, the ultimate delights we save into November, or until we can hold out no longer.