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JazzTimes 10: Songs for a Jazzier Halloween

What to listen to as the witching hour approaches

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:


7. Billie Holiday: “Ghost of Yesterday” (1940 Vocalion single; appears on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, Columbia/Legacy, 2001)

7. Billie Holiday: “Ghost of Yesterday” (1940 Vocalion single; appears on <em>Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944</em>, Columbia/Legacy, 2001)

It’s Lady Day, so there is always more transpiring, on multiple levels, than any single aspect we might cite, but this number is ripe for getting you haunted, in part because its singer knew a thing or two about ghosts. The lyric could have been lifted from Poe. “Ghost of yesterday/Stalking ’round my room/All night long you stay/Walk around in profound gloom/When the darkness falls/When I’ve gone to bed/Weirdly come your calls/Mournfully, scornfully dead.” The word choice of “stalking”—doozy. The shade stays all night, like the incubus Mare of dream lore; on one level, this is every kid’s worst nightmare, on another, every adult’s. But even the ghostly summons is defeated by death, death losing out to death. If we’re doing the double-negative thing, I suppose that means something is ending up alive. The singer, the listener. Holiday’s eternal art. This is 1940, so she’s in her vocal prime, which means she could sing the ectoplasm right out of a ghost when she wanted to.

Originally Published

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature, current events—for a wide range of publications, and talks regularly on radio and podcasts. His most recent books are an entry in the 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, a volume about the 1951 film Scrooge as the ultimate work of cinematic terror, and the story collection, If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. Find him on the web at (where he maintains the unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.