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Our Top Ten: Favorite (and classic) holiday tracks from jazz legends

Since 2007, I’ve compiled a sampler of Xmas cuts (and another of Hannukah ones) for family, friends and colleagues. It all started because I had grown weary of receiving people’s holiday newsletters which seemed to me to be a seasonal long-form humble brag. Either the accomplishments and travel seemed so mundane as not worth mentioning or they were so impressive that you just felt ill with envy. Yet my wife Irene would tell me not only that she liked those newsletters, but that she felt we should do our own version to let people know how we were doing and what we’d been up to. It was one of those impasses or differences of opinion that happens in every marriage and that can stall any real action, which is pretty much what happened for about a decade. Not unlike our shorter dispute about the appropriate art for our living room that led to bare walls for about six years.

Nonetheless, one of my jobs in our household had always been to provide the background music for the holidays—the soundtrack for decorating the tree, wrapping and eventually opening presents. As a result of my work at JazzTimes (as editor, publisher and contributor at-large) and a lifelong collector’s instinct, I had amassed an archive of hundreds of Xmas/holiday CDs. Every year, I’d haul out the boxes of albums, and we’d end up playing about a dozen of them that Irene and our daughter Melissa liked. And in January they all went back into boxes stored in the basement, to be added to over the next year, so that the played-to-owned ratio got lower and lower and the number of boxes got higher and higher.

During that period, I often wrote about holiday releases for JazzTimes, whether interviewing artists about recording and marketing their new Christmas album or reviewing the year’s best and worst releases. By default, meaning that no one else wanted to do it, I became the go-to person at our magazine for all holiday album releases. Every year a few dozen new ones would come in, along with reissues of old favorites like Mel Torme or Nat King Cole. Alas, the newly recorded holiday CDs were not the sort of products you could resell or even give away and therefore my own archive became absurdly large. Don’t ask how large.

So all that is a long, overly long, explanation for why I am imminently qualified to curate a playlist of great holiday tracks by jazz legends. For this list, I stuck to true jazz legends. And in keeping with my long policy of never repeating a song on a compilation, I did the same here. To be honest, this wasn’t a heavy lift, with one exception: Louis Armstrong. He not only recorded several classic holiday tunes that have subsequently been covered by our favorite contemporary artists, but he also released the DEFINITIVE version of the reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” His renditions of holiday tunes, like Ella Fitzgerald’s, have set a standard that all jazz singers and instrumentalists in the ensuing years have strived to reach.

I hope you enjoy this playlist of holiday tunes by ten legends of jazz, presented in no particular order.

Bessie Smith
“At the Christmas Ball”

At the Christmas Ball

Charlie Parker
“White Christmas”

Charlie Parker Quintet - White Christmas


Louis Armstrong
“Cool Yule”

Louis Armstrong - Cool Yule (Lyric Video) ft. The Commanders

Ella Fitzgerald
“Frosty the Snowman”

Ella Fitzgerald - Frosty The Snowman (Official Video)

Miles Davis & Bob Dorough
“Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern”

Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross
“Deck Us All with Boston Charlie”

Deck Us All with Boston Charlie

Dinah Washington
“Silent Night”

Dinah Washington -Silent Night (Official Audio)

Bill Evans Trio
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

Bill Evans - Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Official Audio)

Sonny Rollins
“Count Your Blessings”

Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep by Sonny Rollins 'The Complete Prestige Recordings' Disc 5

Oscar Peterson
“Winter Wonderland”

Oscar Peterson - Winter Wonderland (Official Audio)

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”