Everything I know about jazz singing I learned from a bargain bin Christmas tape.
Actually, now that I’ve written that and now that it’s published in print, I should probably amend that, as I have learned a lot about jazz from the musicians I’m so ridiculously lucky to work with… as well as the teachers and professionals that have offered me advice and guidance over the last few years.
Okay, so, ALMOST everything I know about jazz singing… and that’s still not a lot… I learned from a bargain bin Christmas tape.
I don’t remember how long ago this tape came into my possession. Maybe the late 80s? My mom came home from an October or November shopping excursion with a rather lame-looking tape labeled “A Jazz Christmas.” The cover was one that you’ve probably overlooked a thousand times – an airbrushed stocking filled with a cartoonish-looking saxophone. I imagine it’s a couple of sweaty dudes in the back of a badly-lit warehouse designing the jazz Christmas compilation albums.
“Hey, Gary! Another Jazz Christmas tape.”
“Ah, not another one!”
“Should we go with the Santa Claus in sunglasses or the saxophone in a stocking?”
“What about the Three-Wisemen-sunglasses-horns triple whammy?”
“We just did four of those.”
“Go with the stocking.”
Yeah, that’s jazz. Nothing says painstaking skill and modern musical innovation like a saxophone in a stocking.
Anyhoo, this particular non-descript, lame-looking cassette tape of Christmas music featured the legendary likes of pianist, Dave Brubeck; vocalese trio, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross; saxophonist, Dexter Gordon; Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, to name but a few. I glommed onto it like a fat squirrel on a peanut butter birdfeeder and by about the third Christmas with this tape in my possession, I had managed to nearly wear it out. My sister grew tired of me maniacally playing it over and over, rolling her eyes when I giddily pulled it out each November and popped it into my trusty tape deck.
For a long time I’ve felt a bit ashamed of the fact that a Christmas album has been one of my biggest influences as a jazz singer. Anyone who has hit a mall or any big box store over the last 20 years during the holidays can attest to the fact that bad Christmas music is the worst kind of bad music. It is near-torturous to endure. If I have to hear Mariah Carey shriek out another “All I Want for Christmas Is You” in this lifetime, I may have to move to space in a bubble of silence and kittens.
So, why did I love this tape? Why is it such an influence? Holiday music is something I’ve heard probably since birth, once a year, every year for at least 36 years. The songs that we hear and that some of us sing at this time of year are as much a part of my psyche as tying my shoes or brushing my teeth. Whether I like it or not, I could probably sing “Deck the Halls” while sleeping, juggling flaming axes and having my molars pulled out. It is just in there. So, when I listen to Jon Hendricks take that Fa-la-la melody, turn it on its fiery backside and ride it around like a frickin’ Space Hopper, I’m suddenly aware of the thrilling and unending possibilities of music.
As a musician, I knowingly and unknowingly borrow from my favourites when I’m learning and performing. Everybody does – so I’ve read and so I’m told. In my case, as I seldom rehearse for more than about three minutes at a time – full disclosure, I have zero rehearsal time with a demanding two-year-old that insists I play “A-B-Cs now, Mummy!” every time I sit at the piano. So, with little time to woodshed, I listen. I listen to recordings that make me happy, and that bring me back to the earth, and that keep me from running and screaming through the streets on my bad days. And so it is, that I have listened until every solo, every syllable of scat, every lick of every cut on this silly bargain bin Christmas tape has been pressed in red and green glittery letters and notes on my heart. Now, when I sing, “Have Yourself and Merry Little Christmas” or “Honeysuckle Rose,” I inevitably give away the phrases and lines I’ve heard and cherished for 36 years, but through my own weird musical filter.
Eventually, “A Jazz Christmas” got misplaced – or perhaps mysteriously hidden – and I lost track of it. However, years later I rediscovered the tape with its cartoonish sax in a stocking, in a box and converted it into a CD that I played this very afternoon at my sister’s house with the family hanging around. I cranked that baby loud enough for all to hear. They remembered it. And they liked it. I will be playing it on repeat until New Year’s day or until it mysteriously disappears again…whichever happens first.