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Swingin' ChristmasAround the middle of the 1990's, hipsters weary of noisy grunge and angry rap sought a kinder, gentler alternative. Into this breach stepped swing music, also described by such sobriquets as exotica, lounge music, and cocktail jazz. The resulting mania, however fleeting, shone its spotlight on forgotten geniuses of the bachelor pad as Les Baxter and Esquivel. But, the revival also spawned new outfits like Combustible Edison and Squirrel Nut Zippers, spurred a consumer frenzy for all things swank, and inspired at least one great movie - Swingers (1996).

Of course, the swing revival also gave rise to a vast array of CD reissues, mixing gen-u-wine jazz (Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald), easy listening semi-classics (Jackie Gleason, Herb Alpert), unforgettable characters (Louis Prima, Tom Jones), and a whole pack of rats (Franks, Dino, Sammy, and their crew). Some of the best discs compiled during this brief renaissance were part of Rhino Records' Cocktail Mix series, and a few years later the label issued some smokin' seasonal sequels - the spicy Mambo Santa Mambo (2000) and Swingin' Christmas (2001), a cross-label compendium of cool, rhythmic classics. While neither of those discs were part of the aforementioned series, both extended the premise expertly, and each neatly encapsulates a wonderful chunk of Christmas pop culture.

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Despite the title, the treasures of Swingin' Christmas are manifold, representing a variety of genres clumsily lumped together under the umbrella of swing. Beginning in 1942 with the thundering big band stomp of Woody Herman, the disc encompasses post-war boogie (Lionel Hampton, Louis Prima), suave 60's exotica (Esquivel), and sub-Sinatra crooning (Vic Damone, Jack Jones). Along the way, the listener is feted with some of the best Christmas music ever recorded. Most significantly, no less than three Louis Armstrong cuts grace Swingin' Christmas - fully half of his seasonal output for Decca Records during the mid-50's - with songs like "Cool Yule" forming a manifesto for guys like me (read more).

The list of essential songs (see below) captured by Swingin' Christmas is damn near equivalent to its track listing, but perhaps foremost among these is Kay Starr's wild and irresistible "(Everybody’s Waitin' For) The Man With The Bag" (1950). Almost forgotten till its inclusion on Swingin' Christmas and other swing revival discs, Starr's winking paean to Kris Kringle intimates that there might be something illicit in Santa's bag - something every crazy hipster craves. Or, in the alternative, perhaps Santa's swingin' sack packs a punch wholly outside the realm of toys and candy... Regardless, songs like "Man With The Bag" signaled a cultural sea change, wherein Christmas became a somewhat secular, slightly decadent holiday more about bounty and booty than the birth of a savior.

Nothing illustrates this quite as well as Bob Francis' jaw-dropping ditty, "That Swingin' Manger" (1961). Francis was a minor league crooner in the classic Vegas mode best remembered for his work with arranger Bernie Mendelssohn (great name, that). Whether intended as a modern tribute to the Christ child or a tongue-in-cheek swipe at organized religion, "That Swingin' Manger" is darn near unprecedented in its hilarious bad taste. Mendelssohn and Francis transform the traditional carol "Away In A Manger" into an amazing display of hepcat sacrilege, declaring "I dig thee, Lord Jesus," as though it's the highest of compliments. "That swingin' manger," Francis concludes, "it's one kookoo bed."

Like so much of Rhino Records' holiday catalog, Swingin' Christmas is a handy, concise building block for a solid record collection. Comprised of 18 tracks - a few of them quite rare - Swingin' Christmas is far from comprehensive and a little less than perfect. Why, for instance, include the Manhattan Transfer when their contribution stretches nearly 30 years later than the CD's next-most-recent cut (Tex Beneke's 1965 "Sleigh Ride")? Why include two versions of two titles ("Sleigh Ride" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town") when more variety would have been so simple? But, simply stated, Swingin' Christmas is the single best sampler of this sort of music - an excellent place to start, at the very least.

Which implies there's somewhere else to go. There is - an almost endless string of rich jazz, blues, and easy listening Christmas albums sure to dazzle the dreams of serious collectors. I heartily recommend the Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails series (drawn mainly from the Capitol Records archives) as well as any of Capitol's earlier, highly-prized compilations (read more). The Croon & Swoon series is nice, too, and GRP's The Joy Of Christmas Past is great, surveying the jazz holdings of Universal Music (including the rich Decca catalog).

Of course, Mambo Santa Mambo - the spicy set mentioned above - is strongly recommended, as are earlier Rhino compilations like Hipster's Holiday (1989), Blue Yule (1991), and Santamental Journey (1995). Toss in the independent labels (for instance, Louisiana Red Hot Records' Santa Swings), elusive imported albums (like Blue Christmas), plus oodles of CD's from individual artists (especially Louis Armstrong) - then you'll be busy well past December 25th. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Boogie Woogie Santa Claus (Lionel Hampton, 1950)
  • Christmas Blues (Jo Stafford, 1953)
  • Christmas Night In Harlem (Louis Armstrong, 1955)
  • Cool Yule (Louis Armstrong, 1953)
  • The Man With The Bag (Kay Starr, 1950) star Top 100 Song [close]
    This song swings like crazy, completely blurring the lines between jazz, rhythm & blues, and easy listening. Between the blaring horns, Starr's wide-eyed delivery, and the exceedingly clever, morally ambivilant wordplay ("Old Mr. Kringle is soon gonna jingle the bells that'll tingle all your troubles away!"), you'll soon find yourself looking skyward, anticipating bounty from the North Pole. For awhile, "The Man With The Bag" was nearly forgotten. The 90's lounge revival, however, prompted its appearance on several collections, including Let It Snow! Cuddly Christmas Classics from Capitol, Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails, and Swinging Christmas (one of my Top 20 Albums), while Brian Setzer wisely covered the tune on his excellent Boogie Woogie Christmas CD.
  • Marshmallow World (Vic Damone, 1951)
  • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Les Brown, 1953)
  • Mistletoe And Holly (Jack Jones, 1964)
  • Root'n Toot'n Santa Claus (Tex Beneke, 1951)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Eddie "Lock Jaw" Davis, 1958)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Woody Herman, 1942)
  • Shake Hands With Santa (Louis Prima, 1951)
  • Sleigh Ride (Tex Beneke, 1965)
  • Sleigh Ride (Jack Jones, 1964)
  • That Swingin' Manger (Bob Francis, 1961)
  • 'Zat You Santa Claus? (Louis Armstrong, 1953) star Top 100 Song [close]
    Satchmo cut six Christmas sides for Decca Records in the 1950's as his career as a jazz innovator came to a close and his new status as American icon came into focus. All the Decca sides are enjoyable (and all are included on What A Wonderful Christmas), but "'Zat You Santa Claus" is the one that best captures Armstrong's affable but mischievous persona while preserving his musical integrity. Recasting Santa as night prowler, Satch and his band created the first (only?) Christmas-Halloween hybrid.
  • White Christmas (Esquivel, 1959)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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