SFJAZZ.org | Jazz for the Holidays

On The Corner Masthead

Jazz for the holidays:
SFJAZZ's Soundtrack for the season

December 1, 2023 | by Richard Scheinin

Tiffany Austin with Marcus Shelby and the Marcus Shelby Orchestra at SFJAZZ, 12/2/2022.
(photo by Ronald Davis)

From Dec. 8-17, SFJAZZ presents nearly a dozen holiday shows, connecting the dots between jazz and traditional music from around the globe. Staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to half a dozen of this year’s headliners, including vocalist Tiffany Austin, bassist Marcus Shelby, trumpeter Etienne Charlies, pianist Adam Shulman, Oscar Hernández of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and Lorin Sklamberg of The Klezmatics.

For vocalist Tiffany Austin, holiday tunes are an emotional touchstone. Taking the stage for a holiday show, she feels connected to childhood memories of the season: “Lots of hymns and gospel songs from church, but also my grandma at home, playing Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo — that’s my soundtrack for the holidays,” says Austin. Her SFJAZZ holiday performance with bassist Marcus Shelby’s New Orchestra (Dec. 17) is a chance to put a fresh spin on her memories: “As jazz musicians, we’re not able to access this repertoire at any other time of year, so it’s a treat to dig in the crate and pull out these gems,” says Austin, who grew up in and near Los Angeles and has lived in the Bay Area for years. “I feel a certain childlike wonder that maybe I wouldn’t bring to your typical, very fancy jazz concert. There’s an excitement in the air that’s baked into the season; the audience wants to feel that joy. Because these songs are magnets for memories. An array of good feelings is attached to every one of them.”

Of course, holiday programs make good business sense, too; the commercialism of the season is in your face. But Austin isn’t the only one who references something beyond the ring of the cash register. All those annual family outings — whether to see Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, or a dramatization of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, or a seasoned jazz singer’s set of holiday tunes — help create an emotional soundtrack for the season. The weather is getting cold, families are drawing close, holiday meals are being prepared, lights are being lit: “It’s a special time — unless you’re Scrooge,” says pianist Oscar Hernández, whose Spanish Harlem Orchestra brings its Salsa Navidad program to the SFJAZZ Center on Dec. 15 (also included on SFJAZZ At Home’s Fridays Live series). “And it ain’t about the money, because the money — I make it and I spend it.” (His resume includes stints with Paul Simon and Rubén Blades.) “I don’t want to sound soapy, but it’s more about the joy and how the spirit infects people.”

From Dec. 8-17, SFJAZZ will present nearly a dozen holiday performances, drawing on repertoire that spans the globe.

Shelby’s New Orchestra will perform The Nutcracker Suite — the 1960 version by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, in which Duke and Billy Strayhorn transformed Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. “They took this legendary, European classical ballet and translated it into Black music: blues, call and response, the field holler aspects, the plunger mutes,” explains Shelby. “Tchaikovsky has his own particular moods, and Duke applied his own unique language to create this essence of Black music.” (Austin is featured in the second half of the show, performing new and traditional holiday fare with Shelby’s big band.)

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra will dip into the Christmas Salsa repertoire that Hernández experienced while growing up in his Puerto Rican neighborhood of the South Bronx. Trumpeter Etienne Charles’s Creole Christmas program (Dec. 9, with a later premiere on Fridays Live on Dec. 22) explores “classic holiday songs that I heard every year from the time I was a boy” in Trinidad and Tobago, he says, but “which people in America have probably never heard before. For me, `Creole Christmas’ means exploring the African diaspora, from all over the world, from Cuba and Venezuela, doing a little bit of Haitian something, a little bit of Jamaican something, and doing tunes from the Deep South, from New Orleans. So part of `Creole Christmas’ is a way of pushing back — like, `Yo, there’s other ways of doing Christmas around the world, other than with lots of snow and Santa Claus in a big red suit.’ We don’t have either in Trinidad.”

Charles’ band will perform his arrangements of parang, the traditional, groove-driven folk music that’s come to signify Christmas in Trinidad. Around the holidays, local bands roll out a special repertory of Christmas calypsos and butt heads in holiday competitions. But going to shopping malls at Christmas time in Trinidad, he confides, also exposed him to “Jingle Bells” and “Blue Christmas” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” The trumpeter — a former member of the SFJAZZ Collective — may play Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” (a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) at his San Francisco show. (He recorded it for his 2015 album Creole Christmas, but the track was never released.) That tune was a major pop hit for Nat King Cole, who recorded it in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. From the beginning, jazz musicians have reinvented holiday tunes — from Louis Armstrong (“Christmas in New Orleans”) to Ellington (“Jingle Bells”) to Charlie Parker (“White Christmas”). This year’s Christmas offerings include new recordings by vocalist Gregory Porter, pianist Christian Sands, and keyboardist Robert Glasper.

The biggest-selling jazz Christmas album of all time is A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack to the 1965 Peanuts animated television special, composed, arranged and performed by the late San Francisco pianist Vince Guaraldi. With more than five million copies sold, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, it is said to be the second best-selling jazz album ever, outpaced only by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue — and has become a gateway to jazz even for those who don’t typically listen to jazz.

Pianist Adam Shulman, another San Francisco native, has performed Guaraldi’s tunes every year at SFJAZZ for nearly a decade. (This year, he plays three shows with his trio on Dec. 16, including a family matinee.) He finds that the tunes almost inevitably strike a chord with listeners. They tap into the melancholy aspects of the season; Guaraldi captured Charlie Brown’s grumpiness about Christmas-time commercialism. But they are also “accessible." They always sound good and they swing; it seems like that was a priority for Guaraldi.” Especially at his family shows, Shulman says, the audience “is rapt” as the trio plays well-known tunes like “Linus and Lucy,” “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Skating.” Shulman finds that if he starts to “explain the music too much” — the Peanuts animation, based on Charles M. Schulz’s cartoon strip, has a complicated history — “the kids get a little bored. But most of the time, they’re just dancing around. With this show, more than any others, I’ve already got them before I play a note. You feel the energy. At a lot of jazz shows, things have to build; maybe the first show goes okay, and then it builds to something better. This isn’t like that. You feel the love throughout the whole thing.”

Shulman is from a mixed family — Jewish father, Christian mother — and grew up with mixed traditions: caroling in his neighborhood, lighting the Hanukkah menorah, and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV. “When I was a kid, we’d go to downtown San Francisco, looking at all the shop windows and going to FAO Schwarz to see the toys.” It added up to a “tapestry of the season — that cozy safe feeling of being with family,” which he associates with Guaraldi’s music. “It’s like we’re sharing these feelings, the emotions of our childhood, and passing them on to the next generation.”

Lorin Sklamberg is one of the founding members of the Klezmatics who bring their Happy Joyous Hanukkah program to SFJAZZ on Dec. 14. Since the 1980s, they have been standard bearers for Old World Jewish Music, rooted in traditional klezmer dance tunes and ritual melodies, often sung in Yiddish — but merged with the band’s love of American folk music, Celtic Music, Afro-Caribbean music, Arabic music, experimental rock and modern jazz influences. The group’s lead singer, accordionist, pianist, and guitarist, Sklamberg grew up in the San Gabriel Valley outside Los Angeles “in a neighborhood that was by and large Chicano, with some Japanese, Armenians, and enough Jews to sustain two synagogues.” Holiday programs at school, he recalls, included “lots of church music, Renaissance and Baroque stuff, plus African-American spirituals, and we sang some of the Christmas carols in Spanish — villancicos. There was something about singing together with all those kids from different backgrounds and traditions; it was a unifying aspect of my growing up.”

The Klezmatics’ Dec. 14 program is another example of merging traditions.

The concert’s centerpiece will be the unfinished Hanukkah songs of Woody Guthrie – you needn’t adjust your reading glasses. The Dust Bowl troubadour, born in Oklahoma, spent half his life in New York City, much of it in Brooklyn’s Coney Island where he lived with his Jewish wife Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and their family. In 1997, at the request of their daughter Nora Guthrie (sister of Arlo), the Klezmatics began setting Woody Guthrie’s Jewish-themed lyrics to music. They are an unlikely mix of sources. For instance, in his lyrics to “Happy Joyous Hanukkah,” Guthrie riffed on the structure of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” which is an African-American spiritual — and a Christmas song. For Sklamberg, who set the lyrics to music, the project bears a relationship to his own childhood experiences: that “whole concept of singing together with different kinds of people, doing things and accomplishing things as a group.” (The Klezmatics recorded the Guthrie songs on a pair of albums, Happy Joyous Hanukkah, released in 2005, and Wonder Wheel, which won a GRAMMY for best contemporary world music in 2006.)

For more than 20 years, the GRAMMY-winning, 13-piece Spanish Harlem Orchestra has toured the world, spreading the gospel of Salsa and Latin jazz — and Hernández promises that the first half of the Dec. 15 show will deliver “hard-core, in your face, kickass Salsa and the joy it sparks.”

The second half of the Salsa Navidad show will paint a specific picture of Christmas music as Hernández experienced it in the barrios of New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He remembers the traditional “down-home country music” of the holidays — originally from Puerto Rico, known as aguinaldo — and its transformation by the likes of Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, and El Gran Combo. “I’m a product of New York City, and the cultural revolution that was happening there at the time was huge.” He recalls the impact of Asalto Navideño, the album by Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, released by Fania Records just before the holidays more than 50 years ago: “That was the record that became, like, boom! It just exploded and it brought into focus the beauty of Christmas, and everybody was listening to that record, and we’re going to do a couple of those tunes at SFJAZZ — our own arrangements and transcriptions. We do it in our own style to create the beauty of what Christmas is about: that fuzzy feeling of receiving, of Jesus Christ being born, of the meaning of the holiday, and of the food — the Spanish eggnog, which is coquito. Spanish Christmas food! That was at every social event that I went to. You would eat the food, which was amazing, and you would experience the music, which was amazing. And that’s the spirit that we’ll be bringing into focus at this concert.”

As the holidays approach, vocalist Austin reflects on her role in the concert hall: “I view my job as a song sharer,” she says. “I connect people through song, not only making beautiful sounds, but also beautiful feelings. How can we create moments of reflection and connection — feeling a connection to the person who’s seated next to us, and just feeling the energy of this time of year?”

Tiffany Austin with Marcus Shelby at SFJAZZ, 12/2/2022.
(photo by Rick Swig)

She and bandleader Shelby are planning a program that bridges traditions: church spirituals of their childhoods, a Kwanzaa song or two that they’ve co-composed, and a suite of holiday tunes from around the world that they’ve arranged together. The bassist mentions “African traditional songs, or European traditional songs, or Asian traditional songs” as sources for the suite. “We’re going to tweak the program and make it new, so we’re not doing the same thing every year. And I think it’s more important than ever this year. As an artist, it’s pretty hard for me to act like there’s nothing going on in the world,” he says, referring to the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine. “I’m not going to put my head in the sand. The art can be a political statement in itself, emphasizing the importance of love, of appreciation, of accepting each other. All the things that we can do as artists, we will do.”

He mentions the “revolutionary” aspect of Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century ballet music: It includes “Russian,” “Chinese,” “Arabian,” and “Reed Flute” dances. In the 20th century, Ellington and Strayhorn turned it into something that’s “equally and uniquely joyful and celebratory and spiritual. They were blues writers, and they used all the devices they had at their fingertips: double-entendre, motivic language, call and response, irony, rhythm, swing.” On Dec. 17, the party will continue at SFJAZZ with Shelby’s own revolutionary big band. Its instrumentalists include “young people, women and men, people of color — a mixed band, like a village, where you have a little bit of every part of society to make it diverse and empowering. And I daresay that we will have a multi-generational audience, a multi-ethnic audience, a multi-racial audience. And I think that’s the beauty of what Ellington and Strayhorn did,” Shelby concludes. “They translated this music into something our community can celebrate.”

SFJAZZ holiday shows run from 12/8-17. Tickets and more information is available here. The 12/9 Etienne Charles performance and 12/15 Spanish Harlem Orchestra performance will be broadcast as part of SFJAZZ At Home's Fridays Live series. More information here.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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