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Louis ArmstrongIt may come as a surprise that Louis Armstrong (read more), considered one of the greatest and most enduringly popular musical artists of the 20th century, never recorded a Christmas album. The beloved "Satchmo" did, in fact, record roughly an album's worth of Christmas songs, but they were released as singles and album tracks and have, sadly, never been properly compiled on a comprehensive album.

The closest we've come - and, as recorded media breathes it's last gasps, the best we'll likely ever get - is What A Wonderful Christmas (1997). Part shrill exploitation and part joyful noise, What A Wonderful Christmas is a case study in modern seasonal marketing. On the one hand, it's a various artist package masquerading as a Louis Armstrong album - probably because the guys in the art department liked the cover picture. And, it doesn't even contain the song it is named after: "What A Wonderful World," Satchmo's warm signature tune that has become a holiday favorite - even though it's not a Christmas song!

On the other hand, in-and-of-itself the music on What A Wonderful Christmas is incredible - the brightest lights in jazz celebrating the season - and it compiles all six sides of the three Christmas singles Armstrong cut for Decca Records in the mid-50's. Despite the crass come-on, What A Wonderful Christmas is as good a compilation of jazz and pop Christmas music as you're gonna find, containing a number of rare tracks and several bona fide classics. And, that cover shot is pretty cute....

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Louis ArmstrongSatchmo's Decca sides were waxed long after his salad days as an jazz innovator, but they remain highly enjoyable if not strictly accomplished. On his Christmas sides (as with the rest of his latter-day music), Armstrong vacillates between between hepcat whimsy ("'Zat You Santa Claus?"), nostalgic ballads ("Christmas In New Orleans"), and reasonably serious swing ("Christmas Night In Harlem"). Toss in some traditional Christmas fodder ("White Christmas"), and you've got a really solid EP - but not a complete album.

Thankfully, the other artists included on What A Wonderful Christmas are exemplary, as well, though I wonder why Dinah Washington's formal "Silent Night" was included rather than her playful (and exceedingly scarce) "Ol' Santa" - it would have been much more appropriate to the collection. But, special mention goes to Eartha Kitt's mercenary "Santa Baby." Essentially a novelty, it triumphs on pure chutzpah and hubris, and I never tire of hearing the sultry Kitt purr in Ol' St. Nick's ear, "Hurry down my chimney tonight!"

Released by Hip-O (Universal's bald attempt to trump Rhino Records), What A Wonderful Christmas samples almost entirely from Universal's enormous catalog - mainly from Decca Records, a big player in the fertile 1950's jazz and lounge scene. Paramount among these plums is Peggy Lee's "It's Christmas Time Again", the rare b-side to her 1953 Decca single, "Ring Those Christmas Bells. But, Hip-O also cherry picks gems from labels outside the Universal orbit, including Columbia (Duke Ellington), United Artists (Lena Horne), and RCA (Eartha Kitt). Note also that Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" (which he coauthored) is a small combo rendition recorded live in 1955 - the earliest of several times he committed his greatest hit to vinyl.

Louis ArmstrongIn the end, What A Wonderful Christmas is a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless - brief, unfocused, but brilliant. Simply, I can't think of a better single-disc set of Christmas jazz. (Note that in 2003, Universal deleted What A Wonderful Christmas, replacing it with an all-but-identical disc entitled 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection.)

But, as I said before, Louis Armstrong recorded a number of Christmas songs besides the six Decca sides compiled on What A Wonderful Christmas - including a couple during his halcyon days as an up-and-coming coronet whiz. Way back in 1924, he waxed an instrumental called "Santa Claus Blues" with the Red Onion Jazz Babies. The next year, the song became a frenzied vocal showcase for Eva Taylor when Satchmo cut a new version with Clarence Williams' Blue Five. Also in 1925, Armstrong backed blues thrush Bessie Smith on "At The Christmas Ball" (available on Santa Swings). Much later, Satchmo toyed with longtime vocalist Velma Middleton on a live version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" (1951, available on Best Christmas Ever). Then, during sessions for his final LP, Louis Armstrong And His Friends (1970), he recorded a holiday song called "Here Is My Heart For Christmas" - released as a single that year and included as a bonus track on the 2002 CD reissue. Finally, at home shortly before his death, he committed to tape perhaps the most charming recitation ever of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" (1971). It was his final recording.

Unlikely as it seems, notoriously low-rent budget label Laserlight compiled most (but not all) of these songs plus "What A Wonderful World" and a couple of other Decca tracks on one CD, Christmas Through The Years (1996). Why Hip-O didn't bother to license these tracks for What A Wonderful Christmas is anybody's guess - it would have turned that solid EP into one hell of an LP. But, Laserlight's bare-bones Christmas Through The Years is well worth the five bucks (or less) it'll probably cost you.

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • - Louis Armstrong -
  • At The Christmas Ball (with Bessie Smith, 1925)
  • Baby It's Cold Outside (with Velma Middleton, 1951)
  • Christmas In New Orleans (1955)
  • Christmas Night in Harlem (1955)
  • Cool Yule (1953)
  • Here Is My Heart For Christmas (1970)
  • Santa Claus Blues
    • Red Onion Jazz Babies (instrumental, 1924)
    • Clarence Williams Blue Five (with Eva Taylor vocal, 1925)
  • 'Twas The Night Before Christmas (1971)
  • What A Wonderful World (1969)
  • White Christmas (1952)
  • Winter Wonderland (1952)
  • '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.
  • - other artists on What A Wonderful Christmas -
  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (Mel Torme, 1955)
  • It's Christmas Time Again (Peggy Lee, 1953)
  • Jingle Bells (Duke Ellington, 1962)
  • May Every Day Be Christmas (Louis Jordan, 1951)
  • Merry Christmas Baby (Lionel Hampton, 1950)
  • Santa Baby (Eartha Kitt, 1953)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Lena Horne, 1966)
  • Silent Night (Dinah Washington, 1952)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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