Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jingle Jammin' II: "One Horse Open Sleigh"

The granddaddy of all jinglin' jive, the archetype of secular yule-be-singin' along, an evergreen of of the old tree-killin' format--sheet music. The story goes that transplanted New Englander James Lord Pierpont composed it for a children's choir at his Savannah congregation's Thanksgiving service and it proved popular enough to be repeated at Christmas. (But the origin myths abound. Check here for a discussion of the controversy surrounding the song's composition.)

The song was first published in 1857 (see above) and then again two years later with the title changed to the more familiar phrase from the chorus. Some claim that phrase is an imperative sentence rather than an interjection-- "Jingle, bells." --commanding the bells to do their thing in much the same way as der Bingle does in his jive coda to the title song of Bells of St. Mary's ("O ring you ding dong bells"). Over time we've come to think of the "jingle" as an adjective specifying just what kinda kooky bells won't stop ringing. (And, indeed, in the pop music recording biz adding that species of bells to the mix will convince you that that heavy metal Christian riff, greasy funk beat, or gypsy jazz instrumental actually is a Christmas tune.)

[By the way, there's a somewhat similar misunderstanding about the carol "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Most of us tend to think of a bunch of happy fellows being granted a rest by the guy upstairs (God rest ye, Merry Gentlemen), but it is actually an idiom from medieval and Renaissance English blessing the chaps with a merry break from labor (God rest you merry, Gentlemen). Hence Capulet's servant to Romeo (I.ii): "Rest you merry!")]

The song was not a hit at first on the page, but the Currier and Ives atmosphere must have created a sense of instant nostalgia and it seeped into the country's unconscious. According to The Dawn of Sound website, the very first Christmas record ever was a version of "Jingle Bells" cut in 1889 by banjoist Will Lyle. No copies have survived. The next recorded version under the name "Sleigh Ride Party" is by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898 (download available here).

Bing's 1943 release with The Andrews Sisters which charted at #19 is probably the most-beloved pop version of the song, but I particularly enjoy the Armed Forces Radio Service transcription (apparently a rehearsal) where the sisters swing harder and Bing has one of his legendary blowouts when he flubs the lyrics and ad-libs "O Holy Jesus Christ" as a substitute. The Jesuits could perhaps assess whether this Gonzaga alumnus was blaspheming or channeling the seasonal spirit.

Check the All Music Guide database and you'll find hundreds of names, familiar and obscure, covering the song. Of course, the opening three notes serve as an opening or ending tag to a wide variety of original Christmas tunes as if to confer open-sleighed mojo to your fledgling seasonal composition. The Prof could go on with commentary on many more Jingling platters, but even the long-winded must pause for an intake sometimes or succumb to hyperventilation.

So let this last comment suffice. "Jingle Bells" tends to appeal to jazzbos quite a bit. Maybe the dit-dit-dit, dit-dit-dit rhythmic pattern calls out to arrangers stacking riffs and performers looking for a steady beat to syncopate against. Certainly, you can hear it in Fats Waller's sly 1935 recording, Glen Miller's straight-ahead 1941 swinger with Tex Benecke, and Count Basie's machine-tooled live blast from Birdland in 1961. Both sophisticated arranging gents the Duke and Gerald Wilson conceived more harmonically complex frameworks for the chestnut later. And the original swingmonster was Spud Murphy's arrangement for Benny Goodman. The first version made in June 1935 for Thesaurus Transcriptions as The Rythm Makers at an all-day marathon featureing cracking solos by Pee Wee Ervin and Art Rollini. The Victor recording a month later had the immortal Bunny Berigan with the original Benny Goodman Orchestra. Benny's own clarinet soars through the loping reeds and brass on both, and the Victor went on to become a hit when the label rushed out everything it could after the band broke the following year.

But the Prof's own favorite "Jingle Bells" is from a 1936 London session of Benny Carter and his Quintet. The guitar chugs along for a measure and the bass introduces the by-then (and by-now) instantly recognizable Kringle cadence. Carter's clarinet insinuates itself in and the ensemble takes off. Carter continues under a trumpet solo and reappears on alto later on. Just when you think reindeer will lift them into the stratosphere, Benny returns to clarinet and cools things down for the final cymbal crash. Combining such relaxation and insistent swinging is the secret of the greatest small group jazz--a Christmas gift, indeed. O what fun it IS to ride.

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