My Christmas Song of the Day for December 15 takes us back to the dawn of the Swing Era, with a recording made in 1934.
In the 1920s, Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) was the self-proclaimed “King of Jazz.” He sold a ton of records, was wildly popular on stage, and even made a sound film called, of course, King of Jazz. How “jazzy” his popular music of the 1920s really was is a good question; compared to the hot sounds coming from New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and even elsewhere in New York, Whiteman’s music was pretty tame. At least one critic has compared him unfavorably to Lawrence Welk! But his orchestra helped popularize such standards as “Whispering,” George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Ol’ Man River” and served as a launching point for many jazz musicians.
However, by the early 1930s, the Great Depression had set in. No one was selling records any more, including Whiteman’s orchestra. Whiteman, largely absent from radio during his heyday, started to appear live on air more frequently. And his music became more adventurous. An example of that is “Christmas Night in Harlem,” which Whiteman and his orchestra recorded in 1934.
Notable as the first “hit” composition by Raymond Scott, who would influence everyone from Carl Stalling (of Warner Bros. cartoon fame) to Spike Jones, “Christmas Night in Harlem,” though dated by its language, remains a rollicking good time. The non-improvised lyrics came from Mitchell Parish, who wrote the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust,” and still later, to “Sleigh Ride” 17 years later. The back-and-forth vocals came from Jack Teagarden, a legendary trombonist, and Johnny Mercer, who would move west and became one of the co-founders of Capitol Records.
The original version of “Christmas Night in Harlem” rarely makes it to CD today, not even on compilations of Christmas swing. It’s more common on collections from countries outside the United States, where the recording passed into the public domain many years ago. A version recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1955 is more common on CD these days.
As you listen to the 1934 version, you may notice that the song ends fairly quickly. That’s because in those days, recordings were made direct to disc rather than to tape. This limited how long a song could be. For a standard 10-inch 78, anything longer than three minutes pushed the limits of the technology of the era. “Christmas Night in Harlem” clocks in at 3 minutes, 22 seconds.