We’ve nearly made it through the month-long countdown of my favorite holiday songs, and now we come to the best of the best. (Find previous holiday countdown posts here.)
3. Merry X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern) (Miles Davis with Bob Dorough)
In 1962, at the age of 36, Miles Davis was already a music legend. Three years earlier he’d released Kind of Blue, his masterwork, on which he’d collaborated with many of the great players and arrangers/composers of the time to develop a new style of jazz — cool jazz.
Executives at Columbia, his record label, pressured him to contribute a song to Jingle Bell Jazz, a Christmas album that they were compiling of music from jazz artists in their stable. He called in Bob Dorough, an unconventional composer and singer, to write lyrics and sing — one of few vocalists to perform on a Miles Davis recording. Gil Evans would handle the arrangement.
According to Jack Chambers (Milestones), Davis complained to Dorough, “What the fuck am I supposed to play for them? ‘White Christmas’?” (cite)
The resulting tune was “Merry X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern).” Dorough’s bitter and disenchanted lyrics trip along through the song, while Davis’s trumpet swirls around and punctuates the points.
One of the fun things about the internet is that you can find amazing and detailed information, particularly about an icon like Miles Davis. For example, we can discover that the song was recorded on August 21, 1962, in Columbia Studio A in New York. The performers included the Miles Davis Sextet plus Bob Dorough. The recording was finished in 12 takes.
I wasn’t able to find the lyrics anywhere, so I’ve transcribed them here.
Blue X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern)
I hope you have a fine one,
But for me it’s blue.
That’s the way you see it when you’re feeling blue.
When you’re blue at Christmastime you see right through
All the waste
All the sham
All the haste
And plain ol’ bad taste.
Sidewalk Santa Clauses are much much much too thin.
They’re wearing fancy rented costumes,
And big fat phony grins.
And nearly everybody’s standing round holding out
Their empty hand or tin cup.
Gimme gimme gimme gimme.
Gimme gimme gimme.
Fill my stocking up,
All the way up.
It’s a time when the greedy
Give a dime to the needy.
All the paper, tinsel, and the folderol.
People trading gifts that matter not at all,
What I call
Folderol. Bitter gall.
Lots of hungry homeless children
In your own backyards
While you’re very very busy addressing
Twenty-zillion Christmas cards.
Now, Yuletide is a season to receive, and oh to give
And ah, to share.
But all you December do-gooders rush around
And rant and rave
And loudly blare.
I hope yours is a fine one,
But for me it’s blue.
I’m more a pessimist than an optimist. If I were a little more of a cynic, this would be my favorite Christmas song. As it is, I love the way it cuts through the glitter of the season. And I love the music, still sharp today, and the wit of the lyrics.
Incidentally, if Bob Dorough’s voice sounds familiar, it may be because he composed and sang many of the songs for Schoolhouse Rock. Think back to “Three Is a Magic Number” — that’s Dorough at work.
Kind of Blue (1959) didn’t start cool jazz, it started modal jazz, after hard bop which was after cool jazz. Birth of the Cool (1949) supposedly started cool jazz, but originally was named something else.
Thanks for the clarification, Dave.
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