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Two Holiday Jazz Classics That Almost Didn’t Happen

It’s hard to imagine Charlie Brown and Linus searching for a Christmas tree in the 1965 animated special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” without hearing pianist Vince Guaraldi’s trio playing that swinging version of “O Tannenbaum,” but it almost didn’t happen.

When CBS executives watched the program before it aired, they had a number of objections, including not only not liking the music that Guaraldi had created for the program, but the idea of using jazz at all.  However “Peanuts” creator and cartoonist Charles Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson and illustrator Bill Melendez stuck to their guns and now the soundtrack has become a holiday favorite.

Another Christmas jazz album that dealt with skepticism is the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s “The Nutcracker Suite.”

Offered the chance to record whatever he wanted to by a music producer in 1960, Ellington turned to his close collaborator and fellow arranger Billy Strayhorn for a suggestion.  Strayhorn, knowing that Ellington loved dance music, recommended taking a crack at Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet score.

The producer had his doubts about the concept, as did some members of the Ellington band, who expressed no interest in playing what some termed “snooty classical music.”

However, once the orchestra ran down the charts, they discovered that Ellington and Strayhorn had crafted not a watered-down “classical-meets-jazz” date, but instead a full-blown swinging interpretation of the Tchaikovsky work. They quickly got to work and created an album that has become beloved among both “Nutcracker” fans and jazz enthusiasts.   

You can hear these recordings and many other holiday jazz favorites by listening to 90.3’s “ Swingin’ Sounds of the Season.” It’s ideastream’s continuous stream of classic and current holiday jazz available 24/7 through New Year’s Day.