It’s that time of year — of course I’m talking about the holidays. I used to be just as jolly as the next guy when it came to the holiday season, but I do admit to feeling a bit like Scrooge every time Thanksgiving and the following month roll around. I can attribute some of that to the gross commercialism that is now part of the Christmas season, which starts in early October, and the fact that working the holidays in a WalMart can now be fatal does not help the overall spirit of the season. I suspect my ambivalence to the holiday season is mostly attributable to Christmas gigs. Probably 15 years ago I started working an increasing number of holiday parties, private events, parties sponsored by banks or insurance companies, you name it. Everybody has their office parties, usually in the evening, often in a private club. Mostly I work these as a solo pianist. I have to acknowledge my teeth-gritting during that first holiday song, which I always try to delay at least until the calendar hits December.
This year my first holiday party came a couple of days after Thanksgiving and I was determined not to play a Christmas song just yet. But as the night progressed I realized this was definitely a holiday party, and I should be professional, so I asked myself what would be the first holiday tune of the year. I chose “Winter Wonderland.” This song has interesting chord changes, an intriguing modulation going to the bridge (up a minor third), and you have to pay attention when playing it.
In the ensuing party I pulled out my standard list: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” the usual suspects. I suppose the problem is repetition and a basic set of mostly uninteresting chord changes and insipid lyrics. “Have a holly jolly Christmas/It’s the best time of the year” is not actually all that inspiring. In spite of this, I do admit a certain envy for songwriter Johnny Marks who wrote this stuff in spades. He wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and many other Christmas songs, and I’m sure if he played his cards right and had his copyrights and publishing in order, he had many merry Christmases.
One of the oddest things that happens to me along the way during these numerous Christmas parties is an unintentional inserting of the wrong bridge in a Christmas song. It’s as if the parts are interchangeable. Many Christmas songs follow the standard A-A-B-A song form, much like many songs of the golden age, what we have come to know as standards. It’s intriguing how you can play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and when you get to the bridge you can play the bridge from “Holly Jolly Christmas”; or you could play “Jingle Bell Rock” and insert the bridge from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and when you get to the last A you can play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It always happens to me unintentionally the first time. I’ll be playing one of these songs and I’ll get to the bridge and somehow realize I made a transition to a different song and I didn’t even realize it. I do it absentmindedly the first few times, then it’s sort of fun to switch from one song to another and look around the room to see if anybody noticed. I have yet to see anyone indicate they heard it. And by the way, “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” are not rock tunes at all, they are both swing tunes. What’s up with that?
Christmas tunes do wear me down, but a gig is a gig, and so I stick it out and try to insert the short list of hip Christmas tunes, which fortunately do exist. Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” has a beautiful set of chord changes and could actually be re-written with a non-Christmas lyric and be a great tune. Oddly enough, it was written poolside in California in July. “Christmastime is Here” is a another beautiful song, by Vince Guaraldi. I’m also fond of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” mostly because it can be played in a nice, slow 6/8 groove.
This year, Christmas gigs are down — just like the economy — across the board. A lot of those banks and insurance companies that used to have Christmas parties did not call this year and I’m feeling a little out of touch with the Christmas songs. So if you want to send me a Christmas gig I’ll be glad to play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in all twelve keys.
Here’s a scenario that has happened to me and I will get some perverse pleasure knowing it may happen to someone else. If you’re in a restaurant with a pianist, and the pianist is doing his best to cover the holiday repertoire, wait until four or five Christmas songs have been played, then go up to the piano and put one dollar in the tip jar and say “how about some Christmas songs?” Then duck.