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Christmas Night in Harlem - Louis Armstrong

Of course the very notion of Christmas records, for the most part, is intrinsically un-Christmas-like in that, as with so much of modern Christmas, the principal motive behind their creation has been to make money. It has often been pointed out that the Christian significance of the nativity has become submerged in an orgy of commercialism. Which is why many Christmas songs are hackneyed, dreary and unoriginal. Many too are celebrated, and make the lower end of the charts and/or the Christmas compilations, purely on the strength of the fame of whose singing them, as opposed to their musical merit.

The good ones are those that, one way or another, capture the spirit of Christmas, and the even older celebrations it superseded to do with the pagan "yuletide" festival around the winter solstice and the year-end. These celebrate family, general goodwill to everyone, fun and bacchanalian excess.

Born in New Orleans in 1901, the spectacularly successful jazz trumpeter and band leader Louis Armstrong moved permanently to Queens in New York in 1943. He therefore was ideally placed to appreciate the joys and sense of community in nearby Harlem, which was still the cultural capital of Afro-America, the centre of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and 30's. In 1955 Armstrong successfully "brought home" the song "Christmas Night in Harlem" in fusing it with his own brand of New Orleans style jazz, in marked contrast to the 1934 Paul Whiteman Orchestra original whose all-white approximations of African-American banter are embarrassing to say the least. Written by Raymond Scott with Mitchell Parish, who wrote the lyrics for Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade and the Christmas standard "Sleigh Ride", the Whiteman version is perhaps what you'd expect, a patronising romanticising of the principal black area of new York, by, in more ways than one, a white man. "King Louis" claims the song for Harlem's own, and doesn't have to try too hard to do so.

The great thing about Armstrong's style of "trad" jazz, is that the infectious fun and goodwill that the band are having is transmitted through the music. Like seasonal cheer. And this is no twee Christmas family get together, no matter how sedate the beat might be. It's one hell of a party:

"...Everyone is gonna sit up

until after three,

everyone be all lit up

like a Christmas tree."

Armstrong's knowing laugh after the phrase "everyone be all lit up" shows he appreciates the extra nuance given to the word "lit up" by its slang usage: very drunk or high on drugs.


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