Why Hollywood films, Christmas music and jazz are so intertwined

How many of your favourite Christmas songs first appeared in movies?

Probably quite a few.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was first sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis before it was recorded with modified lyrics by Frank Sinatra in 1957, on its way to becoming one of the most recorded and performed holiday tunes. Silver Bells was commissioned for The Lemon Drop Kid, a 1951 comedy starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside first appeared in the 1949 rom-com Neptune’s Daughter and became a Christmas standard despite never mentioning the holiday. And Bing Crosby’s classic White Christmas — which still reigns as the best-selling single of all time — was first given a wide release with the 1942 musical film Holiday Inn. 

The films themselves may not have gone on to have the same cultural ubiquity as classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, but the songs have taken on lives of their own.

That songbook is the focus of A Reel Christmas: A Celebration of Holiday Movie Musicthe opening event in the 44th annual Sound of Jazz concert series by JAZZ.FM91. Trombonist Russ Little leads a supergroup of Canada’s finest musicians in this concert full of holiday music from your favourite Hollywood films, taking place on Thursday, Dec. 19.


Events


Christmas has been a lucrative holiday for jazz artists, with classics by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, the Vince Guaraldi Trio and more that are still in heavy rotation to this day. Meanwhile, newer albums by Michael Bublé, John Legend and the like owe a lot to that jazz tradition. There’s really no better way to soundtrack a holiday cocktail party or a cozy evening by the fireplace than with a playlist of Christmas jazz.

“That connection is, I think, a perfect and irresistible confluence of vehicle and content,” says Little. “Jazz, among a host of other attributes, intrinsically celebrates and practises freedom of expression and stylistic generosity. The celebration of Christmas embodies the message of love and kindness, which best thrives within the free and generous atmosphere that informs and infuses the art of jazz.”

Russ Little is the musical director for A Reel Christmas: A Celebration of Holiday Movie Music.

Little is a veteran of some of jazz history’s most illustrious big bands, including the Woody Herman and Count Basie orchestras and the Boss Brass led by Rob McConnell. Little is a founding member of Lighthouse, Canada’s preeminent rock orchestra, and has recorded several albums of his own. He has had an enviable career as a conductor, composer and arranger for the CBC, CTV, NBC, ABC, SCTV, the NFL and more, and has been enlisted to produce and perform in countless concerts and special events throughout his career spanning several decades.

“I’ve always felt the key to a successful and memorable show was creating an informal and warmly human connection between audience and performance,” Little explains. “This is an intangible, I know, but a critical one.”

For A Reel Christmas, Little says the audience can expect to be treated to a wide variety of holiday music that has famously been used on the silver screen, from solemn hymns to secular gems and plenty in between.

“I’ve tried to incorporate many diverse musical styles in the selection process,” says Little. “[My] personal favourites would have to include the joyful, such as Go Tell It on the Mountain; the soulful, such as Silent Night; and the just plain beautiful, such as I’ll Be Home for Christmas.