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2013 Holiday Gift Guide

2013 Holiday Gift Guide
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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Several excellent coffee table books of great Jazz photography exist, which can be combined with a relatively inexpensive Ikea coffee table
One of the longstanding traditions around the 'Dome, along with Taco Tuesdays and the monthly Google Nude® check to see if any of my favorite actresses have "accidentally" Tweeted "private" pictures of themselves recently, is the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Few things bring back the warm memories of childhood and invoke the true spirit of the holiday more than the beloved 1965 animated special, which is a jewel even among the many treasures of the golden era of network television holiday specials.

I am of a generation that cherishes Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas over more recent holiday fare like A Christmas Story and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. It was arguably a simpler, less cynical era when simple heartfelt sentiments could be expressed without incurring the wrath and derision of every agitated crackpot and hipster with access to the Internet. Even the commercials seemed more earnest in their attempts to entertain as well as advertise. I still get wistful whenever I see that hokey stop-motion animation of Santa tooling through the snow in a Norelco electric razor. And to this day, I can't think of my beloved Coca-Cola's Sprite without hearing that jingle in my head ("Sprite makes brighter holidays, limon is the reason"), sung to the tune of "Good King Wenceslas," who, ironically, preferred Fanta).

Be that as it may.

Nowadays, of course, viewing these specials is nowhere near the event is used to be. I grew up in a time before home video and DVRs, when a holiday special would only be shown once a year at an appointed time. If you missed it, you had to wait until next year. I know that may sound to today's youth like something out of the Dark Ages, like rotary telephones and having to say nasty things to people right to their faces instead of hiding behind social media like a little bitch, but there is something to be said for having to wait for something and not having everything available instantly at your fingertips. It made the event special, created indelible memories, and served as an important reminder (of which today's kids are in particular need) that the sun did not shine out of our precious backsides.

A Charlie Brown Christmas contained not one, but two important messages (in the Sixties, all network television was compelled by FCC regulations to include a socially acceptable Message): 1. The crass commercialism and mindless consumerism of the secular celebration of Christmas was destroying the spirit of love and joy that was the true reason for the season, and 2. No grade school lunchbox was complete without a Dolly Madison snack cake. But beneath the obvious moral, there was a more insidious message contained in the seemingly innocuous holiday special, one that left a lasting impression on uncountable numbers of my generation; Jazz could be cool.

Vince Guaraldi's happening Jazz soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas marked the first time many kids of my era had ever heard Our Music in a familiar and non-threatening context. It wasn't needlessly complex and overly intellectualized like most Jazz had become during the Bop and Post-Bop era, nor as opaque and inaccessible as the Free school had made it seem. It wasn't consigned to Fusion's netherworld of neither/nor somewhere between Rock and Jazz, occupied by Rockers seeking to be respected as Real Musicians and Jazzers looking to get in on some of that decadent Rock Star lifestyle they'd heard so much about. What good was spending the requisite 10,000 hours acquiring musical virtuosity if it didn't get you any leg? Especially if you're wearing corduroy jeans and Earth shoes, and look like you haven't done anything with your hair since Eisenhower's second term.

The Jazz contained in Charlie Brown was relatively uncomplicated and accessible, but still managed to swing. Knowing what I do about it now, I can see the influence of the Cool school in Guaraldi's light touch and recognizable melodies. At the time, though, it was small-c cool. It was the kind of Jazz that a preternaturally hip kid like me in the relatively unsophisticated confines of Clifton Forge, Virginia, could listen to right out in public without it being viewed as an invitation to give me a Melvin. Even in the climate of counterculture sentiment lingering from the late Sixties, non-conformity had its own strictly enforced set of rules. Bell-bottoms and peace symbol belt buckles were acceptable, listening to any music not on the approved list (Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or anything that contained a swear word and/or thinly-veiled drug reference in the lyrics) was practically begging for a wedgie.

Bear with me, kids, I'm going somewhere with this.

The point is that the holidays are an excellent time to surreptitiously introduce the unsuspecting to Jazz, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate your affection for those devotees of Our Music on your shopping list. Forget what I said earlier, this is a wonderful time to have almost the entire world at our fingertips. We no longer have to battle packed malls and maddening traffic, or the relatively limited selection of our local bricks-and-mortar retailer, in order to accomplish our holiday shopping. And we no longer have to endure the shame of sitting on some fake Santa's unpleasantly moist lap, hoping he will relay to the real St. Nick our desire for Bill Evans's Live at the Village Vanguard box set and enough Legos for us to finally finish our replica of the Cotton Club.

As fortune would have it, you've landed at exactly the right spot to assist you in your search for the finest in Jazz-related gifts for both the neophyte and the connoisseur alike. Being both the largest and most powerful Jazz website in the world (we dyno'ed at 672 HP, almost 100 horses more than our nearest competitor, and with over 750 pound-feet of usable low-end torque. Suck it, Jazz Times), we are uniquely positioned to guide you through this wonderland of porn and cat videos called the Internet and help you find just the right presents for nearly everyone on your list. Well, except perhaps your teenaged niece, who is at that stage where she thinks everything is boring and provincial. This, in spite of the fact she works at Arby's and drives a hand-me-down Toyota Corolla that she's plastered with snotty bumper stickers. There's just no pleasing that kid, so you might as well have a little fun with the situation and give her a Hickory Farms sampler just to get her spun up because you know she's a vegan. Then, in two or three years, you can have the pleasure of reminding her of that moment while at the holiday dinner table when she loads a slab of ham onto her plate.

But I digress.

There are few better ways to introduce people to new things than to get them good and liquored up first. This is especially true with Jazz, which owes a great debt to alcohol for its very existence. It was the passage of the epically moronic Volstead Act—which forbade the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in a republic culled from the world's most prolific imbibers—that turned America from a nation of occasional tipplers to a populace of the perpetually pie-eyed. By making drinking illegal, and thus considerably more fun, the temperance movement succeeded in driving the intake of silly sauce from skeevy bars and taverns to hip, stylish speakeasies and blind tigers.

Before Prohibition, most Americans drank in one form or another (even Grandma's patent medicine for her bursitis was 90 proof). After the pokenoses and killjoys succeeded in banning booze, everyone drank. The forbidden allure of illicit clubs and the liberating effects of giggle water combined fortuitously with the loosening morals and diminishing modesty of the era (having a good snootful made it hard for ladies to put on the requisite chastity barrier of needlessly complicated undergarments, and for men to negotiate a whalebone corset without almost putting an eye out). Together, they created an environment ripe for the lively, kinetic, cathartic sounds of Our Music. Jazz and booze thus formed a symbiotic relationship that continues to this day, as I labor over this piece to the swinging refrains of Sinatra's Capitol-era stuff with the able assistance of a nice Jack & Coke.

Speaking of which.

My deep and abiding love of Jack Daniel's liquid legacy goes back to before I ever drank a drop of the whiskey. Growing up in the South, the Jack Daniel's label was ubiquitous; it appeared on hats and T-shirts, belt buckles, etc. Like teenagers of every age, we thought we were being cool by identifying ourselves with the brand and suggesting that we were engaging in illicit acts of youthful rebellion. In truth, the vast majority of us were braggarts and lightweights, staggering around boasting about how wasted we were after a couple of Coors Lights and half a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. A hearty swig of real adult-strength liquor would probably have come right back up about as quick as it went down, bringing the contents of our entire upper digestive tract with it.

Nonetheless, for our family vacation when I was fifteen, my country music-loving parents chose to go to Nashville and Opryland theme park. On the way back, at my request, we took a detour to Moore County and toured the Jack Daniel's distillery. My parents were cool that way. Thus began my lifelong appreciation for Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. The difference between the two, in case you were wondering, is in the additional charcoal filtering process that Mr. Jack's whiskey undergoes. Both bourbon and Jack Daniel's are made from the limestone water common to Kentucky and Tennessee (which is naturally low in iron, and ideal for distilling), from a sour mash consisting of at least 51% corn, and aged in new oak barrels. The one additional step of charcoal filtration produces a mellower character, much like listening to "The Way You Look Tonight" through headphones while having a nice dram or two of your tonic of choice.

Then, at seventeen, I attended a performance by the Jack Daniel's Silver Coronet Band. It was the first time I'd actually heard another euphonium being played by someone better at it than I was. Suddenly, my undisputed, undefeated title of first chair baritone horn wasn't enough. I wanted to play like that guy. At that moment, I decided to attend Mars Hill College for their extremely selective but highly respected music department instead of going to nearby Washington & Lee and becoming another useless lawyer. It was a fateful decision that has led, almost thirty years later, to my position as The Dean of American Jazz Humorists®.

Rambling back around to the point.

It is no secret that Frank Sinatra shared my appreciation for Jack Daniel's. While it cannot be proved that his love of Old No. 7 guided him to his place among America's most indelible voices, I am reasonably certain it played a fairly significant role in his decision to do Cannonball Run II and his otherwise inexplicable attraction to Mia Farrow. Even with my pathological weakness for redheads, my blood alcohol content would have to be in the whole numbers for me to overlook the fact that—especially at that time—the waifish Miss Farrow looked more like a teenaged boy than an object of desire for a man who could have nailed the entire female cast of Petticoat Junction (up to and including Bea Benaderet) if he'd wanted to. Still, it seems only natural that the alcohol alchemists of Lynchburg, TN, would find a way to pay tribute to one of their most esteemed and devoted consumers with a special Sinatra Select edition of Jack.

Not a decorative decanter, the Sinatra Select is Jack Daniel's famous whiskey aged in ridged oak barrels. This allows the whiskey to draw more of the complex oak character from the barrels, providing a richer drinking experience. And because of its complex mixture of vanilla compounds, I use it instead of vanilla extract in my baking and to open up the complex umami compounds in tomatoes without necessarily adding sweetness. I also use it as cologne, mouthwash, multivitamin, salad dressing, and sports drink (when combined with the vital electrolytes found in a plate of loaded nachos).

If your intended recipient isn't a whiskey drinker, you might give Dogfish Head's Bitches Brew a try. Paying homage to Miles Davis, obviously, the always-inventive Delaware microbrewery's ale provides a drinking experience as unique as Miles' himself. A fusion of three threads of imperial stout and one thread of honey beer with gesho root (whatever the hell that is), it sounds right up the alley of any dedicated lover of the brewer's art. Give a bottle of this ale and any one of the numerous reissues of Bitches Brew for a powerful one-two punch of John Barleycorn and the Prince of Darkness. Make of that what you will.

For the oenophile, Spain's Santa Cruz de Alpera winery produces a pair of wines celebrating the life and music of blues icon B.B. King. Available in a red garnacha blend and a white verdejo, they seem the perfect accompaniment for relaxing with some Memphis blues and maybe a plate of Memphis ribs. I've not had the chance to sample the wines to determine, as a passionate Barbecue aficionado, whether the garnacha blend is tannic and full-bodied enough to accompany the interplay of sweetness and spice overlying the rich unctuousness and complex smokiness of the pork. But I am not above conducting copious amounts of hands-on research to provide you, my loyal reader, with an authoritative guide to pairing wine with ribs and elderly blues giants.

For the teetotalers on your gift list, there are of course many ways of introducing people to Our Music without the use of mind-altering substances (except possibly the music of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, or Sun Ra). One possibility is the tried-and-true homemade gift, which both demonstrates a heartfelt personal touch and saves you a few bucks at the same time. Back in the Eighties, I used to make mix tapes of my favorite artists to give to friends. The 2000s brought mix CDs, with fancy computer-designed cover art. Now, I share my own Jazz-oriented Pandora channel, or send them a digital collection of tunes via Dropbox, combined with a gift card to iTunes or Amazon. You can use whatever technology you're comfortable with, unless you're still using cassette tapes (in which case, you need to cut off your mullet, donate your acid-washed jeans to Goodwill, retire your Walkman, and step boldly into the 21st century with the rest of us).

For the more discriminating and deep-pocketed, there are more ways to give the gift of Jazz without necessarily relying solely on our own personal musical tastes, which are by definition subjective. Like all great art, Our Music has the ability to involve all the senses. Jazz has long inspired and informed the visual arts, from the iconic Blue Note and Prestige album covers of the Fifties and Sixties to the complementary soundtracks of such classic films as In Cold Blood and Elevator to the Gallows. These films have been painstakingly restored and reissued on both DVD and Blu-Ray, making them worthy of even the most discerning cinephile. But if your intended recipient still holds on to their extensive VHS collection of movies taped off of broadcast TV, you might as well just give them a flea market copy of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and be done with it.

Several excellent coffee table books of great Jazz photography exist, which can be combined with a relatively inexpensive Ikea coffee table to eliminate any excuse for not having those handsome and evocative volumes prominently displayed. You may also include a pound of an exquisite Ethiopian estate coffee to close any loopholes in the circular logic argument for having a coffee table. And if they complain that the coffee table doesn't fit into their Arts and Crafts motif, then to hell with 'em. You don't have any business being friends with an ungrateful dink like that anyway.

So there you have it, this year's edition of the AAJ Holiday Gift Guide (trust me, it's buried up there somewhere). We hope this provides you with several valuable gift-giving ideas, or at least an item or two for your own wish list. And I'd like to wish you the very best this holiday season on behalf of everyone here at All About Jazz. Well, almost everyone. There's that one guy in the Rights Clearance department who believes that all holidays are just empty rituals and repressive Western constructs designed to enforce the herd mentality. Yet, that never stops him from coming to the Christmas party and trying to put the make on Fiona Ord-Shrimpton every year.

Till 2014, pumpkins, may all of the peace and joy of the season be with you. Exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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