Plenty of jazz fans loathe "holiday" albums, defined as many of them are by cheap sentimentality and fake bonhomie. If the eggnog does not make you retch, the tackily jazzed-up Christmas carols will. But Louis Armstrong's Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule is an exception.
Armstrong himself was exceptional. As Duke Ellington observed, "He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way." Consider something else... Armstrong smoked weed pretty much every day of his adult life but, aside from one minor brush with the police, he was never targeted by the law either in the US or in any of the other weed-intolerant countries to which he toured or at the many border controls he passed through during his life. Sure, his fame protected him to some extent, as did his discretion, but the sheer power of the good vibes he radiated was a factor, too.
Surprisingly, Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule is Armstrong's first ever Christmas album, though some of his recordings have been included on seasonal compilations for decades. The eleven tracks include six singles from the 1950s, including "Cool Yule," "Christmas Night in Harlem" and the swinging "'Zat You, Santa Claus?" There are two duets: with Velma Middleton on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and Ella Fitzgerald on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." There is, too, of course, "What A Wonderful World," a track which raises the spirits even as a barbarous war rages in Ukraine and climate warming threatens the survival of humanity. Armstrong made every day seem like Christmas and his music still does.
The album closes with a previously unreleased track. A few weeks before he passed, in summer 1971, Armstrong turned on the tape recorder in his home in Queens NY and recorded a spoken-word version of Samuel Clement Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" aka "The Night Before Christmas." The recitation is underscored by Sullivan Fortner's newly recorded piano accompaniment.
Incidentally, Fortner is a member of the trio which accompanies guitarist Mike Moreno on his highly recommended winter 2022 album Standards From Films (Criss Cross), which is scheduled to be reviewed here on December 13. There is nothing specifically Christmassy about Moreno's set, but it hits the seasonal spike in nostalgia head on.
Cool Yule; Winter Wonderland (Single Version); I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm; 'Zat You, Santa Claus? (Single Version); Christmas In New Orleans; White Christmas (Single Version); Christmas Night In Harlem (Single Version); Baby, It’s Cold Outside; Moments To Remember; What A Wonderful World; A Visit From St Nicholas.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz and editor of the style magazine Jocks & Nerds; he was previously the editor of Black Music & Jazz Review magazine; he is Afrobeat consultant for Partisan Records and Google Arts & Culture.