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Five Hauntingly Hip Sides For Your Jazz Halloween

A real skeletal jazz band.

Brandon Doran via Flickr hide caption

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Brandon Doran via Flickr

A real skeletal jazz band.

Brandon Doran via Flickr

Here it comes: the holiday of goblins, ghosts, monsters and terrors beyond the most frightful limits of human comprehension, such as a Smooth Jazz Halloween collection (the horror! the horror!), that make you jump and say, "What the samhain was that?" Even if you're not into the trick-or-treat bag and have permanently had your fill of candy corn, you might dig the grave, gone sounds of some wickedly good music. Here are five sides to help you light your jazz-o'-lantern with an otherworldly glow.

Five Hauntingly Hip Sides For Your Jazz Halloween

Skeleton in the Closet

  • from Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-46)
  • by Louis Armstrong

The 1936 Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven introduced the soon-to-be-standard title song, and also provided Louis Armstrong with his first featured billing in a movie. Satchmo's most memorable scene finds him leading a band in Crosby's supposedly haunted nightclub, giving its patrons the lowdown on some fiendish merrymaking that ultimately inspires a shy skeleton to get happy feet. Backed by the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra on the studio recording, Armstrong delivered one of his best mid-1930s performances, putting the narrative across with relish and taking the melody for a wild ride on his horn. In the film version, he sends the skeleton fleeing with a final blast of his trumpet; as always, a masterful solo from Pops is enough to chase any bad spirits away.


The Ghost of Smokey Joe

  • from Vol. 2: 1935-1940
  • by Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway's "hi-de-hi-de-ho" chant was always a kind of spell and invocation unto itself, a summoning of hep-cat showmanship and storytelling verve. Here, Calloway announces the supernatural return of the man who led Calloway's most famous character, Minnie the Moocher, down the gong-kicking path of druggy decadence. Written by Ted Koehler and Rube Bloom for a 1939 Cotton Club revue with a World's Fair theme, "The Ghost of Smokey Joe" reveals its protagonist in a proudly defiant prowl of his old haunts, so to speak. Finally, with "a date on my estate down in Hades," Joe bids adieu, exiting with a mighty gust of Calloway's cantorial wailing.


Night Creature: Stalking Monster

  • from Symphonic Ellington
  • by Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington originally wrote his big-band-plus-orchestra Night Creature suite for Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air in 1955, but eight years passed before he was able to actually record it for release. He described the second movement of Night Creature as evoking "that imaginary monster we all fear we shall have to meet some midnight, but when we meet him I'm sure that we shall find that he too does the boogie-woogie." Framed by the Duke's playfully spooky skips and steps along the keyboard, "Stalking Monster" saunters across its nocturnal landscape, powered by lively writing for strings and murderers-row solos from Ray Nance, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown. His goal, the composer said, "was to try to make the symphony swing," and "Night Creature" leaves a notable Third Stream mark in the vast realm of Ellingtonia.



  • from One Step Beyond
  • by Jackie McLean

Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean's early-1960s group produced some of the most brooding, adventurous and edgy hard bop that ever found its way onto record. Trombonist Grachan Moncur was a major contributor to the band's book, which included a moody waltz that suggests the simmering uncertainty of the newly liberated. McLean's sharply contoured solo sets up darkly expressive, minor-key entries from Moncur and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, all of it underpinned by a teenaged Tony Williams' kinetic, many-parts-moving-at-once drumming. [Note: This YouTube video erroneously includes the first 57 seconds of "Saturday and Sunday," as does the 1987 CD pressing of One Step Beyond.]



  • from Twilight Dreams
  • by Lester Bowie

Miles Davis famously tapped Michael Jackson's blockbuster early-'80s album for "Human Nature," but fellow trumpeter Lester Bowie glommed onto the epic title track for this 1987 outing by his Brass Fantasy ensemble, a nonet consisting of four trumpets, two trombones, tuba, French horn and drums. Bowie's version of the Gloved One's fright-night glide chugs and broils, ending in a musical fun-house freakout. It's spiced with the casually funky irreverence and genuine jazz sensibility that marks the best of the Brass Fantasy catalog, which often delved into pop hits of the 1980s and '90s. Bowie's ramp-up of such vehicles was not just a one-note joke, as some critics have charged; it was also an attempt to inject a little contemporary vitality into what the trumpeter saw as an increasingly conservative jazz canon. "Thriller" must have presented an irresistible appeal for bringing the dead back to life.


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