Two Takes On Christmas Music: Sweet And Sour John Zorn — the lion of the avant-garde — and Bob Dorough — the creator of Schoolhouse Rock's "Three is a Magic Number" — each tackle Christmas music in their own ways. What you get isn't necessarily what you might expect.
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Two Takes On Christmas Music: Sweet And Sour

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Two Takes On Christmas Music: Sweet And Sour


Two Takes On Christmas Music: Sweet And Sour

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Christmastime is here and with it comes Christmas music. Numerous songs have been written over the years and their inspirations have been just as numerous from personal expressions of the joy of the season, to straightforward assignments from a record producer: write a holiday hit.

A new Christmas album made NPR's Tom Cole think about how two different composers approached holiday music.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: John Zorn's first documented stab at capturing the spirit of Christmas in sound came in 1999.


COLE: This year, Zorn produced this:


COLE: What happened? Did the MacArthur genius, the champion of experimental music go soft?

JOHN ZORN: I've always loved the holidays. My parents celebrated Christmas when I was young. We had a tree and we used to, you know, trim the tree and have music playing.

COLE: Zorn was an eight-year-old looking forward to the holidays when another jazz composer, pianist and singer Bob Dorough - the man who went on to write songs for that favorite of children everywhere, "Schoolhouse Rock" - took a completely different approach and created a kind of anti-Christmas classic.


COLE: The man as legendary for his ill temper as his trumpet playing on?

: You know it's pretty wild when you get a phone call from him. And then he said I want you to write me a Christmas song. I said, huh?

COLE: It turns out Davis had been asked by his label to contribute to an album of jazz artists doing Christmas music. And, well, Miles didn't hear himself playing "Jingle Bells."

But that's exactly what John Zorn wants to hear.

ZORN: Every year I put on the holiday music that I really love listening to. Vince Guaraldi and there's a Beach Boys record I love. Sinatra has a bunch of Christmas songs. And I began thinking, you know, I mean kind of wish there were more records that I really enjoyed listening too at this time, 'cause I keep pulling out the same records year after year after year.

COLE: Zorn is Jewish and curates a Jewish music series on his record label.

ZORN: My first concept was, well, let me do a CD of Christmas music for all the tunes have been written by Jews.


ZORN: And it turned out that a lot of Christmas songs are written by Jews.


ZORN: So, that was the original idea on the project. And then as I got deeper into it, I decided, well, I mean that's a funny idea. But I don't want to make any political statements here or do any kind of agenda. I just want to keep it kind of in the kind of the secular vein and just celebrate the holiday as, you know, hot-buttered rum and mulled cider, and tinsel on the tree and little toys, and Santa flying in the air. Those kind of, you know, childlike visions.

COLE: Childlike visions make their way into Bob Dorough's "Blue Xmas," too.


COLE: Dorough says his inspiration was Miles Davis.

: You know, we always called him the Prince of Darkness. And so, I thought this is not going to be one of those happy what-are-you-going-to-bring-me-for-Christmas songs.


: And I was thinking of Miles and the way he lives his life and commends his music. I hope I didn't overdo it.



COLE: The song was something of a jazz landmark. It was the first time the celebrated trumpeter had recorded with a vocalist and it was great exposure for the young Dorough. But there was a downside. Davis claimed co-songwriting credit. Dorough admits the trumpeter did re-arrange the song a bit, but Davis also claimed full music publishing rights - something Dorough didn't get back until after Davis' death in 1991, almost 30 years after the recording.

So in the end, Bob Dorough's acerbic observations in "Blue Xmas" were created as a work for hire and John Zorn's album, "Christmas Dreamers," is a work of love.

ZORN: It's just that it's coming from my heart, going out to all of you. It's meant to be listened to and enjoyed. And I hope people appreciate it.

COLE: From John Zorn, Bob Dorough and me, Tom Cole, NPR News.

: Merry Christmas everybody.

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