On this edition of Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and their guests perform swinging versions of holiday tunes in a concert captured live at the Zaragoza Theatre in the San Antonio theme park Fiesta Texas. Joining The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on stage are New Orleans vocalist Banu Gibson, tap dancer Savion Glover and stage and screen legend William Warfield.
We take a tour through the rich holiday traditions and joyous sounds of old San Antonio. Christmas begins in San Antonio—as it does in many places around the country—the day after Thanksgiving with the lighting of a giant tree. Instead of a snow-covered town square, the San Antonio’s Christmas tree is mounted in an old Spanish plaza next to the stone walls of the first mission built in 1758. Originally called Mission San Antonio de Valero, it’s now the famous landmark—The Alamo.
At this time of year, even the cottonwoods and live oak trees around The Alamo sparkle with Christmas lights. After the traditional tree-lighting ceremony, the festivities continue as throngs of holiday weekend visitors stream down stone steps to the Paseo Del Rio (River Walk) to watch the annual Holiday River Parade where brightly illumined and gorgeously decorated floats begin their downriver voyage. It’s a floating spectacle of holiday pageantry, with choirs of carolers, dancers, musicians, and of course, Santa and his elves on board the river floats. The River Walk is ablaze with thousands of colored lights.
Series Host David Holt says, “There’s an old Texas legend I heard growing up as a boy near Dallas, that Santa Claus always makes San Antonio his last stop when he’s making his rounds on Christmas Eve, that way he can spend his holiday in this beautiful city, as far away from the North Pole as possible.”
San Antonio is a city with a great cultural mix. The architectural influence of the earliest European settlers from Germany is seen in stately Victorian homes in the historic King William District. The influence of the community’s vibrant Hispanic community is everywhere—in the Missions that ring the city; El Mercado, the old market square; and downtown’s Cathedral of San Fernando, which dates from 1738 and is the oldest cathedral in the United States.
A 300-year-old Christmas tradition of the Hispanic community in San Antonio is the celebration of “Las Posadas,” a re-enactment of the Holy Family’s search for an inn. Our show this week features Las Campanas de America, San Antonio’s premier Mariachi ensemble, performing a traditional Posadas song.
Jazz may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Christmas music, but over the years jazz artists have composed new holiday tunes or re-worked old favorites. For example, in 1925 Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and singer Eva Taylor recorded “Santa Claus Blues” by Clarence Williams. For our show, the original recording cross-fades into The Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s hot version.
The traditional carol “We Three Kings,” originally in ¾ time, dates from the mid-nineteenth century. It is updated here with the Band’s swinging interpretation, as is “Joy to the World.” Cullum Band pianist John Sheridan transforms the delicate “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet—originally scored for the bell-like celeste—into a romping, stride piano solo piece he calls the “Nutcracker Rag” that brings down the house and earns him a standing ovation. The Cullum version of “Jingle Bells” is inspired by a classic 1930s stride piano recording by Fats Waller and His Rhythm.
A notable jazz recording of “I Want You for Christmas,” by Dick Robertson and his Orchestra, dates from 1937 and features the great Bobby Hackett on cornet; in our upbeat rendition Banu Gibson steps up to the mic and joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on vocals. Irving Berlin’s holiday classic “White Christmas” first appeared in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn, sung by Bing Crosby. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide. In 1943, the song received the Academy Award for “Best Original Song.” In our version heard here, Banu performs the seldom-heard verse. Her New Orleans Hot Jazz band includes trumpeter Duke Heitger, trombonist David Sager, Tom Fischer on clarinet/tenor saxophone, David Boeddinghaus on piano, drummer Jeff Hamilton and Evan Dain on bass.
Tap-dance sensation Savion Glover first gained national attention in the 1984 Broadway show The Tap Dance Kid at the age of 9. He went on to a celebrated career as an innovative dancer and choreographer, bringing new life to the venerable American genre of Tap. On this broadcast, Savion collaborates with bandleader Jim Cullum and arranger John Sheridan to incorporate his tap rhythms into awe-inspiring, swinging versions of “Deck the Hall” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” Savion explains his life-long love of the tap-dance tradition: “It’s like music; it’s like being an instrument. It’s cool.”
Photo credit for Home page: William Warfield, Banu Gibson and Jim Cullum. Photo courtesy Riverwalk Jazz.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©1994