By the second week of December I start rummaging through the stacks of CDs not shelved – the ones stored in a cabinet under the bookcase, a knee-high closet so stuffed that I recoil from the loss of order. The books are organized for swift, as-needed selection. The CDs are half-way there, so many keep spilling in, the mind reels. Every few months I lose a Sunday afternoon trying to find some pearl preserved in that dense, interior forest beneath the bookcase, guilt rising over lost time and I start free-associating over Christmas cards unsent.
Thus do I depend on Gregg Stafford’s crusty vocals as an usher through “the holiday season,” as bland-labeled by many chain stores. It is comforting for me to know – every week of every year – exactly where to find Christmas with the Heritage Hall Jazz Band. On the right hand side, second shelf, of that cabinet, with the others.
In the manner of the ancient Greeks, I shall now pass over the others: Charmaine Neville’s slinky, hip-momma version of “Santa Baby” on Christmas in New Orleans: R&B, Jazz and Gospel (Mardi Gras Records); Babyface’s tender accounting of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: and a great moaning version of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” by Al Green on All-Star Christmas (the Epic label, but don’t think all the stars on this one shine merry and bright); and the soaring version of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” on New Orleans Christmas with Johnny Adams to bestir sentimental thoughts of Bing Crosby by good members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians – Johnny Adams, the late bluesman, sings Irish. Go, Johnny, go.
Christmas with the Heritage Hall Jazz Band was recorded on the Laser Light label 11 years ago. It ranks in my estimation at the top of any Christmas list, not least because of Stafford’s rocking, gospel-driven vocal style, equal parts mellow and jump. Narvin Kimball, the now-deceased banjo player, was still active, at 85, with the Preservation Hall band back then, a group with whom Stafford has played from time to time. Kimball’s thick chords enhance the fourth cut, “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and as Stafford sings of letting the joy come out in the world for the Saviour’s birth I experience anew what most of us want from “the holiday season,” regardless of one’s faith – a feeling of some collective salvation, some faint hope or promise in the human experiment.
I play Christmas With the Heritage Hall Jazz Band through the days culminating on New Year’s, and even play it on the car CD to avoid the wretched canned shows the chain-owned radio stations dump on us. I suppose it’s heresy to say that I enjoy Stafford’s jaunty take on “Jingle Bells” more than Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” That’s probably because I’ve heard Bing 10,000 times since I was a kid, as if it’s the only Christmas anthem. Why do radio stations avoid the many interpretations of Christmas classics? Can you imagine going through Mardi Gras with only Professor Longhair, or without Pete Fountain? For Christmas in a continuing tradition, WWOZ and WWNO are about the only games in town.
Stafford’s gravelly voice, vintage jazzman, wraps nicely around “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and paints some gentle blues on “The Christmas Song,” ennobling that reminder of promise to “kids from one to 99” – you got it, Gregg.
Stafford’s version of “Silver Bells” is on the new anthology from Putamayo, New Orleans Christmas, a worthy compendium.
There is a comfort at this time of year – the second Christmas season since Katrina – in signs of longevity and continuity. Stafford is the 50-something trumpeter who leads the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a band that maintains the tradition of New Orleans Style with a fluency drawn from melodies of the churches that mingled with anthems of the early 20th century streets, producing the New Orleans-style repertoire.
Stafford is a founder of the Black Men of Labor marching club, a group devoted to the best traditions of the second line. He also plays trumpet in Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band.
He’s a protégé of Danny Barker, the late and much-missed guitarist, balladeer and man of a thousand songs. Many a time Stafford would pick up the phone when the old man called. Danny didn’t say his name, just the signature greeting: “How’s jazzzz?”
And so it’s Christmas. Time to make a call. Dialing Gregg Stafford – mmm. I hear that voice. I speak: “Howww’s jazzzz?”