You might not immediately think of jazz for Yuletide, but over the years the holiday season has proved fertile ground for a whole host of jazz artists from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Mel Tormé, who, between them, have recorded some of the best Christmas jazz songs of all time.
For us, what makes a jazz-tinged Christmas so special is when artists breathe new life into the Christmas music songs that we’ve heard so many times before. Jimmy Smith, for example, was a keyboardist who brought his own unique skills into the reinvention of familiar music, and his vibrant organ version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a delight.
Listen to the best jazz Christmas songs on Spotify, and scroll down for our list of some of the best jazz Christmas songs ever.
Louis Armstrong: Christmas In New Orleans
When Decca brought Louis Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. The track ‘Christmas In New Orleans’ opens with a snatch of “Jingle Bells” and features one of Armstrong’s scintillating trumpet solos. Satchmo sounds happier than Santa Claus on this record. And so he should. He loved Xmas and he loved New Orleans, and the combination clearly inspired him.
Ella Fitzgerald: Frosty The Snowman
Ella Fitzgerald’s swinging version of “Frosty The Snowman” was recorded on a hot New York day in August 1960. The song, from a Christmas album of festive classics for Verve Records called Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, featured a studio orchestra arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol. Fitzgerald’s voice is as sparkling as pure snow.
Kenny Burrell: Away In A Manger
Kenny Burrell was one of the finest jazz guitarists of the 20th Century and his beautifully tender instrumental version of the traditional carol ‘”Away In A Manger” appeared on his 1966 album Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas. The entire album, including a beautiful take on “Silent Night,” is full of peaceful Christmas tunes.
Julie London: Warm December
Bob Russell’s final hit was “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and the songwriter was a favorite of Julie London, who recorded his short, super song “Warm December” for her 1956 album Calendar Girl. London was riding high when she recorded the song after her global hit “Cry Me A River” the previous year.
Jamie Cullum: Show Me The Magic
Jazz pianist and singer Jamie Cullum was proud of his 2016 song “Show Me the Magic.” “I wrote an original Christmas song! My first time trying this and it was so fun to put together,” said Cullum. Looking for a Christmas carol feel, Callum “tried to write something timeless that could fit right into one of those classic Christmas compilations.” The song was arranged by Tom Richards and recorded at the iconic Abbey Road Studios.
Billy Eckstine: Christmas Eve
Jazz bandleader Billy Eckstine had a wonderfully rich and resonant baritone voice. Eckstine’s recording of his 1955 festive song “Christmas Eve” became an evergreen. It was co-written with Lionel Newman, the Oscar-winning composer, conductor and pianist who was the uncle of Randy Newman.
Stephen Scott: I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Since it was first released in 1943, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” written by the lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, has become a staple on radio and in movies. Though it is well known as a vocal song, New York pianist Stephen Scott gave it a modern jazz twist with his instrumental version for the Verve Records album Jazz For Joy in 1996. Scott was 26 at the time.
Frank Sinatra: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
The original version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, and sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 movie Meet Me In St Louis, needed some modification, according to Frank Sinatra. He included the wonderfully sentimental song for his 1957 seasonal album, but asked Martin to revise the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Sinatra told Martin, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” Martin’s new heart-warming line was, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
Bing Crosby: Winter Wonderland
Since being composed in 1934, “Winter Wonderland” has been recorded by thousands of singers, cementing its status as one of the best Christmas jazz songs in history. One of the unbeatable versions is by Bing Crosby, the man famous for crooning “White Christmas.” Crosby recorded “Winter Wonderland,” with gorgeous orchestration, for his 1962 album I Wish You A Merry Christmas. Sleigh bells ring… are you listening?
Vince Guaraldi: Christmas Time Is Here
In 1965, Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts comic strip was transformed into an animated TV special, to the delight of children across America. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired across the country, kicking off an annual tradition and inspiring a string of future holiday specials. Rather than supply the film with pop music, the Bay Area-based production team turned to local artist Vince Guaraldi, who wrote a sophisticated jazz score. Guaraldi’s lively themes have become holiday standards in their own right, while the timeless score has become one of the best-selling Christmas soundtracks of all-time. – Sophie Smith
Dean Martin: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
It greatly amused Dean Martin, as he walked into Capitol Records’ studio, at 1750 North Vine Street, Hollywood, on August 6, 1959, to think that he was about to record his own version of the winter song “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” on such a hot day. No matter. Martin, whose singing imitated the smooth baritone vocals and phrasing of Bing Crosby, had the perfect voice for festive songs. His version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” which was cut for the Capitol album A Winter Romance, is the best and most popular adaptation of a song that has become an absolute Christmas classic.
Kurt Elling: Cool Yule
“Cool Yule” was written by Steve Allen and was first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1953. When Blue Note Records released their 2010 album Blue Christmas, they commissioned a new version by Kurt Elling, the Grammy-winning Chicago-born performer, and it is an upbeat delight that belongs among the best jazz Christmas songs. “Kurt Elling is the standout male vocalist of our time,” said The New York Times.
Bing Crosby: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
There is an oft-repeated story that Bing Crosby turned down the chance to become the first singer to record “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Instead, Gene Autry got in first and quickly reached No. 1 in 1949 with a song written by Johnny Marks and inspired by a children’s book about Santa’s famous reindeer that Marks had been given by his brother-in-law. Crosby saw further potential in the song and, in June 1950, he recorded his own big-band version, with John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra. Crosby’s honeyed-voice version was a double hit for Decca, becoming a bestseller in both the children’s record charts and Billboard pop singles.
Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers: Merry Christmas Baby
The slow, bluesy classic “Merry Christmas Baby” from Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, was a very different type of festival classic to the more usual sentimental fare (“gave me a diamond ring for Christmas/Now I’m living in paradise”), and one with a controversial history. The dispute over the origins of the song even prompted a Smithsonian Magazine article entitled “Who Really Wrote Merry Christmas, Baby?” It outlined claims that proper credit had escaped an army veteran called Andrew Whitson Griffith, who went by the name Lou Baxter, with some versions listing the band’s singer Tony Brown as the sole author. In any case, the version by Moore and the Three Blazers, a band who came from Los Angeles, reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Jukebox R&B chart in 1947 and soon became a Christmas standard, covered by stars such as Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry, and Christina Aguilera.
Oscar Peterson: What Child Is This?
When he was 70, celebrated jazz piano player Oscar Peterson tackled his own festive album with 1995’s An Oscar Peterson Christmas, and his delicate, soulful playing lights up a version of the 19th-century carol, “What Child Is This?” Peterson’s fellow Canadian musicians, Lorne Lofsky on guitar, Jerry Fuller on drums, and David Young on bass, add to the swing of this charming Christmas instrumental, one that owes much of its melody to “Greensleeves.”
Abbey Lincoln & Roy Hargrove: Christmas Cheer
Abbey Lincoln, the Chicago-born singer born Anna Marie Wooldridge, had a flourishing career as a performer. The one-time wife of jazz drummer Max Roach loved the songs of RB Lynch, a former New York Times journalist turned lyricist, and together they composed the uplifting song “Christmas Cheer.” Lincoln recorded this in New York in 1996 for Verve Records – and it appears on Jazz For Joy: A Verve Christmas Album. Her rich, warm delivery is complemented perfectly by the tender flugelhorn playing of Roy Hargrove, a jazz master who worked with Jackie McLean and Jimmy Smith. This graceful song is guaranteed to spread festive cheer.
Ramsey Lewis Trio – We Three Kings
Ramsey Lewis was one of the most commercially successful jazz musicians in the 1960s, so it was no surprise to see him putting together a collection of Christmas albums. This song, also known as “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” appears on his second. Ramsey’s version swings a lot more than you’d expect from typical Christmas music. It doesn’t quite rock like “Run Rudolph Run,” but it’s not background music either, which makes it perfect for a music connoisseur’s Christmas playlist. – Sam Armstrong
Jimmy Smith: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Jimmy Smith’s pulsating version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a carol whose origins date back to the 16th century, is a cracker. His own organ playing is exuberant and the version that appeared as the opening track on his holiday album, Christmas ‘64 for Verve, featured the great Kenny Burrell on guitar. Smith left the arranging to Billy Byers, a man who’d filled that role regularly for Count Basie, and his tight scripts brought out the best from a horn section that included Joe Newman (flugelhorn), Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Jim Buffington (French horn), and Harvey Phillips (tuba). This sizzling jazz instrumental is as rich as Christmas pudding.
Bing Crosby: White Christmas
After reportedly staying up late into the night writing the lyrics to a deeply nostalgic song about Christmas, Irving Berlin told his secretary: “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” Bing Crosby would later sell more than 100 million copies with his celebrated 1941 version, and go on to star alongside Danny Kaye in the 1954 film it inspired. Berlin made a fortune from the song, which has since been covered by hundreds of singers, including Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Etta James.
Tony Bennett: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
A master of the Great American Songbook and the man behind countless classic jazz albums, Tony Bennett is a legendary figure. Bennett has done plenty of Christmas albums, including one with The London Symphony Orchestra in which he sings a stirring version of “Good King Wenceslas.” Our pick, though, is one of the traditional songs of modern Christmas, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Bennett’s warmth and joy bring it to life, making this perfect a perfect addition to your “sounds of Christmas playlist.” – Sam Armstrong
Looking for more? Discover the best Christmas songs of all time.