Everyone loves a Christmas song – including, clearly, jazz musicians. And it's not hard to understand why: the Christmas song, like jazz, is a format that definitely allows you to play around and have a fun.
Here are ten of the finest discs that manage to capture the Christmas spirit in jazz and swing form.
Best Christmas jazz albums ever
10. A Dave Brubeck Christmas (1996)
Dave Brubeck is probably best known for the iconic track Take Five, recorded way back in 1959. Fast forward a few decades to the mid 1990s, however, and we find Dave in excellent, if quite different form, with this beautiful solo piano album of Christmas standards given the lightest of jazz touches.
'Joy to the World' sounds deeply affecting, Christmas kids' favourites such as 'Jingle Bells' and 'Winter Wonderland' get some quicksilver improvisational magic... and there's even a Brubeck original, the atmospheric 'To Us Is Given'.
We named Dave Brubeck one of the best jazz pianists ever
9. Jamie Cullum: The Pianoman at Christmas (2020)
Jazz pianist and singer Jamie Cullum got a lot right with his first Christmas album. The Pianoman at Christmas managed to be both a great collection of traditional festive jazz/pop standards, and a great singer/songwriter album.
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, The Pianoman at Christmas features a nice mix of orchestral, big band, and small group arrangements. There's a nice Brat Pack swing to tracks such as 'Christmas Never Gets Old', while 'Jolly Fat Man' has a tinge of blues – and plenty of humour.
Cullum goes way beyond jazz – the title track is an obvious nod to Billy Joel, while 'Turn On the Lights' is an unashamed soft-rock crooner. Whatever he does on here, though, Cullum does with style and verve. A Christmas album for those who want a bit more than a few jazzed-up festive standards.
8. Diana Krall: Christmas Songs (2005)
The mood on this album from singer / pianist Diana Krall is a little more late-night, mellow and smoky than many a Christmas album. There are plenty of Christmas classics on here – the programme includes such time-honoured festive faves as 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', 'Jingle Bells', 'Winter Wonderland' and 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town', some of which made our list of the Best Christmas songs of all time.
There are echoes of jazz greats such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra in here and, from slower numbers to more uptempo party-starters, this will make a great Christmas album for those who like more of a late-night groove.
7. Louis Armstrong & Friends: What a Wonderful Christmas (1997)
The credit 'Louis Armstrong & Friends' is a fairly loose title, as in fact the great jazz icon appears on just six of the 14 tracks on What a Wonderful Christmas. Elsewhere, you get some delicious festive offerings from other jazz greats including Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt and Duke Ellington. Armstrong's own 'Cool Yule' is a highlight of a hugely enjoyable festive collection.
6. Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas (1967)
This is the first of two mentions in our chart for the great Ella Fitzgerald. The jazz icon also cropped up several times in our Best Christmas jazz songs feature: it's safe to say that Ella gave good Christmas. Unlike its predecessor which we'll discuss below, Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas features the great chanteuse singing her way through a nicely curated selection of religious Christmas songs.
These include a few favourite carols for which we've reproduced the lyrics on theBBC Music site, such as 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear', 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing', 'Silent Night' and 'O Come All Ye Faithful'. Turns out that the great jazz singer's voice is beautifully suited to these wonderfully atmospheric hymns.
Top five Christmas jazz albums
5. An Oscar Peterson Christmas (1995)
The Canadian virtuoso jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and his gifts are shown off to beautiful effect on this infectiously joyous 1995 Christmas album. Yule standards such as 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' and 'Winter Wonderland' get brilliantly lively, hook-laden versions, and Peterson's guests such as Dave Samuels (vibraphone) and Jack Schantz (flugelhorn) and drummer Jerry Fuller match him for swing, rhythm and sheer effervescence every step of the way.
4. Frank Sinatra: Christmas Songs by Sinatra (1948)
The earliest album in our list, this is a throwback to the 1940s – a golden age for both jazz and Christmas tunes. As we saw in our piece on Best Christmas jazz songs, many of the best-loved Christmas jazz numbers first emerged in those postwar years. Christmas Songs by Sinatra contains a well-chosen mix of much-loved Yuletide hymns ('Ave Maria', 'O Come All ye Faithful', 'O Little Town of Bethlehem') and other Christmas standards from the jazz and swing canon, such as 'Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!' and 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town'.
What unites them all, and what makes this album such a feelgood festive classic, is Sinatra's beautiful light baritone, which so effortlessly ushers in jingling bells, falling snow and jolly December evenings by the fireside.
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3. Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960)
We've already picked Ella's hymn-packed Christmas album, Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas, above. However, we have most definitely got another festive Ella long-player for you. Seven years before that album the great jazz singer unleashed Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas upon a grateful world.
And we have to say, Ella in jolly, jazzy, secular mode is perhaps even better than Ella in devotional, hymn-singing mode. That wonderful purity of tone and that crystalline diction and intonation are heard to marvellous effect throughout this absolute gem of a Christmas album. Ella also adds some deliciously unexpected rhythmic kick to the likes of 'Frosty' and 'Jingle Bells', songs that you thought you knew so well you could never hear them sounding this fresh and joyful.
2. Nat King Cole: The Magic of Christmas (1960)
The great Nat King Cole recorded a few Christmas cuts early in his career. The Magic of Christmas, however, was his only dedicated Christmas long-player: and what a wonderful thing it is. It's a beautifully chosen selection of much-loved Christmas carols, including 'Away in a Manger', 'The First Noel', 'I Saw Three Ships' and 'Joy to the World', all deftly rendered in Cole's magical, perfectly-pitched baritone.
While we're talking Nat Cole and Christmas, by the way, no Christmas is complete without a rendition of The Christmas Song, first recorded by Cole in 1946 and later set down again in 1961 for the long-player The Nat King Cole Story.
What is the best Christmas jazz album of all?
1. Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
When the much-loved cartoon strip Peanuts got a Christmas TV special in 1965, creator creator Charles M. Schulz asked pianist Vince Guaraldi and his trio to put together a score that would evoke the much-loved strip's innocent humour and charm. And, on this album, Guaraldi and co-performers Fred Marshall (double bass) and Jerry Granelli (drums) do everything asked of them and more, evoking a wonderful world of childlike joy and festive good cheer. The album also makes a perfect introduction to jazz for younger listeners.
Standout tracks include 'Linus and Lucy', with its brilliant rhythmic swerves and scintillating piano runs. Then there's 'Christmastime is Here', a six-minute child's daydream of Christmas. The swing-fuelled 'Skating' manages to evoke tumbling snowflakes, while 'Christmas Is Coming' is an unrivalled festive curtain-raiser.
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.