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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Straight No Chaser is the place for jazz lovers (and those who will soon be jazz lovers) to enjoy podcasts with their favorite music and artists. Winner of the 2017 JazzTimes Readers' Poll for Best Podcast, your host Jeffrey Siegel will take you inside the world of jazz, from the new releases to the best festiva;s to remembrances of jazz legends.

If Billie Holiday sang "Away in a Manger": Santaland Diaries Revisited

Dec 20, 2019

A Christmas tradition in our house is listening to David Sedaris read his hilarious essay, “Santaland Diaries.”  An abbreviated version of his some-what exaggerated memories of working as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s Department Store in New York first was heard on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992. Since then it has grown to be a long-form essay in his collection Barrel Fever and Holidays on Ice. I’ve seen Joe Mantello’s stage adaption for one actor a few times. For me, Sedaris’ humor is always dead on, and this piece never fails to have me giggling or roaring with laughter.

 Sedaris is something of a jazz buff. A recent interview with him in JazzTimes allowed the author to talk about his inherited love of jazz from his father, a man with whom Sedaris rarely seemed to have anything in common.  This is probably not a surprise to “Santaland Diaries” fanatics like me, who wait in anticipation for his Billie Holiday impression every time we listen to the audio version, read with great pathos by Sedaris. JazzTimes quizzed him on this:

You became famous for your Billie Holiday impersonation which was in “Santaland Diaries” and a few other stories. Did you do it as a kid?
I started doing it when I was young.

Did you do other singers? 
I tried. I do a really awful Esther Phillips. I was with my friend Ronnie in San Francisco, and I was trying to sing “Shangri-La,” and it’s embarrassing that it’s so bad. I would love to be able to sing like Esther Phillips.

The Billie Holiday impression became an albatross for you, with people wanting you to do it on command.
I don’t do it anymore. You know how you think you sound in your head, but then you hear it? I heard a recording and I thought, “That’s awful.” I think I did it on [NPR’s] Fresh Air years ago. What I tried to do is her singing Madonna songs or Christmas tunes or commercial jingles—stuff you’d never have heard her do. I stopped doing it because I felt like a trained seal. Plus, I didn’t feel like people were really that familiar with her. They’d say, “Do Billie,” and I would think, “You don’t even have a right to call her by her first name. I bet you can’t name three songs that she did.” It just didn’t feel right to me. To people who don’t really know what she sounds like, sure it sounds OK. But not to people who really know her music.

Just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is the excerpt from the “Santaland Diaries” when David, in his guise as Crumpet the Elf, decides to show a pushy Santa what singing “Away in a Manger” can really sound like. That carol will never be the same.