Peter Curtis: Exploring the Jewish Side of Christmas

The renowned jazz guitarist celebrates yuletide cheer between the faiths on new holiday album

Peter Curtis / art by Ron Hart

The holiday season – the month between Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day – is an emotional time.

Scrooge isn’t the only one haunted by The Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. Families gather and, those who are alone, ponder the absence of family. A jolly Christmas carol, or a sentimental holiday ballad, can help lift even the loneliest spirit.

And jazz guitarist Peter Curtis does just that on his new album, Christmas with Your Jewish Boyfriend. The CD includes 11 familiar chestnuts and one new tune, the title track that helped inspire the collection. “Jewish Boyfriend” is a playful celebration of cultural and religious differences that mentions mistletoe, menorahs and Christmas trees.  

“I wrote ‘Jewish Boyfriend’ as a present for my significant other on the first Christmas we spent together,” Curtis said from his home in Riverside, California. “Just before that, I played a Christmas concert, accompanying a choir with my guitar. They asked me to do a solo spot in the middle of the show. I played Mel Torme’s ‘Christmas Song’ and Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas.’ Mel and Irving are both Jewish. I knew a few other Christmas songs written, or co-written by Jewish writers, so I thought putting them together would make an interesting record.”

Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend by Peter Curtis

When he began researching, Curtis was surprised by how many Christmas standards were written by Jewish artists, and how Jewish songwriters or lyricists contributed to “Santa Baby,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Winter Wonderland.”

“One of the most fascinating songs, in terms of what the song says about the experience of the songwriter, is ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,’” he tells Rock & Roll Globe. “I started thinking that a fictional reindeer, who is ridiculed and made fun of because of his large nose, might be a metaphor for his Jewish creators. 

“The original story was written by Robert May, a copywriter for Sears Roebuck. The company gave away books to children in need every holiday season. They thought it would be cheaper for them to write a story and give it away, rather than sending out copies of books already written. Ten years later, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the music. The story was written in 1939, so that gives some credence to my idea about the metaphorical subtext, given what was going on in the world at that time.”

Curtis found that most of the songs had more simple origins. “Christmas has gotten more and more secular as time goes one,” Curtis said. “Many things people associate with Christmas – the tree for example, borrowed from pagan culture – are more secular than religious, so it’s not inappropriate that non-Christians wrote so many.  I was jazzed to find out that Lee Mendelson wrote the lyrics for the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown song, ‘Christmas Is Here.’” 

 

VIDEO: Peter Curtis performs “Sleigh Ride”

After he had the set list together, Curtis decided to record the music at home – solo – just one guitar some electric, some acoustic. “The solo sound is organic,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of unaccompanied guitarists like Joe Pass. I wanted them to sound like they were being played at a living room party. I wanted to get it out last Christmas, but I had to tweak the sound a bit and it got to be too late. You can’t release a Christmas album the day after Christmas.”

The tunes on Jewish Boyfriend often bring unexpected wrinkles to the old standards. “White Christmas” has a bossa nova backbeat; “The Christmas Song” gets an up-tempo workout and “Sleigh Ride” is filled with flashing, improvisational filigrees. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” starts out with a bluesy, melancholic approach, before sifting into a lively tempo and finishing on a jaunty note. “I think it’s one of the most sad and beautiful Christmas songs,” Curtis said. “It was written from the perspective of a soldier during World War II. The most touching line is ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.’”

 

AUDIO: Peter Curtis Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend (full album)

 

 

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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